Digging…… with ASPade, and other new tools

March 1, 2001

At least three suppliers already have ASP clients for their solicitors PMS systems.

Axxia: http://www.axxia.com

Elite: http://www.eliteis.com

Videss: http://www.videss.co.uk

The essence of ASP is that software applications are ‘hosted’ by a central organisation, and are accessed by remote users over a communications link. The usual arrangement has a provider, renting access to multiple small users. The software runs on servers at the host, with inputs (commands and data) sent from the user’s PC or terminal (‘client’) to the host, and output (screen or printer responses) returned. The fundamental advantage of this arrangement is that the capital and resource intensive elements of the system are concentrated together, where economies of scale can be enjoyed; and expertise deployed effectively. The user enjoys the functionality of software which can be deployed to many other users, and is therefore cheaper. For legal organisations, there are several areas where this model can be used – practice management systems (PMS), secretarial support (eg MS Word) and client access, for example.

Commercial arrangements vary between ASPs. Some charge on a monthly ‘per user’ basis, some by time online and some per transaction. Minimum rental periods are negotiable, with more confident suppliers offering a notice period as short as one month to demonstrate their confidence in the service and to encourage reluctant customers to try their system with minimal risk.

Practice Management Systems

Imagine not having to buy your PMS software, but renting it. The ASP is responsible for deploying the software, maintaining its system, handling upgrades of both software and hardware; and ensuring that backups of data are maintained. If you want to add users to your system, advise the ASP, pay the rental – and that’s it! Subject to minimum rental agreements, it is just as painless to reduce the number of users. Because the applications are being run at the ASP end, location is totally unimportant. For users connecting over Internet or dial-up connections, any user can connect from any location – office, home, client or an internet café in the anywhere in the world. Equally, for the smaller firm, one ASP rented ‘seat’ might be shared between a part-time cashier and several fee-earners requiring only occasional access to client ledgers (perhaps when the cashier is not there to ask).

The PMS suppliers with more complex and advanced systems are likely to offer these over an ASP, enlarging their customer base and thereby being able to offer better value for money. Equally, larger customer organisations, released from the need to employ dedicated IT staff, will be able to concentrate their efforts on their core competence – the law.

Secretarial Support

ASPs are already offering MS Office products, especially Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Some also offer MS Exchange to include advanced e-mail, calendar and work-sharing capabilities. Cable & Wireless have announced their ‘a-Workspace package’ which also includes a PC within the rental package!

Once again, there is the advantage of mobility; work (including precedents, templates and standard documents) can be shared, almost instantaneously, with home workers or with remote offices. A partner could check outgoing post from home, prior to despatch, a fee earner with keyboard skills could work from home, potentially enjoying the ability to consult the practice database and client ledgers whilst doing so. A further benefit will be that infrequently used software – PowerPoint for presentations, perhaps – could be rented for one concurrent user; but that user could be a different individual, and at different locations, at different times.

Adding together the word processing and the database functions, the ASP could also provide access to a case management system (CMS). This releases the power of CMS to users without a high powered local network or server. This will demand tight integration of the word processing and database or PMS by the ASP, together with advanced printing controls, but is an ideal use for the technology.

Visit http://www.vistorm.com to try Microsoft ‘Word’ or ‘PowerPoint’ over an ASP for yourself.

Other Software

In principle, almost any software could be deployed via ASP. Not only is it expected that the more common ‘standard’ applications (e.g. Sage payroll) will be offered by ASPs on their own account, but users will request to have their bespoke applications supplied by ASP as well. There will be little point in organisations having to maintain their internal systems for residual software if their main applications are provided via ASP.


The basic technology that underlies these advances need not be restricted to the provision of software rental by remote ASPs. To understand what else may be achieved, it is necessary to look a little deeper at how ASP works, and what might be expected in the near future.

Between the user, and their ASP application, there is a physical link of some sort. Often this is a straightforward Internet connection, but it could also be a leased line, or a virtual private network (VPN). There is also the software that handles the communication between applications running at the remote end of the ASP (host) and the software on the user’s PC. Although it is possible to have software specific to the application on the client end of the link, it is more usual to utilise a standard Web browser (e.g. Internet Explorer) possibly with a ‘plug-in’, which provides the additional functionality to deal with the ASP. Because very little computing power is required at the client end, these systems are sometimes referred to as ‘thin client’ systems. Each of the software vendors’ systems achieves the same end in a slightly different way, each with their own commercial arrangements, advantages and disadvantages. The leading supplier of such software is Citrix with its ‘MetaFrame’ Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) and MultiWin products. These enable multiple users to run copies of the same application on the server independently of each other and to communicate with the user.

