Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cloud Computing, Part I - Software: ASP and SaaS

Marketing hype (illusion) portrays cloud computing as the newest revolution in computers. In reality, cloud computing started about the same time Joni Mitchell sang "Both Sides Now", to create an interactive network ("from both sides") of computers and information transfer with many users distributed over a wide area. The term cloud with respect to information transfer is even older, having its origin in the use of a cloud to represent a network of interconnected users in telephone network patent applications and other documents. So if you "really don't know clouds at all," these articles are for you. (Use of "Both Sides Now" is fair use for purposes of education.)

The abbreviations ASP and SaaS respectively mean Application-Service-Provider and Software-as-a-Service. To a legal office, they are essentially the same. The legal office has a personal computer, laptop, tablet or other computing device that receives one or more programs via the Internet (cloud) from a provider company that stores the programs on its own computers, and that provider company is responsible for writing, providing and updating the software.

Corporations and academic centers of the 1960's to the mid-90's used a similar concept with the mainframe and 'dumb' terminals. The major distinction between then and now is that the mainframe both stored the program, and handled all the computing tasks. The terminal was merely an interface and output display, hence the 'dumb' term. ASP and SaaS push the program to the personal computer, which with its significant electronics and operating system handles the computing tasks, the data storage, the interface devices and the display.

As with the mainframe and dumb terminals, the cloud is the communication network between the program storage computer, and the display. The major distinction of ASP and SaaS is in reducing program storage and redundancy in the personal computer network.

An ASP program mimics the traditional form of a personal computer (PC) loaded software by handling the information computing, interface, and display. In other words, ASP programs take the place of your PC stored program, including software for the menu bar that displays commands, and the programs performs the commands for local operations such as opening and closing files, viewing and printing information, and passing instructions to the computer on performing these tasks.
The ASP advantage is that the software company can lower its efforts (time, expense, etc.) of writing software for these common local operations, and the legal office avoids installing the same program on multiple computers. ASP, however, can still have conflicts with hardware or other software running on the PC.

SaaS programs, on the other hand, handle the computing work on your PC, but lets your computer handle the local operations through another program on the PC, such as the browser. Thus, SaaS additionally reduces conflicts at the user's end, and because every SaaS program has the same interface for all programs, the SaaS user doesn't have to learn multiple menu bars (or ribbons) or configure multiple programs for viewing and printing information.

Theoretically at least, ASP and SaaS software is less expensive as well since the software company has lower expenses, and the ASP and SaaS user doesn’t have to spend effort, time and money loading and updating software.

In a sense, ASP and SaaS provide a somewhat back-to-the-future theme. There are discussions, and certain components already in place, to lower PC costs by returning to dumb-terminals, i.e., a personal computer that lacks even an on-board operating system. Microsoft, not surprisingly, is not enamored with the idea.
For the legal office, most software categories are or soon will be available by ASP or SaaS. An online search for "asp legal software" for example, returned many links for Case Management Software, Litigation Support Software, and Document Databases. The American Bar Association has a free website titled "FYI: Software as a Service (SaaS) for Lawyers" at The website has several pages of current information on multiple topics, including features to look at, such as:

Time & Billing Software: Comparison Chart
Practice & Case Management Software Comparison
Litigation Support Software Comparison Chart
FYI: Starting a Website
FYI: Software as a Service (SaaS) for Lawyers
FYI: Feature Comparison - Major Blog Providers
FYI: Playing it Safe With Encryption
FYI: Technology Terms Defined
Metadata Ethics Opinions Around the U.S.
Metadata Comparison Chart: 50 State Map

The primary disadvantages to ASP and SaaS are service interruptions. These occur if Internet service is not available or slow, the ASP and SaaS provider is offline, or if an upgrade of any software, installed or cloud-based, causes a problem. The first three conditions are equivalent in frustration to a power interruption, while the second is a constant threat to any software use.

The due diligence is researching the Internet and other users to be certain the cloud-based software will not cause a service interruption, and determining in advance how to deal with a service interruption. When properly balanced and licensed between service and fees, ASP and SaaS are worthwhile to effortlessly keep software up-to-date without on-hand 'IT' effort.

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