Lots of businesses are using entry-level accounting software bought at retail, and find that these packages do the job nicely. At some point, however, it's likely that your clients' businesses will grow to the point where these store-bought solutions no longer do the trick.There are lots of reasons why this can happen. One of the more frequent reasons is that there are more staff in the business who need simultaneous access to the accounting application. Most of the entry-level systems available today are limited to only a few simultaneous users, which presents a problem if you have a client who needs to provide access to 10, 20 or even more users.

There are other ways that clients outgrow an accounting package. As a business grows, it's also likely that the transaction volume will increase. With today's fast PCs, a modest increase in transaction volume probably won't nuke your clients' accounting systems, but at some point performance will start to suffer, often to the point where it becomes bothersome or even impacts productivity.

Many of today's mid-range accounting packages address both of these problems by using an underlying database, such as SQL, that is able to handle large numbers of transactions and can also be easily scaled up from just a few users to 100 or more. This can often be accomplished by simply purchasing more user licenses and possibly acquiring additional or more powerful servers.

A client may also be a candidate for a mid-range accounting package simply because of their size. Or they may have needs and requirements that cannot be met by an entry-level package, such as complex warehousing and distribution, multi-currency transactions and reporting, or complex or extensive inventory needs such as multiple costing methods or bill-of-materials processing.

Budgeting and reporting is another area where some mid-range accounting systems are particularly powerful. While some entry-level accounting software systems can provide consolidation between locations and divisions, when a client's business reaches this type of size, it usually will require more powerful analysis and reporting capabilities.

And while it may sound silly, a client may simply want the cachet of a custom accounting system, rather than an off-the-rack retail package. Or they may already be using an accounting system with complex account numbering that cannot be easily moved to an entry-level package.

Finally, clients with the potential to grow very fast may be better off starting out with a mid-range package, rather than off-the-shelf software. Even though almost every vendor touts how easy it is to transition from an entry-level system to their mid-range software, this transition is almost never as easy as the client thinks it will be.

If you know that a client will need to be up and running on a mid-range system in the next several years, it may be in the client's best interests to bite the bullet and go for a mid-range solution from the start.

HOW DO YOU TELL?

It's not always easy to figure out if a specific package is targeted to mid-range users. One way is by looking at the number of users the software supports. Most mid-range software is not user-limited, though there are exceptions to this. We have included QuickBooks Enterprise and Peachtree Quantum in this roundup, and both of these have a relatively low cap on the number of users they can support.

Two other indicators are availability and price. For the most part, entry-level accounting software can be purchased at retail. You won't find a mid-range system on the shelves of Best Buy. In fact, none of the software included in this roundup is available through the retail channel, though it is possible to purchase several of the packages directly from the vendor.

Most of the vendors of mid-range accounting software don't want to deal directly with the end-users of their software. All of them have invested a lot of time, money and energy building up networks of resellers and VARs whose only business is selling and supporting accounting software. Almost every accounting software vendor, whether retail or mid-range, does provide some measure of support themselves. But all of them would rather that your clients go to a reseller or VAR for this support.

Price is another indicator. With retail entry-level accounting software, your client would be hard-pressed to spend more than $800 or $900. Most mid-range accounting systems are modular - your client would need a system manager and whatever modules their particular business requires. To some extent, this approach helps mitigate the cost, since they only have to buy those capabilities they actually require. Still, with installation, training and customization, as well as annual support contracts, it's not uncommon for a client to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a mid-range system. Oftentimes, the software purchase itself is the least expensive component of the installed system.

DENALI

Cougar Mountain Software has an interesting history. When it was originally started, it was sold strictly through mail order, with ads in all of the major computer magazines. Over the years, the software has been improved and refined, and today comes in two versions - Cougar Mountain Accounting, and Denali, the version we reviewed for this roundup. These days, Cougar Mountain has a large number of VARs and resellers that provide sales, training and support. You can, however, still purchase the software directly from Cougar Mountain, which is a rarity in the mid-range accounting market.

