by Ted Needleman

Some so-called industry experts have been predicting the demise of the accounting software market for years. While some years have been seen better sales than others, overall the market for accounting software remains a strong one.

While the economy as a whole has seen good and bad times over the past several years, plenty of companies have continued to grow. In many cases, if the company started out with an inexpensive and easy-to-install retail accounting system, they may be really stretching the capabilities of the system.

Many of the popular retail accounting systems are limited as to how many simultaneous users they can support, and with more users needing access to various applications on a real-time basis, overall performance may be lagging. Even those accounting systems that can support 20 or more users usually aren’t built using one of the modern SQL-based database systems. As more and more employees sign onto the accounting system, performance slows way down.

Another reason for the boom in mid-range accounting software is that, as companies get larger, or the economy wanes, your clients have a growing need for more sophisticated business data and analysis. It’s in this area that many of the mid-range accounting applications show their stuff, and justify their increased price. If a more expensive mid-range solution provides your client with better, more timely and more usable data, and as a result they can run their business more effectively and profitably, then the upgrade to a mid-range accounting system is not only worthwhile, but necessary.

More than just price
One obvious difference in the mid-range accounting market is price. At the retail level, you can buy a complete accounting system for under $500 or so. In the mid-range market, accounting systems are invariably modular, and each module starts at about that $500 price or more.

At a minimum, your client will need a system manager module, which provides the core administrative and security features, and a general ledger module, as well as whatever subsidiary ledgers their business requires. Some of your clients will get away with three or four modules, while others may need every module a vendor offers. The end result is that your client gets a system that fits their specific needs.

Selecting the right mix of modules, getting them installed and configured, and training the client’s staff are tasks you can handle yourself or farm out. In most cases, though, you will be involved as a trusted advisor who is knowledgeable about the client’s business.

Most mid-range accounting software is sold through the reseller channel. That ensures that the reseller is well-trained, and minimizes the problems in getting the client up and running. Involving the reseller in the installation, however, also bumps up the total cost of the installation, often considerably.

Even those few vendors that do sell directly maintain a support and consulting channel for their products. Make sure that you know about these options before your client makes a decision. The time to have all of your resources lined up is before you run into a problem. If your client will require customization of the accounting system, they will almost certainly have to involve a knowledgeable reseller in the process.

The road less traveled?
Keep in mind that while we’ve reviewed some of the more popular mid-range accounting offerings in this roundup, there are some other options. Clients who are stretching the limits of QuickBooks may be interested in the $3,500 Enterprise Edition that Intuit introduced last year.

Another alternative that may appeal to some of your clients is the application service provider, or ASP. NetSuite, formerly called NetLedger and owned by database giant Oracle, has online accounting, customer relationship management and other applications available for small and midsized clients. Another ASP that’s gaining popularity is Intacct. Both require that your client have broadband Internet access; otherwise, using either service is like watching grass grow. An ASP such as these can provide low start-up costs, easy scalability, and freedom from backups and software upgrades.

How we tested
Most of the packages we tested will run pretty well on a fairly minimalist computing platform. In past years, we used a variety of small form-factor PCs that we assembled specifically for the job of testing these applications. This year, we had a powerhouse on the test bench.

Needless to say, your clients probably won’t need the 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 system we used, though if your client plans to run the application in server mode, the SATA hard disk drives in RAID array that we used can speed up disk access considerably. You can also set the disk controller to use the pair of hard disks in RAID 1 array, which automatically mirrors the primary hard disk drive onto the secondary drive. With this setting, the data is always secure in the event of a drive failure. We used Windows XP Professional with all of the latest patches and service packs installed for our testing.

Having a high-powered PC for running accounting is nice. More important, however, is not relegating a mission-critical application to an older PC. This practice is still pretty common, using an older system acquired as a result of an upgrade. While the older PC may still have the horsepower to handle the application, it is definitely also more prone to failure simply as a result of its age — not a prime situation for an application that’s critically important.

