On Ash Clouds, Hurricanes, and Cloud Computing

At last week’s Louisiana Solo and Small Firm conference in New Orleans, one of the things I was struck by was how New Orleans-based lawyers look at cloud computing in a completely different light post-Katrina. Prior to Katrina hitting, cloud computing might have been regarded as a cost-effective and convenient alternative to traditional, on-premise software and servers. However, after Katrina, one of the deadliest hurricanes in US history, struck New Orleans, it became apparent hosting data in the cloud was not just a convenience, but something that could play a crucial role in any law office’s business continuity plan.

Many lawyers told me stories of returning to their offices or homes to find their computers, servers, and paper files destroyed after being submerged in several feet of water for days on end. Worse, for many their on-premise backup system (an external hard or tape drive) was also destroyed by the hurricane. For others who were lucky enough to have escaped the most damaging effects of the storm, being forced away from their computers and files while a mandatory evacuation order was placed on the city left them unable to work or stay on top of their caseload.

Ernie Svenson, author of the excellent Ernie the Attorney blog and a New Orleans-based lawyer, commented on the profound effect Katrina had on his view of cloud computing:

Katrina was, for me, as instructive as it was disruptive.  Having to leave town quickly and then roam around from city to city for a few weeks forced me to think about how to set things up to minimize disruption in the future.  It struck me then, and the more I’ve thought about it the more I realize, that having key information placed out in ‘the cloud’ with a trusted source is the key to minimizing disruption.  More importantly, it’s the key to productivity.  The Internet did not go down because of Katrina; although it was inaccessible in New Orleans for several weeks.  The Internet was designed to survive serious catastrophe (hence the reliance on packet switching as opposed to circuit switching).  All of my key information is backed up to the cloud or stored there primarily.

I can trust the cloud in a disaster much more than I can trust any local storage system, and I’ll never let myself forget what Katrina taught me.

- Ernie Svenson

As Ernie points out, the cloud is built for reliability and fail-over. In fact, the internet as it exists today is an evolved form of ARPANET, a US military network designed from the ground up to survive nuclear attacks.

Five years after Katrina we’ve had a volcanic ash cloud shut down air travel in Europe for over a week, leaving millions – including many lawyers – stranded overseas. Those using traditional installed software might be forced to take an unwanted vacation since their computers, software, and data are inaccessible, but those who have embraced the cloud have found that working remotely is as simple as finding a laptop and an internet connection.

The cloud, with its inherent durability, redundancy, and remote accessibility, should be a key component of every law firm’s business continuity planning.