[IMGCAP(1)]Moving applications and data to an online environment is inevitable.

It’s simply part of the accounting profession’s evolution. If you look at the continuum of change, it becomes clear where next-generation accounting firms are heading. Pencil and paper to green bar reports and manual data entry…DOS to Windows…software CDs to web download…and finally on-premise-based IT solutions to SaaS, or Software as a Service.

The message from thought leaders has been consistent and direct: Get on board with technology, or be left behind. The fact is that more firms are getting on board, though it’s still only a fraction of the broad profession. Those that are adopting advanced technologies in their firms are doing the research and applying the right technologies to create integrated systems that support completely paperless processes. And SaaS has been at the heart of this movement, supplying accounting professionals with easy-to-use, powerful, web-based solutions that turbo-boost operational efficiencies and convenience.

In fact, dedicated Internet-based service providers—leveraging their expert resources and spreading their costs over thousands of customers—can deliver lower cost and far more reliable and secure services.

So, we know that a small percentage of the profession is in a state of transition. But the majority of firms have yet to get on board with SaaS. The biggest issue being that they simply don’t know where to start on their journey to the Cloud.

What Is the Cloud?
Let’s first explore what it means to move to “the Cloud.” There has been a fair amount of confusion around this term, as well as the term Software as a Service (SaaS). And if you don’t know what these are, how can you begin to adopt the technology?

Cloud computing and SaaS are overlapping terms. SaaS is technology that is designed from the ground up to live exclusively on the web. SaaS-based solutions support multiple tenants, meaning users share processing power and database space that is managed by the SaaS provider. The benefits of SaaS are many, which we’ll explore a little later.

The acronym SaaS has slowly morphed into the popular pseudonym, the Cloud. The Cloud is a general term used to describe services (as opposed to applications) that are provided over the Internet. Cloud computing looks like local computing, but the computing power and storage space live solely on the web, just like SaaS.

In a nutshell, here’s the difference in meaning between these two terms: SaaS means web-based applications. Cloud computing means services used by computer programmers and IT gurus to access resources over the web. Many business users, however, use the terms interchangeably to mean “web-based solutions.” To sum it all up, SaaS and the Cloud are both ways of describing solutions that live on the Internet.

The confusion around these terms is important to note because firms can’t be expected to adopt what they don’t understand. And the first step toward making the transition to the Cloud is understanding what it means.

The Value of SaaS—and Getting Over the Fear
The list of benefits associated with SaaS is long and continues to grow. Nonetheless, the biggest obstacle in transitioning to SaaS still seems to be fear. Accounting professionals continue to question whether their data is safe and who has access to it once it moves online.

SaaS is indeed at the center of the next big paradigm shift in the accounting arena, but the actual move to fully web-based software can be scary for those not yet comfortable with data moving out of the walls of their office and into the Cloud. However, the efficiency and convenience that SaaS applications offer cannot be overstated. Consider the benefits:

• Offers Security and Privacy — The SaaS environment is far more secure than maintaining your software and data in-house. Consider the possibility of fire, flood or theft. Once your computers and servers are damaged or gone, so is your data. SaaS securely houses data offsite and provides daily backups and backup tests. Many firms claim to perform data backups, but how many are actually testing the data that is backed up by initiating a restore?

• Lives on the Web — Because SaaS solutions are deployed on the Web, they offer ultimate convenience. Implementation is simplified because there is no hardware to buy and no software to install. Users simply access the service via the Internet and get to work. Whether in the office or working offsite, the service is always available with an internet connection.

• Supports a Paperless Environment—Operating in a paper-heavy environment is costly, not to mention very “un-green.” SaaS supports electronic entry, flow, and delivery of data without requiring a printed document. Going paperless is gaining momentum in the profession, as more firms realize the immense time and cost savings associated with cloud computing.

• Eliminates CDs, Manual Updating, and Need for Hardware—You no longer need to deal with physically boxed software. SaaS solutions are always up-to-date and accessible via the Internet. That means you can say goodbye to ordering CDs, keeping up with hard-copy manuals, managing software updates, and investing in costly hardware or IT staff required to support desktop applications.

• Offers Subscription Service Model vs. Software License—SaaS is offered via affordable monthly or annual subscription rates, depending on the vendor, and is far less costly than software that is licensed. In addition, even larger than the initial cost of traditional software is the expense associated with long-term maintenance of the software and servers, which all goes away with SaaS solutions. Most SaaS vendors offer a fixed monthly or annual fee, so you can easily budget your application costs throughout the year, and there are no up-front costs.

• Enhances the Client-Accountant Relationship—Today’s clients demand service that is convenient. SaaS solutions provide an advanced platform for real-time delivery of services. Via the web, clients can easily view and access their documents without having to wait for an email or fax. Let’s face it; clients have come to expect this level of service. Would anyone really use a bank that didn’t offer online services?

When Is the Right Time for Accounting Firms to Adopt SaaS?
Of the accounting, audit, and tax experts consulted on this topic, the consensus is: The time is now. SaaS is well established in the profession…with many proven solutions available.

The selection of vendors is rich, many of which are established in the profession and viewed as reliable and forward thinking. Well past the “early-adopter” stage, where technology is still new and the risk is higher for users, most of today’s SaaS applications are advanced and have thousands within their user base that praise the convenience and efficiency offered by SaaS.

With the solutions readily available, accounting professionals need to consider the positive impact cloud computing has not only on their firms, but on staff and clients as well.
Implementing SaaS-based solutions puts the right tools in the hands of your staff. Working within a web-based environment supports highly efficient processing and the ability to establish standardized operations, so everyone is following the same procedures.

SaaS also opens the door to working remotely. Staff no longer need to be onsite. They can simply log in online and work from a client’s office, home, or even a plane. And don’t forget the heightened use of mobile devices as productivity tools, like popular electronic tablets. SaaS supports working on the go using these tools. In the end, staff will work more efficiently and appreciate having advanced resources to perform tasks.

Clients benefit as well. Web-based applications support real-time exchange of data and ultimate convenience. Not only can clients access their documents on a 24/7 basis via the Internet, firms can also place other helpful information within SaaS-based portals, including helpful links, notices and articles. Many SaaS solutions offer so much more than document storage and exchange—they provide a platform for extended client communication, which serves to continually strengthen the client-accountant relationship.

A Final Word…
It’s fast becoming a SaaS world. Cloud computing is being discussed in just about every media channel and online forum. Those who have set up shop in the Cloud realize the immense benefits—from working paperless to the convenience of accessing version-current, web-based solutions.

SaaS is at the core of today’s “e” movement. That’s simply where the profession is heading, so getting engaged now is critical. Remember what the thought leaders are saying: Get on board or be left behind. And fear not…today’s SaaS vendors are poised and ready to help you make a smooth transition.

With over 20 years of experience in network security systems and a focus on cloud computing, Eric Pulaski founded SmartVault Corporation in November of 2007, and currently serves as the company's chief executive officer. He has made it his personal mission to deliver a simple, low-cost, paperless SaaS solution to small businesses and accounting firms. He can be reached at eric@smartvault.com.

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