The software handles the transfer of information between the user and the application. To minimise bandwidth requirements, the software moves only what is absolutely essential – keyboard and mouse commands up to the host, and display updates back to the client. Over slow connections, there is a barely noticeable delay. Over faster (ISDN and upwards) connections, users should be unable to tell the ASP from a local network. Citrix claim acceptable performance over a 20kbit/sec link – achievable with a modem, and possible with the next generation of mobile computer/telephony products.

The hardware requirements at the user end are very basic. A basic PC (or a windows terminal, ‘winterm’) and a communications link are all that is required. Although most ASPs will claim that users can utilise almost any old PC (including 386s!), users should aim for a minimum of 15” SVGA supporting 800×600 resolution simply so that they can see what they are doing. The only other requirement is a high enough specification to run a Web browser and to handle the communications link. Users will not have to worry about the concentrated computing power at the host, other than to satisfy themselves about availability and security – of which more later.

Various options exist for the communications link. This may be either a direct link connecting straight to the ASP, or indirect operating over the Internet; and it may be a permanent connection or connecting on demand. Users seeking greater security, availability and speed may opt for the leased line (direct and ‘always on’) but this has very significant cost implications compared to the alternatives. It is expected that most ASP services will be accessed using the Internet. The newer Internet delivery services will offer much cheaper alternatives. ISPs are offering unlimited Internet access at ever decreasing prices, and Oftel’s recent decision to force BT to offer wholesale unlimited Internet access facilities to its competitors from next February is likely to reduce prices below the current £20 per month level. Faster access with ‘always on’ connection via ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) will become available across most of the country as BT roll out the service. Pricing is around £40 per month, with a hefty installation charge. In some areas cable companies and wireless operators offer alternative broadband connections.

Further Uses for ASP technology

The same technology can also be used to provide ASP based on an organisations’ own system, rather than hosted by a third party. This would allow an organisation to equip home workers, or those away from the office, with the tools to perform their work just as if they were at their own desk. They could be provided with full access to database, billing and accounting systems, using familiar input and reporting tools. A remote branch could be similarly equipped, without the need for expensive leased line links. Provision of such a system would no longer have the benefits of reducing organisations need for IT resource – this model introduces new and complex IT requirements, with considerable support implications.

Instead of employee access, ASP could also be used to provide clients (or partner organisations) with limited access. This would be a step forward from the present mechanism, whereby the required information is prepared in a format that can be read by a standard Web browser, and client access (through the Internet or a direct connection) is passive – the information can be read but not processed in any way. Via an ASP, organisations could provide a fuller service. Perhaps clients might need to search for a subset of matters, and run a report on the costs to date, or a referral agency could set up the details of the clients they introduce and track the costs and progress of those clients and matters. Such a service has enabled Credit Collections (http://www.creditcollections.co.uk/) to offer their clients instant access to progress reports and to status reporting.

Taking these ideas a step further, a group of individuals or small organisations could form themselves into a virtual organisation sharing just as much of their information and facilities with each other as they wish. One group of specialist sole practitioners has already expressed interest in ASP technology to form a loose alliance of affiliates, able to share precedents, documents and other information from whatever location they find themselves in.

The underlying technology is already widely in use for local server-based computing systems, with Citrix ‘MetaFrame’ ICA again the leading example. The principles are the same, with the server performing all the computing and data storage functions, and the ‘thin client’ acting as a local terminal for the user. Such systems have the advantage of very simple equipment and set-up on the user’s desk, and of reduced traffic across the local area network (LAN).

The latest generations of software languages utilised to create PMS and other applications have also been developed to run the processing-intensive steps on the server, to reduce bandwidth requirements and to minimise client requirements. Progress Software, for example, offers their ‘Appserver’ product, which enables vendors who write in their Progress 4GL language to offer even local network applications with the maximum amount of work done by the server and the minimum by the user’s PC. This concept is taken one stage further when virtually all the processing is performed on the server, and the client requires such small programs that these can be downloaded from the server in seconds for each session. These developments should slow the pace of upgrade requirements for the PCs on users’ desks, and the speed of network links between users and their servers, whether local or ASP.


The short messaging service (SMS) on digital mobile phones is already familiar to many people. The newer WAP (wireless application protocol) services are less familiar and, having been over-hyped originally, have developed a generally poor press. However, both these services offer new opportunities for the forward-thinking. WAP services are limited by the small size of the screen on most mobile phones, and by the slow speed of data transmission (typically 9.6kbits/sec). WAP is therefore really suitable only for short, text-based purposes. The technology does, therefore, suit some of the needs of a modern solicitors practice. Time recording, as it happens, even when out of the office, is now eminently possible. Simple queries are also in prospect, maybe checking the diary to confirm an appointment or an address while on the move.

