What you need to understand about cloud architecture, on-premises systems, and cloud systems
Jun, 26, 2020
Everyone is talking about the cloud, but what does that mean, really? The cloud can be demystified significantly by understanding a few basic components of cloud architecture. Understanding the structure of the cloud is increasingly critical as COVID-19 has revealed dramatic shortcomings in various on-premises systems.
While transitioning to a cloud-based document management system (DMS) has been recommended with increasing frequency over the last several years, the global pandemic has shown that on-premises solutions are not an ideal way to respond to such emergencies. On the other hand, cloud providers by design enable business continuity and the ability to work at home just as you would in the office.
This article dives into an overview of cloud architecture, “as a service” cloud offerings, and single-tenancy versus multi-tenancy. With these terms in hand we will then be prepared to compare cloud systems to on-premises systems.
To better understand the comparisons of cloud versus on-premises systems, it is important to have a basic understanding of a few key terms:
- Public Cloud: A public cloud describes the relationship between the entity that owns the hardware and computing power to those that are creating the applications and websites housed on the hardware using the computing power.
For example, Amazon provides the general public space on its servers to use their computing power through AWS (Amazon Web Services). Individuals and companies can buy that space much cheaper than building their own data centers. Public cloud consumers do not service the data centers or provide the hardware. Instead they rent the services from a cloud provider. This makes for a cost-effective option to get your business up and running. However, this also means that consumers do not control security or various protocols set by the public cloud provider. While big players like AWS or Microsoft Azure are known to have good security, these companies define the security – not the software vendor you’re buying from.
- Private Cloud: A private cloud means that the hardware is in a data center owned and used by the same entity. NetDocuments, for example, owns multiple data centers across the world. Currently, no one uses the computing power of NetDocuments hardware except for authorized users who exclusively use the computing power to access NetDocuments software.
The private cloud means that NetDocuments controls all security and performance of its software as well as all maintenance of its hardware. NetDocuments has an award-winning solution and has been building its data centers over the course of two decades and its clients reap the benefits of expensive, staffed data centers without having to bear the full burden of the cost.
It is important to understand the basic services that clouds provide, or in other words, what you can do with the cloud. As an overview, there are three main services that clouds provide:
- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): IaaS is the most basic cloud offering with the most amount of flexibility. Essentially, only security architecture and computing power is provided. The consumer can build whatever application they want entirely from scratch.
- Platform as a Service (PaaS): PaaS is slightly less flexible than IaaS. The basic platform is already provided for the consumer as a template but they can customize certain aspects to create their own application.
- Software as a Service (SaaS): SaaS means that its code is owned, maintained and edited by the provider. It is more restricted in its customization than either IaaS or PaaS, since the provider determines the rules of its completed product. NetDocuments is a SaaS provider. They own and maintain their own software, but allow its clientele of law, healthcare, and financial professionals a certain level of customization within the software.
Tenancy: Single-tenant versus Multi-tenant
Tenancy is layered, meaning that the cloud and the software you are using can fall into different categories. A cloud or software can either be single-tenant or multi-tenant.
Single-tenant is just as it sounds: one entity owns and exclusively uses either the cloud environment or software. While it is a cloud option, single-tenant clouds can require individual upgrades and maintenance. The more single-tenant environments that a vendor must manage, the greater risk is introduced into the processes due to human and product error
On-premises systems are an example of single-tenant software, with one company using the software via their unique in-office hardware.
Multi-tenancy is like an apartment building. All tenants share some things like electricity and common hallways, but they each have their own private space as well.
Software vendors can choose to host single- or multi-tenant software inside these environments. NetDocuments provides a private cloud with multi-tenant software. This means we establish a security architecture that includes things like quantum tunnels and entropic encryption, giving our clients the most security in the industry. It also means that new features, upgrades, and security patches are effective for all customers at the same time.
Cloud vs. On-premises Systems
With the invention of the cloud and the rise of the millennial workforce, law firms have felt a great push to move on-premises systems to the cloud. Many people who have used on-premises solutions for some time are suspicious of the cloud and resistant to intrusive changes if they can avoid it.
