Guest article by Alex Hilton, managing director of Rise, an IaaS business www.rise.co

If 2011 saw the growing acceptance of Cloud computing and virtualisation within organisations, then 2012 has seen legal firms begin to implement it in various forms. Organisations are looking at the Cloud to improve the reliability, efficiency, and cost of adding new capability, scalability and flexibility to their existing IT usage. This has not only been driven by the dependence on IT and its more critical role in businesses today, but also the advancement in technology, smart phones, mobile devices (eg iPad), virtualisation and connectivity (the Internet) enticing business with a more productive work force.

However, as companies begin to look seriously at migrating data from on-premise servers to a virtualised, hosted environment, they will not consider disregarding the often-large investment they have already made in their legacy systems. Almost all legal firms have some investment in IT that has historically been deployed on premise. This could be from the extreme of a broom cupboard at the end of the corridor to a small purpose built IT room or datacentre, but all are equal investments that cannot be simply disregarded. There are also major concerns about the FUD in the marketplace and obstacles that have traditionally stopped the migration to a virtualised environment such as security.

This is where the hybrid model comes into play. It offers a halfway house between full virtualisation and on-premise servers with organisations looking increasingly towards such solutions. However, as with much that surrounds Cloud computing there remains some confusion around the term ‘hybrid Cloud’ and what it actually means. There is currently no clear definition in the marketplace.

The first definition of the hybrid Cloud model is currently the most common – a combination of connected on-premise and a virtualised environment. Law firms are currently taking small steps towards the Cloud, either through a new application or replacing one that is end of life. For this to work the new services deployed in the Cloud need to seamlessly and securely, connect back to the company’s on-premise network. The transition should be seamless with staff experiencing no difference between connecting to the Cloud and that of an on-premise system.

This hybrid approach also allows organisations to test how effective and secure the Cloud is before committing vast amounts of sensitive data, allowing them to gain confidence in the technology and migrate more gradually.

Another hybrid Cloud definition, and a trend that is becoming increasingly common in the legal sector, as well as more widely, is where organisations are starting to pick and mix Cloud services based upon a specific IT need or challenge. Some suppliers are aggregating Cloud services for resale where different Cloud technologies and capabilities are deployed from different providers in different datacentres (potentially in a variety of countries).

Businesses need to be careful about simply picking best of breed components from numerous suppliers as the benefit realised from the Cloud could then be replaced with the challenge of managing IT and data that is disparately spread across lots of different organisations with differing SLAs, terms and conditions and technical practices. Whilst one provider will never be able to provide the right mix of services to suit all customers, work is still evolving in this space with Cloud providers working out how they might be able to mesh services together. We are starting to see work on management stacks like Openstack and Eucalyptus – where providers are trying to standardise Cloud management stacks to provide a greater level of common standard. There is also a lot of work going on around Cloud standards in general, which should start to come to fruition over the coming months.

The third model is similar to the second – not only are people buying differing solutions from differing Cloud providers they are also consuming differing Cloud delivery models from the same cloud provider (eg IaaS and SaaS). A good example would be a business, which has built a scalable web app for Windows Azure (PaaS) and then buys Office 365 (SaaS) for their office productivity. Often businesses will choose IaaS because they need to run legacy applications that nobody provides via SaaS or need to have isolation and segregation, for other parts of their IT estate (eg email) that they are happy to run off a SaaS platform for efficiency of cost and flexibility. IaaS can also be broken down further into the technology layer; some companies are happy to run on virtual (still an element of shared hardware); others really do require separation at the complete hardware level and choose physical servers.

There is little doubt that companies will retain a level of IT on premise for a number of years to come, but for those companies looking to bridge the gap now the hybrid Cloud model represents a sensible option.

Choosing a mix of Cloud delivery models (eg SaaS and IaaS) is also the right approach, as technology should be delivered in the most efficient and appropriate manner. Businesses should evaluate their needs and work out what IT workloads they wish to put in the Cloud, whether they require isolation, known geo-location, running of any legacy apps or bespoke configurations that require control at the infrastructure level, or if in some areas SaaS would be a good play. Organisations should also choose a Cloud provider carefully based upon what the individual needs are and ensuring that not only the provider has the correct Cloud technologies but also provide enough confidence with regards to a working partnership.

Law firms should be most wary of blindly buying various solutions from lots of different Cloud suppliers, until the standards and integration between vendors has evolved. Companies could be left with something that is difficult to manage and maintain although in the longer term these barriers are likely to come down somewhat and there will be greater openness and integration between providers. Understanding the portability of any Cloud solution that is deployed can help resolve this, as this may be important in the future if an organisation looks to consolidate its IT suppliers.

Businesses will also evolve their understanding of the Cloud and the FUD will start to clear so businesses will start being more comfortable moving more IT off premise and be more comfortable will shared technology platforms (eg SaaS) for certain.