In fact, with hardware so inexpensive these days, buying a new PC specifically to run an upgraded accounting application is usually a good idea. While you’re shopping, don’t forget to also purchase a uninterruptible power supply, which will also help reduce the likelihood of data loss in the event of a power failure. 

We tested eight popular mid-range packages using the vendor-supplied sample data. Each was installed in single-user form and ran without any problems on our test bed. We used one of the default charts of account provided with the software, and we were usually up and running quickly. Depending upon how complex your clients’ businesses are, they may be up and running as quickly as we were, or it might take days, or longer, to fine-tune the installation.

Most of the vendors that supplied software to us for testing sell exclusively through resellers, largely because of the complexities that may be encountered in configuration and setup. In many cases, it is possible that, between you and the client, you’ll be able to implement the application with no problems. In other cases, having the reseller available to anticipate and troubleshoot any problems, and train the client in the application, can be a lifesaver, and money well spent.

One last thing to consider, especially when moving a client up to the mid-range, is security. All accounting software, including the several-hundred-dollar packages you can buy at Staples, provides some sort of security, usually password protection. The more sophisticated (and usually larger) entities that require the extended capability that mid-range accounting applications provide, also usually require the additional security features provided by those applications. These include multi-level passwords, as well as data encryption. We did not test any of these features, but you will need to sit down with your client and decide what is required in the way of security, and how it will be implemented.

Keep in mind that your client can supplement the existing security features of the application with additional security, such as physically isolating access to the hardware and network, and even reasonably priced biometric access devices such as fingerprint readers.

Accpac Advantage Series
v. 5.2 Small Business Edition
Accpac International Inc.

Pretty soon, most of the major mid-range accounting applications will be under the banner of Best Software. As this review was being written, Accpac was in the process of being acquired by this software behemoth.

Accpac offers two completely different products in the mid-range application space, Advantage and Pro Series, as well as different product levels within each product line. Advantage is the “original” Accpac product, while the Pro Series was the former VisionPoint line. The two product lines are targeted at slightly different markets, with source code available only for the Pro Series products.

The Advantage Series is built around a SQL Server database, and several database products are supported, including IBM’s DB2, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, and the Pervasive.SQL that was included with our review software. Operating system support is available for both Windows and Linux.
SQL can be a pain to set up and configure, but our installation was quick and relatively painless. In most cases, your client’s application will be installed and configured by an Accpac reseller, so you won’t have to worry about this anyway. Using SQL as the database allows the Advantage Series to be easily scaled up when your client requires it. This scalability is further enhanced by the availability of ancillary applications, including CRM, human
resource management, warehouse management and manufacturing, e-commerce, point-of-sale, and project and job costing.

The Advantage Series is available in several editions, with the Enterprise Edition at the top of the heap and the Discovery Edition as the entry-level version. The Small Business Edition we tested is a step up from the Discovery Edition, and can support up to five simultaneous users, as opposed to the Discovery Edition’s three-user maximum. Each user requires a $495 LanPak.

You can upgrade to other editions, with the Enterprise Edition having no limitation (other than the cost of adding users) to the number of users who can simultaneously access the application. The standard modules include the system manager, general ledger, accounts payable and receivable, inventory, order entry, purchase order, payroll, and a multi-currency module.

As with almost every mid-range accounting application, you’ll need a system manager as well as individual application modules. These integrate very well, simply adding additional tasks and reports to the list of those available. You can implement multi-currency and establish your own macro scripts, generating the necessary Visual Basic code automatically.

We also liked the iConnect feature, which allows access to the applications through a Web browser (with the appropriate security features enabled, of course). This lets your client run the application while providing easy access from anywhere. You can, of course, run the applications from the traditional desktop as well, if this suits your clients’ needs better.

Accpac has a long history of mostly positive experience and many thousands of very satisfied users. The Advantage Series holds its own against just about any competitor, especially when you add any required ancillary products.

