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September 1, 2009

Virtualization and Law Office Computer Systems

Alan Pearlman,Esq.
"The Electronic Lawyer"(tm)

Virtualization has been getting a significant amount of coverage in the IT press. Open almost any IT trade publication in the last 6 months and there are numerous articles about Virtualization. It brings to mind the movie "Multiplicity" or the scientists that are currently involved in "cloning". So what is the entire buzz about? And what does it mean to us, the legal community?

The fact of the matter is virtualization is a 20 year old technology/concept whose roots came from mainframe systems that has moved into x86 (PC, server) platforms. Wikipedia describes the concept of virtualizing servers as "a method of partitioning a physical server computer into multiple servers such that each has the appearance and capabilities of running on its own dedicated machine."

Each server is compartmentalized such that it is completely independent of any other virtual server that also resides on that physical hardware. Each virtual server can run its own operating system (i.e. Windows NT, 2000, 2003, 2007, Linux, Novell Netware, etc.) and each server is completely independent of the other servers on the physical server. Several of the software vendors have taken it a step further enabling portability, movement from one physical device to another, load balancing (think of it as clustering on the fly) and other features that make it a very compelling technology.

So how can virtualization benefit me you ask yourself? That becomes an excellent question that we will generalize utilizing the approximate size of law firm that we are dealing with. We will discuss how virtualization technology can impact small firms (sole attorney to several attorneys - no server to 5 servers), medium size firms (10-50 attorneys plus support staff- 5 to 25 servers), and large firms (50 to 500 attorneys, multiple offices and 25 to 100's of servers).

Small Law Firms

What can virtualization do for us? Is it cost effective for our size firm? These two questions are answered with the words -- a lot and yes definitely! Virtualization can be a cornerstone of a solid Business Continuity and disaster recovery plan. Like most small businesses, you probably don't have the resources to replicate all your systems, With virtualization you are now enabled to do so.

Virtualization is kind of like the early days of the World Wide is a tool that enables you to do the same things that larger enterprises do for their business. Test systems, Replication, Snapshots, Quick recovery, and Mobility. On one of the PC's or servers, load one of the virtualization software applications and use it to create:

  • A virtual laptop/desktop. If your PC crashes, is stolen, or somehow meets its demise, you can quickly recover from the virtual image loaded on an external hard drive, secondary PC or server.
  • A replication target for your main application(s) or systems
  • Test system -- test patches, new applications, configuration changes
  • Hardware upgrade -- made much simpler and faster
  • Cost of virtualization software: FREE to $1,000's

  • Medium Law Firms

    Jeff McDaniel, VP of Technology at DSN Group, commented that mid-tier business stand to benefit tremendously using virtualization technology. "One of the main benefits is that it enables the IT staff to do complex initiatives or tasks without adding staff. Building a solid DR plan, building a HA (high availability) environment, load balancing, automated failover and creating a test environment come to mind." And all at price points that make payback typically within a year.

    Larger or Enterprise Law Firms

    For this high end group of players it really changes the whole game. You can go from managing hardware to managing data. If you think about that, that is very big. We can reduce the footprint of the data center, data center cooling, power, power conditioning, and number of servers managed.

    One of the industry analysts said that 24% of servers are virtualized today and the next step is virtualizing desktops...and that may prove to have a larger impact on cost reduction than server virtualization.

    Virtualization is a technology that does present some added variables and complexity, but provides features and tools that change the status quo. It is a technology that the legal industry will surely embrace and use to better our service to our ultimate consumer...the client. In my opinion, I think that each person in the law firm who has a say in the future of the firms technologies should definitely look into the process of Virtualization, with an eye towards how it can better serve the firm in the years to come.

    ©Copyright 2009-Alan Pearlman -"The Electronic Lawyer"(tm) All Rights Reserved

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