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December 2000
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Small & Home Office

Is it Time to Network Your Firm?

By Chris Norman

Is it Time to Network Your Firm? NETWORKING computers is no longer just an option for large firms. Today, many small practices are discovering the productivity and convenience advantages of networking their office computers. When compared to other types of businesses, law firms are in a prime position to benefit from networks, due to the collaborative nature of their work, the need for fast access to data and the storage requirements of documents and information.

Do you need a network? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you and your staff trade floppies to work on different projects?

  • Do you wait for an e-mail to get the latest draft of a brief?

  • Does one part of your practice live on one associate's computer, while another part lives on a different computer?

If you answered yes to these questions and you want immediate access to all company information, improved communications, and more flexibility and efficiency, it may be time to consider networking your firm.

There are basically two types of networks for firms: 1) the peer-to-peer network and 2) the client/server network.

Peer-to-peer network.

If your firm has five or fewer personal computers, this is an excellent and inexpensive way to share computers, files and software. These are the easiest networks to setup and maintain, with simple cables connecting the computers. They do not require a central computer or server. Requirements for a peer-to-peer network:

1Network Interface: A network interface device will be needed for each computer. Some computers include a network interface device on the motherboard. If your computers do not, you can find add-on devices in a range of formats, such as PCI cards, USB devices, ISA cards, and parallel port devices.

Look for a standard speed 10/100 network interface (10 stands for 10 megabits per second and 100 is 100 megabits per second). With a 10/100 network interface device your system will be equipped to work in both 10 and 100 megabit networks.

2A Hub or Switch: A hub or switch basically is a junction box or a sub-station where all the network connections arrive and are routed to their final destination. The difference between a hub and switch is that a hub operates like a phone "party line," where the bandwidth is shared among all users of the hub. A switch is more like a "private line," where each port of the switch is dedicated to traffic on that channel. Traditionally, switches have been cost prohibitive for many smaller firms; but technology advancements have brought the price points of switches down to the point that hubs will be obsolete in a couple of years.

Both switches and hubs are classified as 10 megabits, 100 megabits or 10/100. 10/100 switches and hubs are recommended as they provide greater flexibility in supporting devices that run either 10 or 100 megabits. Also, when buying a hub or switch make certain it has enough ports to support your current staff as well as any additional users you plan to add during the next couple of years.

3Cable: The final glue for your network is the cable to connect each PC to the hub or switch. These cables are normally classified as CAT 5, unshielded twisted pair (UTP). The cable is inexpensive and readily available in custom lengths for your office.

If you are networking just two computers, setting up a peer-to-peer network is even easier. There is no need for a hub or switch -- just two network cards and one "cross-over" cable. The "cross-over" cable is slightly different than those mentioned above and makes some transmission changes that would otherwise be done in the hub.

On the software side, today's major operating systems include peer-to-peer software applications, making set up of peer-to-peer applications easy. Set up is as simple as entering an I.P. address and a unique ID for each computer in your network. Basic instructions on setting up peer-to-peer networks are available on the Internet and in most bookstores.

Client/server network

If you have six or more PCs in your firm, consider a central server network. The largest investment is one server or high-performance computer to assure speedy data access and delivery.

"Servers" are powerful computers or processors dedicated to managing hardware, software and data traffic. "Clients" are PCs that rely on servers for processing, files, and other resources.

In order to create a client/server network you will need:

  • A network interface device for each computer.

  • A hub or switch.

  • A server.

  • Cables.

Law firms can take advantage of the security benefits of having all sensitive or shared data stored on a client/server, as opposed to individual computers. This breaks the dependency of associates needing to access to individual computers for specific information.

Files on the server can be password protected to ensure only those authorized to receive sensitive data can access it on the server. Additionally, storing data on the server can help prevent data loss, since all important data is stored on the server and can be backed up in one step or even automated.

A server will help you realize some savings on software licensing, because it creates a single centralized location for software. Some commercial software applications are better suited to client server networks and are priced accordingly.

One of the most common server-based software packages is e-mail. An e-mail application installed on a sever allows internal e-mail to be sent without relying on the speed of the Internet. Sending a 2 MB file attachment to your partner is much faster over a 100 megabit network connection than through a 56 Kbps modem connection.

Another attraction of a client-server network is its ability to adapt or "scale" to increased number of users, printers, applications and storage. So, if your practice grows, your server will be able to grow with you to accommodate your technology needs.

Networking your office will benefit your firm whether you're currently using or have future plans to use software for case management, time and billing, or document management.

Time to Upgrade?

  • If your office is already networked, when is the right time to upgrade a client/server network? Some clues:

  • You find there is a continuous "log jam" at the printer.

  • You seem to be waiting forever for Web sites to load.

  • You have increasing need to share documents and software with co-workers.

This may be the time to increase the size of your client/server network. Selecting the right server or servers depends on the number of users your network needs to support and the types of applications being used. Generally speaking the more users and the more processor-intensive the applications, the more powerful your server(s) will need to be.

For instance, a firm with 20 people on the network using e-mail and legal applications such as time and billing, litigation support, e-mail, and word processing would want an entry level server. An effective configuration would be: one high speed processor (expandable to two), 256 MB RAM, and around 36 GB of storage. However, this configuration would fall short in meeting the needs of a 250 staff firm that uses processor-intensive applications such as document management and case management. his level of usage requires a server with high performance dual processors, 4 GB RAM, and around 200 GB of storage.

I.T. Assistance

Many small firms do not have internal I.T. staff. But there are many options to help you evaluate your firm's networking options. Local networking consultants can work with your staff to help design a networking solution specific to the unique needs and goals of your firm.

You may find that you can work directly with a vendor to determine an appropriate system for your situation, without having to make a resource investment in consultants.

The right vendor can guide you through all of the planning, design, installation and support. Look for a vendor that has local networking engineers that will meet with you and truly understand the unique needs and business goals of your firm before recommending a system.

Leveraging this type of relationship, especially at a local level, means that firms can keep their own resources focused while still embracing the power of networking technology.

Law firms of any size can benefit from networking their computers. In today's competitive environment, you must find ways to maximize productivity while lowering costs to stay ahead of the pack. Networking your office can be the first step toward realizing your practice's full potential.

Chris Norman is director of server product marketing with Gateway Inc., based in Lake Forest, Calif.

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