Accpac Pro Series 7.2 Small Business Edition

Accpac’s other major mid-range product lineup is the Pro Series, now in its v. 7.2 release. You might think that Accpac is competing with itself, but the Pro Series does have some differences that make it more (or less) attractive to certain users.

As with the Advantage Series, the Pro Series is available in different editions, with the Enterprise Edition offering the source code for the applications so that they can be customized to meet your client’s specific requirements. The Pro Series is written in Microsoft’s Visual FoxPro, and can run under this database system or Microsoft’s SQL Server. The price is the same for each of the application modules (system manager, GL, AR, AP, inventory, purchase order, order entry, and payroll) regardless of the multi-user access method, but individual licenses are more expensive for the Microsoft SQL version.

The Pro Series has a completely different look and feel than Advantage. It’s a bit less snazzy, but very usable and easy to navigate. The version we tested used the FoxPro access method, and installation was very easy. Accpac can provide the FoxFire report generator so that you or your clients can easily configure ad hoc custom reports. 

As with the Advantage Series, the Pro Series has a long list of ancillary applications and add-ons, including manufacturing features such as bill of materials. We also think a lot of clients might benefit from the analytical capabilities provided by Accpac Insight, though the standard business status report and other comprehensive reports might well do the job without any add-ons. The one place where your client might find the Pro Series a bit weaker than Advantage is if they need warehousing capability.

The last version of the Pro Series ran multi-user only with the multi-user version of FoxPro. This version maintains that compatibility, but you can also purchase a Microsoft SQL Server version as well, though the LanPak per-user licenses are a bit more expensive for this version.

Where the Pro Series really shines, though, is in the availability of the source code for the applications. You’ll need a programmer experienced in FoxPro coding, and modifying a working (and tested) application is something that should never be done lightly. The capability, however, is there if your client needs or wants it. Source code is only available with the Enterprise version of the software, though, not with the Small Business Edition.

AccTrak21 v. 11.5
AccTrak21

AccTrak21 is the “new guy” on the block, though only in this country. Established in 1992 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the company has resellers in more than 15 countries.

As with most mid-range accounting software vendors, AccTrak21 does not sell directly to your clients, but through a reseller network that includes some CPA and accounting firms. Although final pricing is set by the reseller, and usually has additional training and set-up charges built in, the base system, which includes the system manager, GL, AR, AP and cash management modules, as well as the Sysbase ASA database with a two-user license, sells for about $2,000.

We did not notice any obvious performance differences with the Sybase database compared to the Microsoft SQL Server or Pervasive.SQL databases used with many of the other products we tested.

We found the base system very comprehensive. It installed easily, and we had no difficulty maneuvering through the applications. The interface is attractive and well-thought-out, though occasionally a bit sparse. There’s a well-implemented Business Intelligence Wizard that can provide your client with a quick snapshot of important company data. Your client has a lot of flexibility in report design and appearance, though the Layout Designer has some known issues that AccTrak21 is aware of and addressing.

One area that AccTrak21 has obviously paid a lot of attention to is interfacing the application with online and wireless access devices. With optional modules, a client can provide staff members (and you) with remote access to data through the Internet or even a cell phone.

There is also a rich selection of additional applications for AccTrak21. These include a distribution module that has sales, purchases, inventory, CRM and even practice management. 

At the moment, resellers of AccTrak21 are still somewhat hard to find, so you may wind up having to become one yourself if you and your client decide that AccTrak21 is the right way to go for them.

Best BusinessWorks Gold 4 Standard Edition
Best Software

With all of the acquisitions that Best Software has made in the past several years, it’s likely that you’ll wind up with one of its products regardless of which accounting software market segment you happen to be shopping in. With Accpac the latest member of the Best Software family (or soon to be), this giant has three of the eight products, or 37.5 percent of the reviews in this roundup! And that’s without even counting its Peachtree or MAS offerings.

