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Moving to the Cloud for the Solo – Google is Not The Answer, but Microsoft May Be

Last summer, I was evacuated from my house with just a few minute’s warning due to a very large forest fire. Thankfully, I did not lose anything in the fire, except the good will that I had banked with some friends who let me mooch their guest room for a few days.

As I write this, another fire is burning a few hundred yards from my house, whipped by 50mph gusts. The latest fire is small and is being contained, but it still makes me think.

I have reviewed Google’s and Microsoft’s offerings for small business and without a doubt, I would never recommend Google, but I can recommend Microsoft.

I have been very reluctant to move my client data ‘into the cloud’. When I started my solo practice in 2004, I bought Microsoft’s Small Business Server because I recognized that email was as important, if not more so, than any other client data. I could not afford to lose email, but I had to maintain client confidentiality. I needed email stored on a server where it could be backed up on a different computer than my day to day computer.

Small Business Server comes at a great expense. My first server was a $500 model courtesy of eBay but the operating system was very pricey. The setup and administration of Small Business Server can be done by a lay person, but I eventually had to hire an expert to set it up correctly. I have a lot of time and money invested in computer systems, time and money that I wish I could spend elsewhere.

Many solo attorneys use so-called ‘free’ services such as Google Apps, Gmail, and GoogleVoice. I have always avoided these services mainly for the privacy issues. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has an excellent explanation of the privacy issues with Gmail: http://epic.org/privacy/gmail/faq.html

Rule 1.6 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct states: “(a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent”. Each state has a similar rule, and the USPTO also has a similar rule that applied to both attorneys and agents.

Google states in their terms of service that they will search all of the information stored in Google’s servers: “we may use the information we collect to: Provide, maintain, protect, and improve our services (including advertising services) and develop new services.” Google’s advertisement services depend on knowing the content of your personal information. And Google does not make an exception for any of their services.

Because a lawyer/patent agent cannot reveal information “unless the client gives informed consent”, the lawyer who uses Gmail MUST get the client’s consent to have their personal information searched, indexed, cataloged, and kept for an indeterminate period of time (read: forever). Any attorney who uses Gmail, Google Apps, GoogleVoice, or any other Google services and does not get the client’s consent violates Rule 1.6. Violation means loss of license and loss of career: not a risk I am going to take.

There are other options.

I have been beta testing Microsoft’s Office 365 offering. I was concerned about the client confidentiality aspects, so I talked to some people who support Office 365. Office 365, once it is out of beta testing, may be a viable answer. I was able to contact a product manager at Microsoft and discussed the privacy issues with him over the phone.

In the beta test, which will last for several months, Microsoft says it may be able to access the user’s data stored in the cloud. After that point, Microsoft claims that it will *not* access the user’s data. Note that Microsoft never says they will access your data for ‘advertising’. Microsoft has a commitment not to search, categorize, index, and catalog your stored data for advertising purposes, in contrast to Google.

In fact, Office 365 will be ISO 27001 certified and provided that the user establishes and follows ISO 27001 protocols, their systems will be compliant. There is more information relating to the service descriptions here: http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/en/details.aspx?FamilyID=6c6ecc6c-64f5-490a-bca3-8835c9a4a2ea

Office 365 is a very compelling offering. Office 365 has Exchange (the industry standard email system) as well as SharePoint (for document storage) and Lync (online conferencing). There are versions of Office 365 with web based versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc. Some versions will work with my Small Business Server for single-sign-on, too. This is the solid product I have been wanting for a long time.

The $6/person/month cost seems incredibly reasonable, especially since the service has a 99.9% guaranteed uptime, follows all industry standard backup policies for Exchange (30 day retention of deleted items) as well as SharePoint (backed up every 12 hours.) Oh, and automatic failover to different data centers, professional administration, and a very easy to use administrative user interface.

With yet another fire smoldering just a few hundred yards away from my house, moving to the cloud just got much more compelling.