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Up In the Clouds: eDiscovery's Move to the Cloud

By Rachel McAdams posted 10-16-2023 10:00


Please enjoy this blog article posted on behalf of the author, Jeff Jarret, Director of Innovation, Sky Discovery.

Since the 1990s, the domain of Electronic Discovery and Disclosure, commonly referred to as eDiscovery, has evolved into a crucial component of litigation, dispute resolution, and investigations. In its early days, eDiscovery entailed the meticulous task of sifting through extensive electronic data via eDiscovery software installed on local servers, colloquially known as "Tin." These servers were typically procured by law firms, corporations, or eDiscovery vendors. However, around the mid-2010s, a pivotal shift occurred in the eDiscovery landscape as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure reached critical mass and began offering viable virtual server rental services as an alternative to acquiring and hosting traditional server hardware. This marked the advent of what we now commonly refer to as "The Cloud."

Sky Discovery's Transition to the Cloud 

In 2015, Sky Discovery emerged as a firm founded by four seasoned eDiscovery professionals, and a significant driving force behind its establishment was the allure of cloud computing. Three primary catalysts motivated our shift to the cloud:

1. Minimal Capital Outlay 

Historically, launching an eDiscovery service necessitated a substantial upfront investment in Tin hardware, often reaching seven figures. This substantial initial expenditure typically meant that eDiscovery services were primarily introduced as extensions of existing organizations. In other words, these services were often associated with scan/copy/print shops, law firms, and accounting or professional services firms. 

Sky Discovery, however, distinguished itself by embarking on its journey as an entirely new business venture with limited capital resources. The cloud allowed us to commence operations by renting servers for a modest monthly fee, aligning expenditures with revenue generation. This strategic approach allowed the company's ownership to remain firmly in the hands of its management, avoiding the imposition of an aggressive financial payback schedule that could undermine service quality.

2. Access to Cutting-Edge Global Technology 

In the traditional eDiscovery landscape, professionals typically gained access to new features when the eDiscovery software they employed rolled out updates. Often, it took an additional 24 months for these features to mature enough for reliable use in legal disputes. By transitioning to the cloud, we gained direct access to AWS and Azure, platforms renowned for their frequent release of new features, sometimes as frequently as monthly. Noteworthy examples of these features include: 

·         Photo Search: This feature enables the identification of objects within photos, making them text searchable. 

·         Enhanced OCR: Offering superior quality compared to out-of-the-box eDiscovery software, including the ability to recognize handwriting or historic documents dating back more than 50 years. 

·         Translation: Native translation capabilities across all major languages, with support for original and translated native hosting, as well as custom glossary support. 

·         ChatGPT and Conceptual Analytics: Leveraging traditional machine learning algorithms, like Continuous Active Learning (CAL), and harnessing cutting-edge large language models such as ChatGPT. 

3. A Clean Technological Slate

The decision to migrate to the cloud and harness its benefits often rests on an organization's ability to recoup its initial investment in the previous generation of technology. Until this investment has been fully amortized, organizations may find themselves tied down by financial, staffing, contractual, or other commitments, making it challenging to adopt newer, potentially more efficient technologies. 

We tried to navigate this hurdle by committing to exclusively operate in the cloud in 2015, effectively leapfrogging the constraints imposed by existing technology investments and gaining a valuable head start.

Considerations in Moving to the Cloud Today 

Many organizations offering eDiscovery services still rely on traditional Tin-based solutions. The decision to transition eDiscovery operations to the cloud is a strategic one that involves several critical considerations. Here are some of the key factors that organisations contemplate when making this pivotal decision:

1. Security and Data Privacy 

For legal professionals, data security and privacy are paramount concerns. Leading cloud providers like AWS and Azure invest heavily in security measures, often exceeding the capabilities of individual organizations. It is noteworthy however that most security assessments primarily focus on the organisation contracting the services and not the underlying tech provider. Several crucial aspects of information security have emerged: 

·         Network Segmentation: Separating client data from organizational data through remote desktop or FTP access provides an additional layer of protection against email-based threats. 

