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The following article was included in the September edition of TLOMA Today, the monthly newsletter of The Law Office Management Association:

TLOMAToday – September, 2021

The Inevitable Obsolescence of Servers, or How Microsoft 365 Has Fundamentally Changed Law Firm IT

Brian Mauch, BCom JD
CEO, BMC Networks

I’ve been working with law firm IT for over two decades, and I’ve seen a lot of significant technology changes during that time, but none as important as Microsoft 365.

I will freely admit that it took me a few years to recognize the significance of Microsoft 365.  I haven’t always been a big fan of Microsoft’s licensing and security, and like others I’m concerned about the monopoly they have on operating systems and productivity applications in the business world.

At first, I saw Microsoft 365 as a cash grab by to get law firms to pay for their Microsoft Office (Outlook, Word, Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint) software licenses on a subscription basis.  Traditionally, firms had purchased one-time perpetual licenses and used those versions for many years, until there was a good reason to upgrade to a newer version.  Microsoft 365 offered continually updated versions of these applications, but I wasn’t sure that was something that law firms needed.

Then I saw Microsoft 365 as a way for Microsoft to control a law firm’s email by migrating them from on-premise Exchange servers to their Exchange Online cloud service.  I wasn’t sure that Microsoft’s data centres could provide the same level of uptime that a quality, well-maintained on-premise server could provide.

But I eventually realized that Microsoft 365 is so much more than that.

It wasn’t until I watched my teenagers saving their high school projects to SharePoint Online, and easily collaborating with their friends using the mobile and web versions of Word and Powerpoint that I grasped the full significance of what Microsoft had achieved… they had found a way to render servers obsolete.

It’s not just on-premise servers that will soon be extinct.  Hosted servers are also on the endangered list, because they won’t be necessary either.  Traditionally, servers have been required to share files and transfer email among multiple users on a local network.  But Microsoft 365 has come along and replaced these traditional server functions for a low monthly subscription, bundled in the Office applications and Teams for videoconferencing and instant messaging, and added advanced security features that are continually being enhanced.  At this point, its difficult to resist the value of Microsoft 365, especially if it enables a firm to eliminate the cost of buying and maintaining servers.

Cloud computing options have been commercially available since the early 2000s, but many law firms were concerned about data sovereignty, and didn’t want to be the first to adopt new technology.  Microsoft finally offered a Canadian data centre in 2017, and this opened the door for Canadian law firms to take some tentative steps into the Microsoft 365 ecosystem.  And beginning in early 2020, the remote access demands of the COVID-19 pandemic provided the catalyst for many firm law firms to finally take the plunge into cloud computing.

Microsoft isn’t the only game in town when it comes to an online server replacement system.  Google Workspace offers a similar product for a similar price.  However, since the Microsoft Office applications have become ubiquitous in law firms, I expect most law firms will favour the Microsoft offering.

After adopting Microsoft 365, the final roadblock to a completely modernized, server-free environment is that most law firms still use server-based software applications for functions like accounting, document management and practice management.  However, there are many cloud-based applications that do not require servers, and are accessed via web browser or mobile apps.  Migrating to a new application is expensive and time-consuming, but forward-thinking law firms should start identifying cloud-based options for their legacy systems.  Most new software development is being done on cloud-based applications, and server-based software is being left behind.

My views on the inevitable obsolescence of servers are not popular among the old guard in IT.  After all, we’ve made our careers out of maintaining servers, and there is concern about what happens to our roles if servers are no longer required.  However, I’m not concerned… configuring and integrating cloud systems still requires an IT professional, cybersecurity has rapidly become an important part of our job, and computer users will always need a help desk.  I think the role of IT professionals will certainly change over time as cloud adoption increases, but I don’t think we will be as extinct as servers will eventually be.

Once a law firm has migrated their systems to Microsoft 365 and cloud-based legal applications, they can realize the significant cost savings and improved access and collaboration that a server-free “full cloud” environment will provide.  Securely accessing their data from any device, and from anywhere, is something that all law firms can look forward to.

About the author:
Brian Mauch is the founder and CEO of BMC Networks (www.bmcnetworks.ca), an outsourced IT provider that specializes in law firms.  Brian obtained both law and commerce degrees from UBC, and then combined his education with his passion for technology to form BMC Networks in 1997.  Brian focuses on strategic planning and advice for BMC’s clients.  Brian can be reached at [email protected] or www.linkedin.com/in/brianmauch/