This begs the question, does it really matter if your law firm’s DMS runs on the cloud or on-premises? Now that we have a basic understanding of the structure of the cloud and tenancy, we can meaningfully compare the two systems and answer this question.
On-premises systems are tied to specific hardware, typically a local server. These systems are not typically designed for remote work or collaboration and often require external access through a VPN (virtual private network) connection. When remote or collaborative work is required, employees will likely circumvent security through exporting documents, printing hard copies, or using email attachments. The COVID-19 pandemic is one such case, where offices that relied on on-premises systems were forced out of their office, leaving companies to scramble, pivot, and put new (or validate existing) VPN connections for work to continue.
In contrast, cloud systems are designed to be highly accessible with collaboration and remote work at the center of the framework. Collaboration is increasingly required of lawyers. As the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, companies with cloud-based DMS are able to adapt to global emergencies and continue work with little to no interruption.
On-premises security can be thought of as ‘hands-on’ security. Because the responsibility falls to your company, and your company alone – it requires constant monitoring and maintenance. While you can configure the system to the way you’d like with on-premises security, it means you will need a high level of expertise to stay within compliance.
With the cloud, there’s less burden on IT teams because you’re sharing the responsibility between the company and your vendor. It is often more cost-effective, and allows you to access files from anywhere – securely. In a recent study, 61% of professionals believe there’s less risk of a security breach in a cloud environment vs. an on-premises environment. A good cloud provider will have appropriate security certifications, a robust yet flexible security baseline that can be tailored to those who use the system, and no history of data breaches or security issues.
On-premises systems require regular and scheduled maintenance since the client computers are tied to hardware in a specific location. They also require often (expensive) upgrades. And, if an on-premises provider services multiple iterations of its product, company resources must be split to maintain and update various versions of the same software.
On the other hand, cloud systems are designed for constant and universal maintenance where updates happen continuously – and can be shared to all customers at once. While this means the system is constantly updating, customers typically see little to no disruption to work. Providers track and monitor performance from their office in almost real time and can begin working on solutions immediately (sometimes before the client has even noticed). Most cloud providers offer a public status page, so you can also track performance yourself.
As the COVID-19 global pandemic has revealed, flexibility in work location, external collaboration, and the ability to connect using a variety of devices are not optional features anymore.
- Work Location: The ability to work remotely has been valued on a spectrum from a nice perk to a competitive edge in productivity. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a nearly overnight value change in remote work, from an optional perk to a necessity. On-premises systems are often not equipped to handle the emergency state we experienced. Months of forced remote work impacted businesses in such a way that many are fundamentally changing their models to forgo office leases and continue remote work permanently. Those who decide to return to offices must be prepared for future emergencies at a local, national, or global scale. In the meantime, firms who adopt the cloud will also reap the benefits of live access from the courtroom, the ability to collaborate on a document from anywhere at any time, or any other remote need. Adopting the cloud will also help future proof firms for other events, catastrophes, and other unforeseen natural disasters that may arise.
- Collaboration: Cloud collaboration enables secure, live interactions from anywhere there is an internet connection. It enables users to work together in real time on the same project in different locations while the data never leaves the safety of the security architecture of the cloud. In addition to being able to collaborate with external clients, it can help internal communications as well. One of the top complaints for new lawyers (and reason for turnover) is the lack of training and opportunities to learn. This concern can be addressed, new lawyers can be more easily retained, and value can be added more quickly to your firm when cloud collaboration is embraced.
- Customization and configuration: With an on-premises system, customization is offered by development teams but this too can have its drawbacks. Specifically, maintenance, resources, costs, and risks are associated with customizing and upgrading down the road. With the Cloud, which is inherently flexible, you can configure the system to fit your needs best. Although you may have access to the same base software as other NetDocuments clients, NetDocuments has various options to configure its platform to your firm or department’s unique needs.
Lawyers deserve the security and flexibility to work from anywhere at any time. IT Departments appreciate the security, encryption, and staff of experts who can consult both on architecture and product features that a private cloud delivers. A multi-tenant SaaS DMS provider like NetDocuments can provide these necessities at a fraction of what it would cost a law firm to create from the ground up.
To learn more about maximizing your team or organization’s efficiency, productivity, and collaboration and security, schedule a demo today by clicking here.