The Verdict Is In

By Andy Jurczyk  |  Posted 2009-12-04

In 2007, when Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal launched what it now calls “the Portal,” the firm had to ensure that its attorneys had continuous access to all of its information, even in the event of problems with power, servers, databases or severe weather. The Portal, the company’s intranet, provides access to all its intellectual property and supports extranet communications with clients.

All legal documents, financial reports and human resources paperwork—literally everything needed by the attorneys and their support staff to practice law and run day-to-day operations—are accessed there. Sonnenschein CIO Andy Jurczyk led the team that launched the project and ensured that continuous access was provided to this business-critical application.

With more than 14 offices in the United States and Europe and more than 25 areas of expertise, the law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP serves the legal and public-interest needs of some of the world’s best known and most admired corporations, nonprofits and individuals. The company, which is headquartered in Chicago, employs approximately 800 attorneys and 800 support professionals.

Not surprisingly, given the demanding nature of our business, Sonnenschein attorneys are generally on call 24/7 to provide services to their clients. Without access to what we call “the Portal,” business comes to a halt. That’s why we had to implement a solution that would ensure continuous access to this business-critical application.

Prior to the Portal, we relied on core business systems with a homegrown intranet to access the vital documents, intelligence and communications crucial for our business operations. This method required us to use an array of disparate programs, each with a different user interface and corresponding training requirements.

This wasn’t scalable from a user perspective, and although these systems were backed up, there was still the risk of very disruptive downtime caused by external factors, including hardware failures or disasters. We needed to ensure continuous access to all our critical systems, even if a planned or unplanned outage was affecting the IT servers.

Sonnenschein is committed to making technology investments that improve productivity and client communications and support growth. We recognized that our home-grown intranet was a roadblock, so we embarked on a project to implement a new system. We needed a completely new IT model that would aggregate data, standardize the interface, automate complex workflows, and provide continuous and reliable access regardless of time or location.

Uninterrupted Access

One of the imperatives in the project was providing our attorneys with the ability to access legal documents anytime, anywhere—even from an Apple iPhone through a secure VPN.

To maximize the service we provide our clients, and to increase productivity and competitiveness, we created the Portal using Microsoft SharePoint. The Portal also hosts the extranet, which is the attorneys’ communication hot line to live and historical client discussions. We selected SharePoint because using the technology was just as easy as searching on the Web, and it would not require any training because it was similar to Microsoft Office.

To make this application even easier to use, we scrapped our existing user interfaces and created one interface across all applications. This would help streamline IT operations while cutting down on user training.

One of the most important requirements for the Portal was to ensure we could provide 24/7 availability to our attorneys. This meant that the Portal needed to be completely isolated from outages affecting IT, whether planned or unplanned. It was crucial that it be resilient and reliable.

The mandate from the top is that any amount of downtime is simply unacceptable. We needed a proven solution to ensure consistent uptime at our data centers in Chicago and Indiana, both of which are “hot,” which means they are running production systems. Both of these facilities simultaneously deliver access to mission-critical application services and are subject to routine maintenance. In an emergency, such as a tornado or power outage, one data center needs to be able to seamlessly host the entire business so the staff can have continuous access to business-critical information.

High Availability

To protect the Portal from downtime, we needed a solution that provided high-availability and disaster recovery. My team and I conducted an extensive review of several products, but we found that most were incapable of fully protecting our SharePoint environment because they were unable to replicate its indexing system.

We chose Neverfail software because it is a resilient and reliable high-availability solution that could guarantee the Portal’s seamless integrity. Additionally, we found that the product got great reviews from some other companies that were using it for SharePoint.

We selected a continuous-availability solution that proactively monitors the health of the entire SharePoint environment, including physical server hardware, network infrastructure and operating system. If a problem should occur, our solution would take a variety of pre-emptive, corrective actions without resorting to a full-system failover. In extreme cases, a nondisruptive, seamless failover to the secondary server can occur automatically—and transparently to users.

To get a better understanding of the environment, we conducted our own installation. Over a period of several weeks, we tested the product and completed the installation. During that time, we worked with the technical support team to ensure that any issues could be resolved quickly. An important part of the process was the level of support we received.

The Neverfail protection of the Portal went live in December 2007. Since then, we’ve had only one unplanned instance of downtime, which was caused by a network failure. The technology performed so seamlessly that we never knew about the failover. Today, we regularly conduct switchovers for routine maintenance and patch updates—without a glitch.

Since deploying the Portal, we’ve improved efficiency and productivity, and the ROI has been impressive. For example, one of our largest clients was looking to outsource extranet functions to a third-party vendor at a considerable cost. After comparing the Portal’s capabilities with that of the outsourced solution, our client chose our Portal for its advanced search and self-service features, as well as its ease of use.

With the addition of new attorneys and increased usage of the Portal, it has become the key resource for day-to-day operations, making availability an unquestionable necessity for the firm. With the high-availability disaster recovery solution protecting this application, we are confident that the Portal is protected against downtime—no matter what the cause. This ensures that our legal team has continuous access to business-critical documents and customer information anytime, anywhere.

Andy Jurczyk is CIO at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, a law firm headquartered in Chicago.