Anatomy of a Design: How business needs shape IT infrastructure design

 In Data Center, Hardware

This is the first post in a series about IT infrastructure design.

IT infrastructure design can be the difference between getting a job done and doing the job well. Infrastructure design is a relevant topic no matter your business or industry, though exactly what that infrastructure looks like will vary from company to company. Financial and business considerations will influence the “must haves” and “wish list” components of a business’s IT environment.

Imagine a law firm. What are its IT needs, and how does it fill those requirements? Does it have in-house IT professionals or does it rely on an outside expert to handle IT issues? What are the firm’s core IT requirements, and what are its special requests?

There are two main reasons to focus on law firms. The first is size: Because most law firms in America are small businesses (a law firm is a service business, and most firms employ less than 50 people), their needs are relatable to many organizations. Second, many firms fail to maximize their technology or network capabilities due to lack of IT expertise.

infrastructure design

We won’t address the needs of the large law firms that already have in-house IT departments with the means of designing an IT infrastructure. Rather, we’ll attempt to help those without enough experience or background in IT infrastructure, and to demystify what may seem to be an arcane body of knowledge supporting a sometimes convoluted process.

Before we begin the design, we must understand both the business and financial aspects of law firms, and what solutions they can find through technology.

The financial aspect of IT infrastructure design

Approximately 75 percent of U.S. lawyers are in small private practices, defined as fewer than five lawyers. Almost all firms – 98 percent — have fewer than 50 lawyers.

Research suggests that most of these firms spend between 2 and 4 percent on IT, and given their size, that’s often not much. We’ll use 5 percent as an upper limit for spending as this fits with most research suggesting greater spending on IT yeilds greater revenues. Clearly how that money is spent is important. That’s what we will focus on – designing a new IT infrastructure to show how even a small firm can invest in future growth.

The business aspect of IT infrastructure design

Lawyers are in a service business, and providing legal advice to clients involves creating, amending, and reviewing documents, such as wills and trusts, contracts, or briefs and motions in civil and criminal cases.

The IT infrastructure of any law firm must support applications that monitor and track client billing, and document creation, storage, and retrieval. Plus, an office’s network must have intrusion detection and prevention to keep their confidential files secure.

There are also the practical matters of operating a law firm. Lawyers schedule meetings with clients both in and out of the office, so many firms use technologies that allow lawyers to work remotely. And finally, there are financial management needs to actually run a firm — more than just time reporting and invoicing clients — that include payroll and expense tracking.

Given these requirements, the applications required in an IT infrastructure break down as follows:

  1. Billing and invoicing
  2. Accounting
  3. Scheduling
  4. Document management
  5. Case management
  6. Practice management
  7. Communications, including phone services
  8. Document storage

Considerations for the infrastructure

We’ve established the business needs that an infrastructure must support, but there are also implied requirements necessary to support these applications.

Applications considered critical to conduct daily business must be always online. To maintain uptime, an infrastructure must continue to function even if separate components have failed. Generally, this is achieved by building enough redundancy into the infrastructure. Even after several different components have failed, resilient systems still function and applications are accessible with, at most, only slight degradation in performance.

In addition, if the environment experiences any data loss, or an accidental deletion, a method for recovering the data is needed. This can be accomplished through snapshots of the original application data or ongoing regular backups of application data.

Another consideration is the choice of building an on-premises solution or purchasing a remote computing option, where applications are hosted and run on a leased infrastructure. In either case, designing an infrastructure requires considerations about capacity and the availability to support application needs.

A couple special infrastructure requests

Additional requirements may best be considered special requests. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) allows lawyers to remotely access applications and data without the need to carry laptops or other devices. There’s no threat of local data being lost or stolen. And using VDIs prevents sensitive data from leaving the office, as access to secure virtual private networks requires multiple layers of authentication.

Another special request is secured WiFi (802.11ac) within an office, which permits greater collaboration between partners, associates, and paralegals. The use of secured WiFi gives clients access to the Internet, and by extension their own documents within the company’s infrastructure, without allowing access to the firm’s document storage. This implies a certain wireless and network layout, which we will discuss in a later post.

What’s next

We’ve developed a rough sketch of the basic infrastructure a law firm needs, even if we don’t know the specific computing and storage requirements of the applications. Still, all signs point to a fairly robust, leading-edge environment for a law firm that embraces the newest information technology.

In the next post, we’ll review possible solutions that meet as many of these requirements and fulfill as many of the requests as possible, while ensuring a highly-available, resilient infrastructure that supports the applications and provides the necessary capacity and performance.

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