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Making the case for server load balancing

In our latest guest column, Leigh Bradford from KEMP Technologies looks at what is driving demand for load balancing amongst legal firms and explains how it has worked for Hill Dickinson…

Traditionally, server load balancing has been viewed as a problem for large enterprises and a costly and unnecessary expense for smaller organisations and professional services firms. But that was when most companies ran their businesses using just a couple of servers. Today, the number of servers used by law firms can be as many as 10 or more, making server load balancing a must have item on the IT shopping list.

The growth in email is largely to blame, but with other applications such as processing, billing, workflow and client management being integrated into the 24×7 web-enabled business environments and the growth in cloud services, on-line reliability, scalability and performance are essential. To deal with this, a new breed of server load balancers has evolved called Application Delivery Controllers or ADCs that provide the ability to direct Internet web-traffic to the best performing, most accessible servers based on factors such as concurrent connections and CPU/memory utilisation. If a server or application fails, the user is automatically re-routed to another functioning server.

Another big driver for server load balancing among legal firms and other SMEs is the long list of changes Microsoft has made to its core server architecture in Exchange 2010.  Now that Exchange Client Access Server (CAS) is used to handle all client connections, it is important to ensure that email users do not suffer from poor performance and user experience by providing load balancing to automatically re-route and reconnect email users to functioning servers.

Hill Dickinson recognised these issues and is now using a pair of KEMP LoadMaster appliances at its primary data centre in Liverpool to ensure high availability and resilience for its new Microsoft Exchange 2010 messaging environment.

With more than 190 partners and 1300 staff operating from UK offices in Liverpool, Manchester, London, Chester and Sheffield as well as Athens and Singapore, Hill Dickinson upgraded its Exchange email platform to meet its business performance and growth requirements. And since email is such a business-critical service, reliability and redundancy were paramount.

Based on its new IT centralised architecture, Hill Dickinson installed the two load balancing appliances alongside resilient Exchange Servers at its Liverpool site. A further load balancer supports a secondary disaster recovery data centre with full DR failover. The appliances provide load balancing of the Outlook/Outlook Web Access (OWA) connections across multiple HUB/CAS servers in both data centres.

“We love the day-to-day management of the KEMP LoadMaster units; they’re simple to use with powerful reporting that we are integrating into our overall monitoring solution,” said Charlie Muir, Head of Service Integration at Hill Dickinson. “We are now also using the load balancer for other key services including fronting our recently installed Citrix environment and our new BigHand digital dictation service – and we expect more to follow in the near future.”

As well as the migration to Exchange 2010, many firms adopting Microsoft SharePoint and Lync Server technologies are discovering the need for load balancing. In fact, Microsoft increasingly recommends the use of server load balancing to optimise performance and resilience.

While large enterprise load balancing solutions have typically been too costly and complex for smaller organisations, there is a new generation of affordable hardware or virtual load balancers or ADCs designed for SMEs. The complexity and scale of technology required to run today’s law firms has brought with it many new challenges to deliver performance, high availability and security.  The challenges are the same as those faced by large enterprises in everything but scale; and if legal firms want the functionality and quality that enterprise CIOs take for granted, load balancing has to be part of the equation.