Both products are similar, though Denali includes a few more modules in the standard package than Cougar Mountain Accounting and is based around a Microsoft SQL database. Using SQL allows the software to scale easily to serve a large number of users, and lets your client spread the load over multiple servers if desired. Denali (as well as Cougar Mountain Accounting) is also available in a SinglePoint configuration, preloaded on a server from Applianz. This makes installation and configuration a matter of specifying the number of users your client will need, and plugging in the SinglePoint server when it's delivered. All of the installation and configuration has been performed by Cougar Mountain.

We ran our tests on an Applianz server located at Cougar Mountain's offices, but we have not experienced any installation problems in the past when reviewing Cougar Mountain Accounting or Denali.

Denali can be purchased as a complete bundle or as individual modules, which gives your client the option of buying only what they need. The complete Denali system includes general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, order entry, purchase order, payroll, point of sale, and bank reconciliation. All of the modules provide excellent functionality with easy-to-navigate screens and a good complement of reports. Denali's POS module is particularly strong, which is no surprise considering how long Cougar Mountain has been offering it.

This long existence has also allowed Cougar Mountain to build a large network of third-party developers, so that several dozen add-on products and vertical modules are also available.

Denali is affordable enough to be a client's initial system, and will scale up without any more trouble than purchasing additional user licenses. That's perfect for a start-up that's expected to grow rapidly. The optional SinglePoint application server from Applianz makes installation a no-sweat experience.

QUICKBOOKS ENTERPRISE 8.0

QuickBooks is the most popular entry-level accounting system in the market. That also means that it's the accounting system most likely to be outgrown. Unlike Peachtree Accounting, the other major retail accounting package, Intuit did not have an upgrade path of its own to offer users who were experiencing growth constraints, so it developed one - the Enterprise Edition of QuickBooks.

To a large extent, Enterprise 8.0 is similar to the Premier Edition of QuickBooks, though it's built using a different database engine. This allows the software to handle a larger number of transactions than the standard retail software, and to not bog down as the database starts to fill with transactions. At the same time, the user interface is almost identical, which means that your clients won't have to retrain their staff to use it. And data migration for current QuickBooks users is painless - the Enterprise 8.0 edition simply opens the current files and saves them in the new format. That means that all of the customization of forms, reports and invoices that your client may have already performed does not have to be redone. We were able to upgrade from the 2008 version of QuickBooks Premier to Enterprise 8.0 just about instantly, so installation was exceptionally quick and easy.

Enterprise 8.0 also has another important difference from the retail version - the number of simultaneous users that the application will support. QuickBooks Pro and Premier Editions are available in single-user and multi-user editions, but the multi-user edition tops out at five users. With Enterprise 8.0, your client can add up to 20 users, which should be enough user capacity for a pretty large SMB client.

There are a number of advanced features in the Enterprise edition that you won't find in the entry-level versions of QuickBooks. Some of these, including a business intelligence application and a new company directory, were in beta testing when we performed our review. Others, including the ability to run the database server on a Linux server with the actual application itself running on Windows clients, and an optional advanced inventory, are available now. The inventory, which has always been QuickBooks' weakest element, now has an option to use an online inventory available from Velocity that costs $39.95 per user per month. The Velocity Inventory gives your client the ability to manage multiple warehouse inventories, perform serial and lot tracking, use bar coding, and schedule production.

We doubt that many clients would start out with QuickBooks Enterprise 8.0. But the product does provide a solid next-step upgrade path for your QuickBooks users who are starting to find the entry-level versions a bit constricting.

Traverse Version 10.5

Open Systems has been around since the days of mini-computers, so you know that they know how to do software. The company has two completely different lines of software - OSAS (Open Systems Accounting Software), which was originally written for DOS and now runs under Linux and Windows, and Traverse, the application that we tested, which was created specifically for Windows.

The newest version of Traverse, 10.5, has about three dozen applications available. We tested the system manager, general ledger, and the digital dashboard that is included as part of the system manager. This dashboard is an excellent way to present a variety of balances and status from different application modules. We found it easy to configure, though we had only the GL module installed.

One of the newer modules for Traverse is banking, which we did not test. This module works with GL, AR, AP and payroll to let your clients implement electronic banking, direct deposit and MICR check printing.

