By Joanie Mann
Internet-based computing was once seen more as a fad than a solid business decision. But the Internet and connectivity, Web-based applications, and the infrastructure necessary to deliver - securely - these services has matured to a level where small and large businesses alike can participate safely and cost-effectively. Internet-based computing has become an important component of collaborative working environments, and your business can leverage these resources to work better with your clients and staff, increase time and cost efficiencies in your business, and subsequently increase your profitability and profit potential.
Following is a brief discussion of the four major "methods" of using the Internet to work closer with your clients: (1) e-mail or file transfers, (2) remote control/remote access, (3) Web-based applications, and (4) virtual desktop computing.
There are a wide variety of online accounting "solutions" available today. Choose the service that works best for you and your business client. One way is not always the only or best way - evaluate the benefits of each solution or method, and apply the best one to each client engagement.
E-Mail or File Transfers
This is not a new method, really... it's just a new tool. The original method of file transfer was going to the client office and getting their data on a floppy disk. E-mail saves you the travel time. The problems that can be encountered with this method are many, including:
- Data Incompatibility - there could be different versions of the app on your machine vs the client machine
- Data Corruption - files can become corrupted in transit or by the e-mail system
- Virus Infection - e-mail systems are a prime target for computer viruses, or the data could be infected
- Speed - sending a big file over a slow connection can be incredibly time consuming
- Version Control - how do you keep the client from entering data while you're adjusting a copy of their data file?
- Lack of Data Management - are quality, regular data backups being performed? Restore tested?
- Lack of Convenience and Effectiveness - can your client really be effective if they can't do their accounting while the file is in your hands? Do you get any benefit if you can only work on the file when it's convenient for the client, and not for you?
Using an online backup service may provide essentially the same benefits as e-mailing the file, but can provide additional levels of security and protection for the in-transit data (as well as being a backup storage location)
Remote Control or Remote Access
This method of working with clients has been a favorite for quite some time - ever since modems and PCAnywhere came about. This saves you the travel time, and working directly on the client file and application eliminates the compatibility issues. You'd better be somewhat of a technology "guru", however, because most of these solutions require specialized utilities and programs that must be installed and configured on both computers in order to function.
- Data corruption and virus infection are still very prevalent risks in this environment, especially if you are working on an inconsistent connection while handling the client's application and data.
- Using Internet-based remote control/remote access services such as GoToMyPC can represent a better solution that PCAnywhere, but it doesn't eliminate the fact that the host computer must always be logged in and connected to the Internet (security!). And, if the PC power goes out, you've got nothing to connect to. Using Windows IP tunneling or RAS (remote access services) can provide the same type of capability, but are more dependent on the speed of the connection between the computers, as well as their operating system versions and utilities installed.
- Probably the biggest downside to this method is the lack of effectiveness or efficiency for both you and the client. Again, the client's bookkeeper cannot access the application or data while you are working on it. This means that you can really only work on the file when it's convenient for the client. And if the client has a full-time bookkeeper, is it convenient or reasonable for them to allow you to use their system while they are paying that employee to use it?
Intacct and Oracle Small Business Suite (formerly NetLedger) are the best known Web-based full-featured accounting and business applications available. Intuit has QuickBooks for the Web, but it's lack of features and capability render it somewhat less of a competitor. Both Intacct and Oracle SBS have a great deal of capability and integrated functionality. Because of their Internet-based architecture, it is easier for you and the client to work when and where you need to. And creating an integrated business system is facilitated by housing all the company information systems within a single infrastructure or application service. Security and network protection is probably far better with these ASPs that in your own computing infrastructure.
The barriers to adopting these types of systems are generally:
- Lack of familiarity with the application. The systems have not existed for very long (relatively speaking) and do not have the historic use or embedded user bases that desktop applications may have. They typically do not have as well-established support networks, either (like the Intuit Advisor and QuickBooks Consultants programs).
- Application behavior is "different". This is not necessarily bad, but it does represent a significant change for most users. Windows-based desktop applications and database-driven Web-based applications use different types of interfaces and technologies, and don't necessarily provide the same "user experience". For high-speed data entry, the Web-app rarely performs as well as the desktop app.
- Data extraction can be problematic. You can usually export data for reporting, etc., but you typically can't just get a data "file". Consequently, you may not be able to easily get all the data out once it's put in. This makes the adoption of a Web application a life choice decision for many businesses.
- Ability to function is completely dependent upon Internet connectivity. This is the case with all Internet-based services, so it puts an additional requirement on the business to utilize quality connectivity services rather than the lowest cost available.
Virtual Desktop Computing
This is probably not technically the most accurate name for this method of computing, but it's the best as far as representing what it really IS to the user. Using technologies that have been around for many years, this environment is similar to the timeshare or service bureau systems of the past. You use a terminal - in this case a device or computer connected to the Internet and running a compatible browser - and connect to your computing environment.
The Virtual Desktop computing environment is a Windows desktop environment. It provides Windows-based applications, file and print services, and other network services typically found in a business - but the servers and the workstation services are hosted and managed inside the software provider's data center. The user need only have browser-capable machines and Internet connectivity.
The workstation environment, the applications, the storage servers and the data, the backup and anti-virus - everything the network needs is managed by the provider.
This environment offers the best of both worlds - the applications and familiar working environment you need and the flexibility for both you and your client to access the system from anywhere at any time.
- Data Incompatibility Eliminated - there are no different versions of the applications, since you and your client (or team members) are working on exactly the same system in real-time.
- Data Corruption Avoided - files do not need to be moved or converted, just shared in real-time.
- Protected from Virus Infection - the hosted system is protected with fully-managed proactive virus protection services.
- Speed Issues Mitigated - files do not need to be transferred, and the bandwidth requirements to use a virtual desktop are quite low (50K per user on average).
- Version Control No Longer An Issue - you and your clients are both working on the same file at the same time. You can review and adjust open periods while the client is actively entering current data.
- Complete Data Management - the hosted system is regularly backed up and tested, and archive sets are stored in secure, offsite locations.
- No Sophisticated Technology Required - just an Internet connection and a browser are necessary to connect to and fully utilize the service.
- No Special Training Required - you and your clients already know how to use Windows and, as an example, QuickBooks Pro.
- Get All Your Data Any Time - since it's the real desktop application and you have access to the data file, you can keep copies of it on your local machine whenever you want. This gives you, and your client, the assurance you can get to your data even if your Internet connection goes down.
- Total Convenience and Effectiveness - you and your client can be more effective and efficient by working when you need to from anywhere you need to be. Business owners can review their books from the comfort of their own home or while on vacation... you can access the client data files when it's convenient for YOU.
Joanie Mann is Vice President of Strategic Alliances for InsynQ, Inc., and has over 25 years of experience in business process automation, information technology design and implementation, and information systems management. InsynQ is an ASP (application service provider) and MSP (managed services provider) offering online business applications and information technology management services. Through the e-Accounting business unit (www.CPA-ASP.com), InsynQ offers systems and solutions designed specifically to help accounting professionals and their clients work closer together more effectively and efficiently.