Managed Service Providers (MSPs) are organisations that provide a range of technical and hosting services to their clients. There are thousands of MSPs through the country providing these services to businesses although the number that specialise in providing services to law firms are relatively few in comparison.
Over the last ten years, the use of cloud services has slowly replaced the on-premises IT systems that law firms traditionally used. The services that an MSP provides can be broad ranging. However, law firms will usually seek to engage with an MSP for two main reasons:
In this model the IT firm moves its server infrastructure to a cloud provider to host. This could be as simple as renting rack space in a data centre through to fully managed Infrastructure as a Service.
Typically the internal IT team will continue to provide end-user support and oversee the environment. This option Is often seen as the simple “lift and shift” – “your” equipment located in a data centre.
In this model the MSP is responsible for all elements of the IT platform: from server hosting and application updates to desktop delivery and end-user support.
Five to ten years ago it became quite fashionable for law firms to start using Citrix Desktops delivered from multi-tenanted Citrix platforms. This is a phase we have called ‘Cloud V1’ as many firms rushed to outsource the ‘problem of IT’ and enjoy the benefits of the cloud. Sadly, as the initial 5-year terms come up for renewal we are seeing the costly outcomes of some of these arrangements, with poorly drafted contracts and firms struggling to get their data in a way which reduces business disruption at the end of the contract.
However, there are a plethora of options in between.
For example, it is now the norm for traditional on-premises email systems to be moved onto public cloud services such as Microsoft 365 and the hosting of other applications such as practice management systems (PMS) has been moved into private cloud or public cloud data centres.
Alongside this, some law firms have scaled back the size of their IT team. The traditional infrastructure roles that were such a necessity to maintain on-premises infrastructure have gradually been replaced by the MSP, with a team of engineers able to provide around the clock support in some cases.
Let’s have a look at those to main functions in more detail :
Hosting of IT infrastructure
Practically all MSPs provide a hosting service for law firms that will usually comprise of server hosting (for applications such as practice and case management systems) and many also leverage this hosting to provide desktop hosting (aka Desktop as a Service) to provide users with a desktop environment that can be accessed from within the office or at home.
The technology that MSPs use to provide these services does differ. An important consideration when choosing an MSP is whether their chosen hosting solution is compatible with common legal sector software applications.
We have observed that providers will offer a variety of hosting solutions for clients, with a mixture of public and private cloud solutions being deployed.
- Private cloud (Dedicated servers provisioned by your supplier)
- Multi-tenanted private cloud (Shared servers provisioned by your supplier)
- Public cloud (Platforms such as M365/AWS)
- Tenanted public cloud (Dedicated servers provisioned in the public cloud e.g. Azure)
In a private cloud setup, the supplier creates an infrastructure within their data centre and services are delivered using desktop technology such Citrix VDI. The data centre is typically a rented area within a large data centre that is owned by a separate company.
There are two types of private cloud – Dedicated and Multi-tenancy
In this scenario individual servers will be purchased and maintained on behalf of the law firm. This is essentially the same as lifting your existing infrastructure and moving it to a hosting location. Effectively the supplier buys equipment you need to run your solutions as they currently are. If you expand then it may be necessary to purchase additional servers in a ‘traditional’ way. i.e. if you expand you may need to purchase additional hardware.
In this scenario the law firms services will be provided from existing servers/solutions in the vendor’s platform. This is often called ‘Tenanted cloud’ as several different firms use the same physical hardware.
In most instances of private cloud, there is a careful blend of the dedicated and shared tenancy architecture with some services such as such as email, Citrix, database servers and security being shared but with application servers being dedicated.
In assessing how well a private cloud infrastructure has been designed, one needs to take account of the inherent disadvantages of a shared infrastructure – mainly having to share resources (which affects performance) with other clients of the firm and the potential for data leakage.
Many of the ‘Cloud V1’ full outsource providers are reliant on this model, using shared infrastructure and a Citrix desktop provision. We have now worked with several firms who were on such arrangements and were prompted to engage with us because of on-going reliability issues. We have seen the real-world impact of poorly delivered multi-tenanted solutions, from system performance due to other firms operating resource hungry applications to a data leak because a member of staff from one client was incorrectly added to the mail group of another firm.
How do private cloud and Microsoft Azure/Microsoft 365 tenancies differ?
The difference between an Azure tenancy and a private cloud tenancy is that in the Azure world you can ‘spin up’ servers/resources as you need them, and they are solely for your usage. The resources are not shared with other tenants.
A private cloud tenancy often means that your services are running on servers also used by other clients of the provider. In these instances, your data is held separately (sometimes this can be as simple as a different high-level folder for each tenant). The most common example of this is email or database servers which have a separate database per client but one server/application running.
We are seeing MSPs moving to a hybrid model, typically providing traditional outsourced server hosting enhanced by public cloud services such as E365 and Azure Site recovery.
With law firms, we are seeing a move towards a Microsoft Azure hosting model for server hosting or at least site backup. The advantages of this public cloud solution for clients is that so long as they retain ownership of the environment, they can easily migrate from one MSP to another without too much dependency on the incumbent to relinquish access to the server infrastructure.
One of the challenges of cloud platforms is the end-user experience. This is particularly prevalent in shared tenancy models. In these the vendor seeks to leverage their infrastructure investment by delivering services for multiple clients from the same servers; for example, shared email or file stores and Citrix platforms. Clients of such solutions have frequently reported major challenges with limitations of data storage sizes, performance problems and multi-client outages.
Alongside the hosting of IT server infrastructure, Microsoft Azure can be used to deploy user desktops using the Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) solution. The advantages of WVD include the ability for each user to have a desktop with a defined set of resources; these are not shared across other users, although it is not always configured this way and doing so costs more.
This means the user experience is more stable compared to shared resource solutions. One of the drawbacks of using Microsoft Azure is that it is based on a consumption model, with charges varying on a month-by-month basis.
An alternative to Microsoft Azure WVD is the Citrix VDI desktop deployment model. More typically deployed from the private cloud (i.e. servers hosted in a data centre) Citrix VDI otherwise works in a similar manner to Azure WVD, with each user accessing a desktop environment with a defined set of resources that are not in contention with other users.
The type of desktop solution deployed is of particular importance when firms are considering their application strategy. For example, whilst Microsoft Teams will run in both Microsoft Azure WVD and Citrix VDI environments, there may be some limitations and careful attention and testing should be performed when looking to implement these or other desktop environments.
IT support services
MSPs will also provide a variety of IT support services depending on the specific needs of the customer. Some firms may not have an in-house IT team and will therefore depend on an MSP to provide first-line IT support services to staff, as well as maintaining and supporting the IT infrastructure. Engineers can also be deployed on site, providing a more hands-on service. Firms that do have an in-house IT team may only require an MSP to provide a third-line IT support service, providing infrastructure and network support only.
In our experience, good MSPs will form a strategic relationship with their client alongside their daily transactional role of providing IT support. It’s important to be clear what a strategic relationship means, which is far beyond providing an annual infrastructure ‘shopping list’ of upgrades.
A strategic relationship needs to focus on helping firms adopt technology in a way that has a positive impact on their business. This may include training on Microsoft applications, analysis of the take up of new technology and a review of new innovations which may be relevant to the client’s overall business strategy.