BusinessWorks Gold 4 falls somewhere in the middle of Best Software’s lineup, though it’s at the more entry-level end of the mid-range market. As with almost all mid-range accounting applications, BusinessWorks Gold is sold as a modular system, though several different bundles are available, with pricing starting at $995 for a bundle that includes the system manager, GL and several other applications. Individual applications can be added for a very reasonable $595 each. 

BusinessWorks Gold is built on the Pervasive.SQL database engine, and the Standard Edition we tested is intended for up to four users, with a Client Server Edition available if you anticipate that your client will need to have more simultaneous users. Additional users (beyond one) are added by purchasing user licenses, with one additional user license costing $1,595 on the Standard Edition we tested, and a three-user license costing $1,895. On the Client Server Edition, each user adds $595 to the cost, and five-user and 10-user license packs are available for $1,495 and $2,695 respectively.

These prices are, of course, before your reseller adds in any additional fees for installation, customization and training. We didn’t find BusinessWorks difficult to install or use, but depending on the client, it may be cost effective to pay for set-up and configuration.

Depending on your client, you may find BusinessWorks Gold a bit light in the manufacturing area. The inventory module does provide some bill of materials and kitting, but many manufacturing and distribution entities will need more capability and features than are available in the software.

On the other hand, this release of BusinessWorks Gold has added a job cost module, and has really nice e-business features. These include remote access via the Internet and the ability to e-mail forms and invoices. Reporting has been improved with new reports such as consolidated cash flow, and the system now supports integrated backup to CDs.

BusinessVision Management Systems BusinessVision32
Standard Edition Softline

With the U.S. and the world moving to a more global economy, it’s no surprise that accounting software developed overseas is finding a ready home on these shores as well. That’s the case with several of the vendors that have products in this roundup. The parent company of BusinessVision is Softline, a South African software developer. Softline also owns AccountMate Software, though that subsidiary is in the process of being acquired by Best Software. AccountMate is targeted to the upper end of the mid-range market, with a solid client/server design, while BusinessVision’s four editions are very competitive with the other products in this roundup.

As with a number of applications from other vendors, BusinessVision is available in different editions, though the core applications are the same. This makes it easy to scale up as your client grows and needs more capability and the ability to add more simultaneous users.

We reviewed the Standard Edition, which supports up to five concurrent users right out of the box, and can be expanded to 10-user support by purchasing an optional LAN pack. The SQL Client-Server Edition, which is the top of the line, can handle an unlimited number of users (provided you purchase the requisite licenses) and adds fault-tolerant features so that the database is not compromised by a power or hardware failure.

The Standard Edition that we looked at has 18 modules, including the system manager, GL, AR, AP, inventory, order entry, point-of-sale, sales analysis, bank reconciliation, purchase order, purchase analysis, job cost, bill of materials, budgets and forecasts, file validation, import/export, and a reporting suite. As you might surmise from some of the module titles, BusinessVision32 has excellent analysis and report capabilities. As the system is built using the Pervasive.SQL database, you can enhance and customize these with Crystal Reports. Also included are export links to CRM applications including Outlook, ACT! 2000, GoldMine, and Maximizer.

Softline also offers a considerable line of optional modules and features for BusinessVision32. These include a multiple currency manager and an e-commerce component called e-BusinessVision.

Our set-up was clean and quick. Tasks are represented by icons arrayed across the top of the screen. While these were not always intuitive, pop-up explanations appear if you leave the cursor on top of an icon. With a few minutes of experience, we had no trouble navigating the application.

As with most of the packages in this roundup, BusinessVision32 is sold by resellers. They set the prices, but a basic single-user package starts in the $1,000 neighborhood before any additional fees for installation, training or customization. That’s very much in line with other vendors’ offerings, and quite reasonable for what you get.

Cougar Mountain Accounting v. 8.0
Cougar Mountain

Cougar Mountain is somewhat unusual compared to the other mid-range accounting vendors detailed here. For one thing, it’s the only product in this roundup that your client can buy without having to go to a reseller. Cougar Mountain does have a reseller network, but it made its name and reputation in the direct sales market, and still makes a large portion of its sales through this channel. If your client will need additional training and other support, it is available, including training classes conducted directly by Cougar Mountain.