·         Proactive Server Monitoring: Preventing mass encryption of documents on company servers or large data downloads can effectively thwart encryption, ransomware attacks, or data breaches. 

·         Staff Security Training: Regular, high-quality security training for all staff members can be instrumental in averting security breaches. 

The eDiscovery industry has witnessed high-profile data breaches in recent years, underscoring the inconsistency in security controls across providers. To validate their security credentials, many organizations opt for security accreditation. Many organisations now see the need for certification - like the ISO27001 certification - to assure clients of their security credentials. We committed in 2021 a significant amount of human and financial resources to achieve this certification, but we think it is essential going forward.

2. Platform Options 

We’ve seen the cloud become a good thing for customers of eDiscovery service providers because it broadens their choices. Overall, Cloud-based eDiscovery now offers multiple and varied platform options for organisations to choose from: 

·         Managed Service Solutions from eDiscovery Providers: These solutions vary among eDiscovery providers but allow organisations to outsource IT support while benefiting from advanced eDiscovery consulting expertise, training, and tailored technology solutions. This option is well-suited for small to midsize organisations with a smaller data footprint and a limited in-house eDiscovery team. 

·         Product-Specific Cloud-Based eDiscovery Platforms: Platforms like RelativityOne, which launched in 2018 and has garnered significant market share, offer cloud-based eDiscovery services based within Azure. Hosting with RelOne provide the advantage of having their IT team troubleshoot performance or downtime issues. While the usage fees may be higher compared to hosting directly with AWS or Azure, they are typically lower than those associated with eDiscovery vendors. This option is suitable for organizations with a small to midsize data footprint and substantial in-house consulting expertise. 

·         Hosting Directly with AWS or Azure: This approach is typically adopted by larger eDiscovery providers with significant in-house IT, consulting, and development resources. These providers usually handle substantial data volumes, justifying the overhead of staffing expertise. 

We opted to host directly in AWS in 2015 and continue to do so. We’ve found this model continues to be the most cost-effective for handling large data volumes. It certainly worth noting that a solution like RelOne would have been appealing to a start-up like us had it been available in 2015. The ability to host data in the cloud, without having to expend capital on hardware for on-premise solutions allows smaller providers to enter the market and compete on an equal footing. 

3. Data Migration 

Transferring substantial volumes of data from on-premises servers to the cloud can be a complex endeavour. Beyond merely dealing with data volume, the intricacies of migrating workflows and features used in each case, including searches, redactions, audit histories, permissions, and more, can pose formidable challenges during transitions between server and cloud environments or between different eDiscovery products. The market has seen specialized eDiscovery providers develop specific tools designed to facilitate this migration journey. For instance, we developed a suite of tools tailored to Ringtail (now Nuix) to enable conversions to and from other products, owing to the extensive use of Ringtail in Australia.

Is a Move to the Cloud Inevitable for eDiscovery? 

While the cloud has become an increasingly compelling option for eDiscovery, its adoption is not necessarily inevitable for every organization. The decision to migrate to the cloud hinges on an organization's unique requirements, available resources, and risk tolerance. Some entities, particularly those with rigorous data security mandates or specific compliance needs, such as government agencies or major financial institutions, may opt to maintain on-premises eDiscovery solutions. 

However, for a substantial number of organizations, the advantages of the cloud are simply too compelling to overlook. Cloud-based eDiscovery offers the flexibility to adapt to evolving demands, provides access to state-of-the-art technology, and can ultimately yield cost savings over the long term. Our early embrace of cloud technology in 2015 marked a significant milestone in the evolution of eDiscovery, catalysed by major tech firms. While transitioning to the cloud necessitates careful consideration of factors such as security, data privacy, technology alignment, integration, and data migration, it has progressively become the industry norm for legal organizations.