Imagine if all your clothes and shoes were tailored to your size and shape - with everything fitting like a glove. Would your work clothes be as comfortable as your pajamas? How much less would your feet hurt at the end of the day?Achieving a similar comfort and fit is the draw for those contemplating buying open source code software.
Open source code software is software in which the underlying code is made available to partners, value-added resellers and even end users. The code is left open for anyone to make customizations to fit the needs of the end user. Such customized packages can create an easier life for accountants, as important financial data can be drawn from a system with less of a chance for error.
"The reason we chose AccountMate [an open source code accounting software system] was flexibility," said Jeff Wagoner, who, until recently, served as the accounting and IT manager at Hubner Seed Co. Inc., a supplier of seeds and agricultural technology services in West Lebanon, Ind. "We could then interact our data with other software systems to import data into ours and easily export. The interaction between the two was very significant. And with the way we did our distribution, we needed that capability."
Many of the big players in the accounting software market don't offer open source code software solutions today. Rather, they prefer to partner with third-party developers for features and functions that add on to the original package. However, open source code software providers and their resellers insist that the demand for customizable systems is growing, despite the small number of players in the market.
Steve Jones, chief executive officer for Seattle-based Explore Consulting, a software reseller and consulting firm, has worked with and implemented NetSuite applications, an on-demand accounting software system, for the last five years. Although NetSuite does not provide the source code to the public, Jones has tailored the product to his clients' needs by customizing the code over the years. "We are seeing growth across the board - it's not a size or organization thing," said Jones. "With such unique business models today, you can't get everything you need with packaged software."
AccountMate Software's chief technical officer, Tommy Tan, claimed that his company, which has offered open source code since its inception in 1984, has grown by 10 percent in the last year. Tan also noted that AccountMate resellers have sold the open source code application to some Fortune 100 companies in the last two to three years, a shift from the small and midsized businesses that the software provider normally sees buying its products.
No longer a size 4
However, just as waistlines and feet grow and swell, customized software solutions need upgrades. If end users make too many modifications to the original provider's code, upgrades can turn into a real problem.
"Clearly, upgrades are an issue for anyone exposing source code," admitted Gerald Beaulieu, senior product marketing manager for Sage Software's MAS 90 and 500 enterprise resource planning software systems. (Sage's MAS 500's code can be purchased for modifications.) "There is no practical way to ever preserve the original code once it's been modified. You almost have to have a dictionary of what's been changed and what was there. It's clearly an issue."
And most open source code providers agreed that upgrades for modified systems cost the end user more time and money than using an upgrade for an out-of-the-box solution, but if the end user has found a reputable consultant to perform the modifications, the upgrade need not be a complete disaster.
"It all depends on how the modifications are written. If they are written and interface in a way recognizable to the system and it does not step on the underlying code - people with those modifications have nothing to worry about," said David Link, vice president of product development for OSAS, an open source accounting software from Shakopee, Minn.-based Open Systems Inc. "And we try to help minimize the impact of the upgrades, but of course whenever you modify something, you always have to worry about the upgrades. With proper training you can minimize the effects, but you can never eliminate it."
For end user Josh Clemence, manager of manufacturing at EnvirOx LLC, a mid-market cleaning solutions manufacturer in Danville, Ill., the problem with using a closed or proprietary system was its inability to bend to the company's inventory processes, creating a need for a third-party system. However, the third-party system did not integrate well with the proprietary accounting software.
"The system design did not fit our needs, mainly the inventory process, and we heavily rely on the inventory here, so we basically had to keep inventory on a different system," said Clemence. "We ended up with all these offline systems and trying to converge everything into the accounting system. It was a real mess and not a very efficient way to work."
Because so many processes, primarily the inventory system, were kept separate from the main accounting system, numbers consistently did not reconcile from one system to another. The result was that EnvirOx implemented the AccountMate system. Local AccountMate reseller NexLAN helped the company build its own inventory processes into the AccountMate system.
With the inventory system completely embedded into the ERP system, there was no need for integrating any additional third-party systems, and numbers became more consistent, said Clemence.
Inserting some customization tools in proprietary systems does, however, go a long way, said Sage's Beaulieu, and does not create problems when upgrades are released. For accounting software packages MAS 90 and 500, a tool called the Customizer allows end users to modify labels, change some setting defaults and do some light scripting changes for business processes.
"It's hard to argue if one is better or worse - it's quite dependent on what you want and are trying to accomplish," said Dan Levin, vice president of product management at Intuit, producers of the proprietary accounting software application QuickBooks. "For our over three million customers, most of whom are not technologically sophisticated but who would like to buy add-ons that are unique to their industry or provide additional functionality, they have no ability to do their own customizations. Providing interfaces is thought to be the better choice."
Opening the access for accounting systems so other applications like an outside inventory system can exchange data with the accounting application is something that both sides of the coding debate agree upon.
Such integration tools include interfaces and communication layers like an XML interface, an interface using the universal language for financial software; an open database connectivity layer, a layer in a database that allows it to connect to another idatabase in real-time; or a COM layer, an object-oriented technology that enables software applications to communicate and exchange data.
These layers and interfaces make the integration from one software system to another more seamless and transparent, creating more consistent data within the separate systems. However, die-hard open source fans refuse to consider leaving their totally customizable, all-in-one applications.
"[After] dealing with an open source system, I will never go back to a closed one," declared EnvirOx's Clemence. "There is no doubt about it."
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