Internet-based applications and the words application service provider have a bad sound to a lot of people, following the dot-com bust, but not to Matt Camden. "I am a big fan of the ASP," says Camden. "Why does it work in 2005 and not in 2000? Data bandwidth is cheap. Now, there is security in place to let regular Internet access be acceptable. Now, we have applications that are Web-enabled rather than having to support a remote client or Citrix implementation."
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Camden, chief information officer of UHY Advisors, has an opportunity in the selection of technology that few business people ever get. Because UHY, formerly known as Centerprise Advisors, is amalgamating a number of CPA firms, he heads the effort to choose technology standards.
There has been a lot of work to do. The offices used a confusing array of networks and email systems, along with a wide variety of applications.
McCowan: Putting the Web to Work|
Although Ryan McCowan had been using portals to let clients access information for some time, his London, Ky.-based firm turned to Web-based applications only recently.
The firm, Greene & McCowan, had the usual array of tax and accounting applications, along with a cumbersome system for backup and disaster recovery that included a Terminal Server environment.
"I still had to do it all myself," says McCowan. The big problem was backups. He had nightly tape back ups and also burned DVDs each day and took them home.
"I had a portable hard disk that I was taking home so I could have an image of my data," he says. Not only was the task time-consuming, there were those inevitable times that "the back up wouldn't work. There was a bad tape or a bad DVD."
The firm had used Creative Solutions NetClient portals since 2001. Just over a year ago, McCowan began using CSI's Virtual Office to enable the firm to run applications such as UltraTax CS on a hosted platform. CSI also hosts Microsoft Office and it provides the back-up services.
Today's back-up procedure? "I come in in the morning, and log in," he says. Cost saving also played a role in the decision to use hosted applications. With two partners, four full-time employees and one part-timer, "we were looking at something to alleviate the administrative part of handling the software as far as handling updates and maintaining," says McCowan. "I felt in the long-run that with the cost savings of the hardware, we would save money. That seems to be the case."
The firm uses the portals extensively for processing payroll for clients who use CSI's Client Bookkeeping Solution. Clients can enter time and see documents such as W2s. There are 60 portals in use, with some clients using more than one portal.
"We had been using CBS in the DOS days, and there was quite a bit of administration. I had to with PCAnywhere [a remote control package]. I was not just fixing CBS problems, but other products. Moving to NetClient took away all that administration," adds McCowan.
He wanted to standardize quickly and as inexpensively as possible. That meant outsourcing applications, including outsourcing email administration. The only exceptions are those applications that are critical to CPA firms, such as tax applications and practice management. Even then, Camden is looking to use Web-based systems where possible.
UHY's offices had systems, lots of systems. On email, there were two different vendors, Microsoft and GroupWise, but six different systems, with each office having its own. The five firms that have become UHY also had five networks, and different tax preparation and time and billing systems in the five main offices and 14 satellite offices. The Web has been a big part of the rapid consolidation.
The Web has produced very practical results: Camden's view is that the Internet saves the firm a lot of money on technology infrastructure, while such tools can be installed more quickly than trying to load software on servers at widespread offices.
"We are not building a very expensive firm-wide network," says Camden. "We are not building data centers that require capital, data, and staff to run it."
Camden wants to drive the cost of IT per employee down significantly. The industry average is $7,500 per user per year, a range of about 8 to 10 percent of revenue. Camden says he lowered that to between $4,000 and $5,000.
"We are bringing this in at 2.5 percent of the total and $3,500 per user," he says. "We are going to continue to depress that over the next two years to two percent and $2,000 per user."
Among the Web-based applications UHY has adopted are CCH ProSystem fx Global, the Internet-based tax preparation system, and in May, it decided to implement Immediatech's Web-based GoFileRoom for document management.
To that should be added CCH's Tax Research Network, since most research these days is Web-based. Not everything is ideal. Sometimes Global fx was not available, and sometimes the system slowed down during peak periods. "Global fx is still a work in process," Camden admits. "It was demonstrably better this year. But we did not miss a single deadline in the three years we have been on Global fx."
And he hopes that CCH will have a Web-based version of its ProSystem fx Engagement soon. While UHY currently uses the Thomson Elite practice management system, Camden will probably move to ProSystem fx Practice that has also migrated to the Internet.
For the firm's anti-virus effort, which is also scattered, Camden is also looking to the Web. "We had as many anti-virus implementations as we had email systems," he says. Camden was expecting to make a decision by last month on a vendor that can provide anti-virus and Web monitoring.
Most CIOs aren't putting a firm together and aren't able to choose to keep or replace virtually every system that it needs.
And Camden is also more receptive to Web-based applications than are many business people.
But that is changing. As the memory of the dot-com bust recedes and accounting professionals become more comfortable in using the Web, more businesses are turning to the Internet, some very cautiously.
"There are two ways to approach this. There is acceptance to the ASP model. But people are saying, "we don't want our data on the Internet," says John Stein, vice president of Xcentric, an Atlanta-based supplier of Internet services. On the other hand, "They don't like the fact that they can't get to their data anytime and anywhere."
Vendors with Web-based Products|
CCH Tax and Accounting
Microsoft Business Solutions
Similarly, the attitude towards e-commerce has also changed.
"It has taken a long time to get here," says David Harris, CEO of EC Brands, a Novato, Calif.-based company. "The calls we get for the last six to nine months are from the worried president of a small-to-medium-sized company wondering how he can get online immediately."
Up until nine months ago, Harris still saw general skepticism. Why the change?
"It's my opinion that people buy so much online that the strangeness and newness of it has worn off," says Harris.
The number of online products is increasing. Exact Software plans to launch ExactOnline, an ASP version of its e-Synergy application for the SMB market, although only for the European market at present.
Creative Solutions, the Dexter, Mich.-based tax and accounting software vendor, has ramped up online offerings in the last 10 months with WebEmployee, which lets employees access payroll information and update forms, its UltraTax portals, and by one very important move, hosting Microsoft Exchange through its Virtual Office platform. Hosting for Microsoft Office was available in 2003.
Virtual Office has shown slow, but steady growth, although in the last eight months or so, the number of users has grown by 20 to 30 percent, says Teresa Mackintosh, CSI's director of marketing.
"People are just realizing that their time is better spent on accounting and things they know and can be profitable at," says Mackintosh.
Mackintosh believes interest picked up because CSI reached a critical mass in the applications it supports. Particularly, the addition of Exchange means that most critical applications can be accessed through Virtual Office.
The online interest also dovetails with the growing demand for a paperless operation. With the use of CSI's Payroll CS online and WebEmployee, firms can have a completely paperless payroll system, Mackintosh continues.