Letter to the Editor

April 30, 1999

Jon Vogler, Active Backup

Delia Venables’ Ten Tasks for 1999 (Dec/Jan issue) was practical anddown-to-earth advice. But by writing (in this and earlier articles) exclusivelyabout PCs she is creating the problems her advice aims to solve. Phrases like`their networks do not run very well’ or `are people allowed to put disks intotheir own PCs’ or `. . . networked e-mail access which requires a recent versionof Novell or Microsoft NT or `assuming that you have a good modern PC withmodems . . .’ all assume that every legal practice must run on a PC network.Once you start from there the need for a full-time, competent and expensivesystem administrator (Delia calls it a `Network Manager’) follows. Yet it neednot be so.

Several independent analysts have concluded that the total cost of ownershipof networked PC systems is far higher than some of the alternatives. This ispartly because of the need to manage each workstation individually. However itis also partly because of:

  • the universally acknowledged poor reliability of current PC operating systems
  • the unreliability of low-cost hardware
  • the poor support available to anyone who buys computer and operating system from separate vendors
  • the vulnerability and the attractiveness of PCs to hackers
  • the difficulties of remotely solving PC network problems.

Five years ago much of legal computing was UNIX-based, with characterterminals. The sex-appeal of windowing, plus the widespread availability ofcheap Windows software, lured many firms to replace these robust, testedarrangements with PC networks. Yet their typists and book-keepers still touchthe keyboard a hundred times more often than they touch the mouse. It isdoubtful if their corporate productivity has increased to match their increasedIT costs.

There have been good reasons for discontent with UNIX and similar systems inthe past. None of these remains, but the legal industry has not kept up with thetimes. To list a few of the features which enable the good modern UNIX systemsto have equivalent performance with lower total costs of ownership

  • Features of modern systems, such as networking, network file systems, multi-tasking, multi-user access, multi-processing and many more have been built in from the early days. UNIX has been around for a quarter of a century of steady improvement and the problem areas have been understood and solved long ago. With Windows systems these capabilities have been grafted onto the primitive DOS operating system, which did none of these things. Even modern PC operating systems, like Windows NT 4.0, have had to make huge compromises to retain backwards compatibility with DOS and its derivatives. This is one reason why NT 5.0 (Windows 2000) is having such a difficult gestation.
  • Firms like IBM, Sun, Hewlett Packard and many others have melded their hardware and operating systems and undertake to support the whole; not just one component. They discovered that building in quality keeps support costs down so they largely resist the most feckless cost reduction. One result is superb support: phone calls even get returned!
  • The heart of any integrated once system must be the database. Accounting systems, client databases, precedents, legal databases, high quality Web sites, all depend on the underlying database. The solid databases (Oracle, Informix, DB2, etc) grew up on UNIX-like systems. The PC databases (DBase, Access, FoxBase, etc) are far inferior. SQL Server (based originally on Sybase, a UNIX database) is slowly achieving industrial strength but still cannot run big databases.
  • Many of the problems peculiar to PCs (viruses, missed backups, games-playing, local file corruption, unlicensed software) are most easily overcome by the new generation of `thin client’ workstations. These can run all the Windows software on a local processor (so no slow-down when the system is overloaded), yet need no disks of their own and can be entirely centrally administered, with all the benefits of reliable backups, virus checking, disk-space management, etc. That also means remotely administered, so you do not need a system administrator on site. If a workstation goes down even a fee-earner can plug in another and be up and running in two minutes.
  • Finally, there is true competition out there. If you get fed up with Solaris you go to AIX or HP-UX or, if you are truly enterprising, to free Linux. Where can you go when you get fed up with Windows crashing for the nth time? What alternative is there to that sickening `blue screen of death’ displayed after Windows NT goes down? (Check the independent analysts for figures about the comparative down-times of different¡ operating systems.)

A client of mine, solicitors with two sites and perhaps 50 employees, has runthe same two Sun UNIX servers continuously since I installed them in 1992. Theyuse mostly dull, boring character terminals. They have no system administrator -just one super-secretary who looks after the precedents and the backups. I findthem very dull. They have no backup crises, no viruses, no virus checking, nogames playing, no surfing the Web for naughty pictures, no networks to go down,no Windows crashes. They rarely use their modest annual support contract. Allthey do is concentrate on being solicitors, not computer experts, and onchurning out legal work, day after day after day.

They don’t even need to read Delia’s advice.