SMS, which can operate both mobile-to-mobile and from fixed point-to-mobile, has potential for one-way communication where no further processing is involved. Messages can be composed and sent automatically and so could fit into a case management system. Solicitor’s Own Software (SOS – http://www.sosbath.co.uk/sos.html) have announced a service based on this functionality, called Client Inform. They will also forward e-mails sent to them to a client’s mobile phone as SMS messages. Other opportunities may be based on fixed-base SMS systems which recognise a specific incoming message and respond by sending a required outgoing message. These services already exist for share price and football results information. They could be used to generate the next file reference for a fee earner at a police station or to report progress in a matter to a client. SMS messages from mobiles can also be forwarded as e-mails – the Cellnet service ‘Mmail’ allows users to compose an e-mail, including the recipient address, using the SMS facilities of their mobile phone and to have this forwarded to the recipient by sending it to their messaging centre. Similarly, there are several Web-based services who will send out a SMS typed on their Web site (eg Genie – www.genie.co.uk).

Issues to Consider

Should users change their way of working just because technology now enables them to? Clearly not. Organisations will wish to assess whether the ASP model brings any advantages for them, and whether those advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In weighing the decision, there are some points to bear in mind.

The first concern which must be addressed is security. Potential users must be satisfied that the ASP will offer them sufficient security, both preventing unauthorised access and ensuring access for legitimate users when required. It is hard to assess the relative merits of different methods of providing security. Is the data more or less secure on a remote server, protected by a sophisticated firewall, than it would be on a local server, a file in an office cabinet (with or without a lock) or in an envelope, trusted to persons unknown to deliver some days later? An ASP should also provide a high level of data security. Backups are safer in the hands of the professionals – how often have you found a backup has been missed, or, worse, fails to reload when required? There is certainly no such thing as 100% security, but properly established ASP security measures should provide a level of security at least as good as that found acceptable for local and paper-based systems.

It will also be essential to ensure that the ASP is capable of, and committed to, maintaining an operating service with very high levels of availability. Because ASPs can concentrate capital equipment and expert resources, they are in a very good position to do so. Modern servers are now extremely robust and major ASPs will use cluster technology to ensure that even server failure does not disrupt the service. Many will offer 24/7 access with 99.9% online time guaranteed. Of course, the guarantee is only worth whatever backs it up! It is common to have an agreed Service Level Agreement (SLA) which backs up availability guarantees with measurement and penalties. Beware of percentage measurements and service credits. If you need access between 8.00am and 7.00pm everyday, ensure that the SLA states this; and set availability levels in hours and minutes – a service available 99% of the time could still be unavailable for seven and a half hours a month. No problem if that is ten minutes each night between 4.00am and 5.00am, but a different story if it is one whole day with pressing work to be done! And if the service does fail to meet agreed availability targets, service credits to use a service you can’t access are pretty well useless.

Availability will also depend on the communications link, and these are often found to be more fragile than the computing resources. Some ASPs are also communications companies (Cable and Wireless, for example) and will offer an overall SLA. Users utilising Internet access will be at the mercy of both their local communications to their ISP, the ISP itself, the Internet backbone, and the ASP connection to that backbone. This sounds like a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong, but most steps in this chain have multiple routes, and experience indicates a high level of reliability. Users with ‘mission critical’ access requirements can always build a level of duplication into their system, to cope with most eventualities – a modem on an analogue line to backup an ISDN connection, or a second ISP, for example.

The third issue to be considered is cost. Capital costs and IT support costs can be greatly reduced, but ASP rental rates at present seem little different from leasing costs funding an outright purchase. Training costs are likely to be similar – and training is always essential to take greatest advantage of any IT investment.

The fourth essential issue to be considered is what happens if a decision is made to switch ASP provider, or to return to a local system. Can the data be made available in a reasonable format? How will copies of stored documents or the PMS database be returned? Although the first ASP services are gaining clients, it is too early yet for the exit mechanisms to have been fully tested.

Finally, what about software and system maintenance and upgrades? These are the responsibility of the ASP, and so should not be an issue. That alone should make an ASP solution worth considering.

Déjà vu?

Doesn’t this ASP scenario sound very much like the state of computing ten years ago? A central server, concentrating computing power and data storage in an IT department, with dumb terminals for the users? Perhaps the wheel has come round again, but this time it will have a far more wide-reaching effect. Just five years ago, Novell was the network software of choice, Windows 95 was being launched and most of us had never connected to the Internet. Would we have looked forward and predicted that we’d be where we are today? ASPs are predicted to reach between $5 billion and $10 billion in sales within 12 months, from a level today at least an order of magnitude less. Difficult to believe? Maybe, but many businesses will welcome the opportunity to concentrate on their core competencies, and have the experts manage their IT. Will the same apply to solicitors and other legal organisations? Why not – after all, why buy the cow when all you want is the milk?

Glyn Morris has previously worked as a consultant in the legal sector, and is now employed by Videss Ltd, a supplier of Practice Management and Case Management Systems, as Business Development Manager.