As with the other mid-range applications that we tested, Cougar Mountain Accounting is a modular system. The base system includes the system manager, GL, AR, AP and order entry, as well as a data exchange utility and a report writer; optional modules include a nicely designed point-of-sale, payroll, multiple-location inventory, job cost, e-commerce, and several vertical applications such as nonprofit accounting and an accounting system for bars.

It’s a bit difficult to classify Cougar Mountain Accounting. In some respects, it’s a bit more entry-level than most of the other products in this roundup. Reports are usable and readable, but they aren’t very fancy. The R&R Report Writer is useful in generating ad hoc reports, but seems a bit more cumbersome to use than F9 or Crystal Reports. This may be a problem, as one of the reasons that many clients move to a mid-range accounting system is for more sophisticated analytical capabilities. Cougar Mountain is a strong accounting system, but on some levels, it’s just not as capable in producing the analysis necessary for more sophisticated business management.

Another shortcoming is that the software is not built on top of one of the more scalable databases, such as Microsoft or Pervasive.SQL. This makes scaling up difficult, and if your client outgrows the software, they will face a conversion to another product, rather than an upgrade.

On the other hand, Cougar Mountain Accounting is a good choice for the client who is not going to be satisfied with a standard off-the-shelf accounting solution, but doesn’t want a full-blown mid-range solution.

Cyma Financial Management System v. 6
Cyma Systems

Founded in 1980, Cyma Systems will be celebrating its 25th anniversary next year. The previous version (FMS v. 5) was a major upgrade, and this latest version is primarily a polish of features and bug fixes. As with the other mid-range applications, FMS is a modular system. Available modules are the system manager, GL, AR, AP, payroll, job costing, purchase order and bank reconciliation. A separate $295 MICR module provides MICR check printing capability to the payroll and AP modules. If your client generates a lot of checks, or prints checks from multiple accountants and/or banks, this is a very nice feature to have.

Cyma really doesn’t bundle applications — your client simply buys the modules they need, toting up $495 for each of them. There’s also a nonprofit version of FMS for clients that require it, and even a client write-up version (which adds after-the-fact payroll) for your office.

FMS v. 6 is easily scalable as your client grows. It’s built on the Pervasive.SQL 8 engine, so adding user licenses, or even changing from the Workgroup to the Enterprise version of the database, is all that’s needed to accommodate more users.

Where FMS may not meet your client’s needs is in the areas of inventory, manufacturing or distribution. Cyma does not offer its own modules for these subsidiary applications, but has partnered with third-party vendors. Depending upon how comfortable you feel with this approach, you may want to select a vendor that can provide a more complete and comprehensive solution, should your client require this.

Reports are nicely laid out, but other vendors’ offerings seem more comprehensive. Still, you can use standard report-generating applications such as Crystal Reports to create ad hoc or custom reports, or modify the ones included in the Cyma modules.

Additionally, Cyma’s FMS has a very inexpensive per-module price structure, and is well designed and easy to use. You can buy the software and ancillary services through a reseller, but you don’t have to. Many clients will be able to install and configure the software with just your assistance.

Open Systems Traverse Business Edition v. 10.1
Open Systems Inc.

As with several other vendors in the mid-range market, Open Systems has been in business for several decades. In fact, the original accounting product offered by this vendor was in Business Basic, and ran on minicomputers, not PCs. That original application, the Open Systems Accounting Software, or OSAS, is still available, though of course it bears little relation to its namesake.

Traverse is the vendor’s graphical accounting application, and has been available for quite a few years. The version we tested, 10.1, is the same version we looked at last year, though improvements and bug fixes are made on an ongoing basis throughout the year that have not necessitated a major revision.

As with many of the other products we looked at for this roundup, Traverse is available in several versions, depending upon which version of SQL you choose. The Enterprise Edition runs under the full Microsoft SQL Server, while the Business Edition that we tested runs under the desktop version of Microsoft’s SQL. Using SQL as the underlying database, whether Microsoft’s version as Open System uses, or Pervasive’s SQL, which is used by several other vendors, makes scaling up simply a matter of purchasing additional user licenses. The software itself is the same whether you have two simultaneous users or 200. 

Our review software was accompanied by no printed documentation, and for some reason, the PDF documentation files on the installation CD were unreadable by our copy of Adobe Acrobat. This made configuring SQL a much more arduous task than it should have been. We experienced this problem with Traverse two years ago as well, though last year we were up and running very smoothly with the exact same version of the application. This just goes to show that spending the money for installation and configuration assistance, especially when you are having mid-range software such as this installed at your client, can save a lot of frazzled nerves and hours of wasted time.

It’s also the reason that all of these products are sold only through authorized (and well-trained) resellers. Once we had SQL correctly configured, the rest of the installation went smoothly. 

We liked the latest version of Traverse when we looked at it last year, and since nothing major has changed, we still do. Version 10.1 has an excellent basic configuration of available modules, including the ubiquitous system manager, GL, AP, AR, payroll, bank reconciliation, inventory, sales order and purchase order.

Manufacturing entities will appreciate the bill of materials and kitting modules, and there’s a fixed asset module to let your clients keep track of this important aspect of their business.

E-commerce modules are also available as an option, and allow your clients to set up online shopping and customer service. Also available are several vertical versions, including one for service companies, retail point-of-sale, and nonprofits.

Traverse’s interface is clean and easy to navigate through, with logical menu structures. You’re clients will have no trouble quickly getting up to speed with it.

VENDOR INFORMATION

Accpac Advantage Series v. 5.2 Small Business Edition
Accpac International Inc.
6700 Koll Center Pkwy.
Pleasanton, Calif. 94566
(800) 808-7000
www.accpac.com
Pricing: $495 per module, plus $495 per user for LanPak. Accpac Pro Series v. 7.2 Small Business Edition — $995 per module; LanPak (Microsoft SQL Server) — $1,295 per user; Visual FoxPro — $995 per user.


AccTrak21 v. 11.5
AccTrak21 USA Inc.
32837 360th Avenue
Lake City, Minn. 55041
(888) 595-8460
www.acctrak21.com
Pricing: Varies with reseller; starts at $2,000 for two-user system.


Best Software BusinessWorks Gold 4 Standard Edition
Best Software Inc.
56 Technology Dr.
Irvine, Calif. 92618
(800) 447-5700
www.bestsoftware.com/businessworks
Pricing: $995 for single-user core bundle (includes system manager, general ledger, accounts payable and receivable, and one-year maintenance). Other bundles are available. Other single application modules available at $595. Multi-user licenses available.


BusinessVision32 Standard
Edition BusinessVision
Management Systems
Softline

81 Digital Drive
Novato, Calif. 94949
(415) 884-5700
www.businessvision.com
Pricing: From $995, depending on version and number of users.


Cougar Mountain Accounting for Windows v. 8.0
Cougar Mountain Software
7180 Potomac Dr.
Boise, Idaho 83704
(800) 388-3038
www.cougarmtn.com
Pricing: $1,599 (single-user); multi-user licenses priced from $2,099, depending on number of users.


Cyma Financial Management System v. 6
Cyma Systems Inc.

2330 West University Drive, Suite 7
Tempe, Ariz. 85281
(800) 292-2962
www.cyma.com
Pricing: $495 per module, single-user (system manager, GL, AP, AR, payroll, bank reconciliation); $295 for MICR check printing.


Traverse Business Edition 10.1
Open Systems Inc.

1157 Valley Park Dr.
Shakopee, Minn. 55379
(952) 403-5700
www.osas.com
Pricing: Determined by reseller; starts at approximately $300 per application in single-user mode.

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