The system manager is unobtrusive, and provides excellent security features. The GL has a somewhat small selection of reports, but also includes a financial report writer that allows your client (or you) to create your own reports. Comprehensive budgeting capabilities are built into the general ledger, and these budgets can be created from prior and existing budgets, or percentages, allocations or dollar amounts of existing balances. A 40-character account mask should accommodate most chart-of-accounts requirements, as well as multi-company, divisional and departmental sub-accounts.

Of the seven packages tested, Traverse gave us the most difficulty in installation. To be fair, Open Systems intends that Traverse be installed by a reseller or VAR who will have extensive installation experience. Also missing from our review packet were two large documents that provided step-by-step directions on installing the SQL Express database and configuring the SQL Server and company set-up.

Once we had these in hand, things went a lot smoother, though the installation was still much more involved and took considerably longer than with any of the other software packages we tested.

Still, most midsized clients won't undertake the installation and configuration by themselves. And once it's up and running, using Traverse is no more difficult than running any modern accounting system. Traverse's screens and navigation are easy to follow and should require minimal training.

Overall, Traverse is a comprehensive and powerful mid-range system. Its ability to run under a variety of SQL databases gives your clients a choice of power versus budget, and makes it easy to scale up when necessary. Open System and its third-party developers have made available a wide variety of application modules, so Traverse can be used in warehouse, distribution, manufacturing and even nonprofit entities. Source code is also available, so Traverse can be customized to your clients' specific needs.

TURNINGPOINT 5.0

Red Wing Software has been selling TurningPoint for years, but it is still probably best known for its CenterPoint agricultural accounting software. That's a shame, because its offerings in the general and nonprofit accounting markets are well-conceived and executed.

As with many of the other products in this roundup, TurningPoint is a modular system. Your clients can purchase individual modules, or one of two bundles or suites. The Core Financial Suite, priced at $2,495 for a single-user license, consists of the system manager, GL, AR and AP. Also available is the Inventory Suite, which adds inventory management, order entry and purchase orders to the Core Financial Suite. Payroll is not included in either suite, but is sold separately, priced at $795 for a single-user license. Additional user licenses for each module are available for $295, so your client can fine-tune exactly how many users each module can support.

TurningPoint and Red Wing have been around long enough to have attracted solid third-party application support. These include a POS system from Acme, a service system from Dynamite, the Riata Contact Management Solution, ClickBase Business Intelligence, and i-Inventory, which adds bar code, multiple warehousing and serial number capability to TurningPoint's inventory module. This strengthens the capability somewhat, but doesn't provide true capability for clients with extensive warehousing, distribution or manufacturing needs. That's not to say that its inventory module is particularly weak - it's not. The inventory does provide multiple costing methods, multiple warehouses and basic kitting.

We found TurningPoint very easy to install and configure, and your client can purchase the software from a reseller or directly from Red Wing Software. As with Cougar Mountain's Denali, TurningPoint is available pre-installed and configured on an Applianz Data Vault server. During set-up, you can configure data-entry screens to hide fields that aren't used, streamlining the data entry process. Reports are designed in Crystal Reports, and offer a large amount of configurability using filters and good drill-down capability.

TurningPoint probably isn't suitable for those clients that are bordering on being an enterprise, rather than an SMB. For one thing, the account/sub-account mask is only 10 characters long. For another, the software uses a proprietary database, not SQL. Still, we do think that TurningPoint is definitely a step-up application, in both capability and capacity, from most of the entry-level systems available.

SAGE ACCPAC 200 ERP 5.4

Sage has perhaps the widest range of accounting software products in the world, including the three packages covered in this roundup. If you can't find an entry-level or mid-range Sage product that fits your client's needs, then that client probably needs a vertical or custom-accounting system.

Sage Accpac 200 ERP is in the middle of the Accpac lineup, all of which are modular. Modules are available for GL, AR, AP, inventory, order entry, purchase order, U.S. and Canadian payrolls, national accounts management, and project and job costing. Sage also offers human resources and customer relationship management applications, which are easy to interface with the Accpac ERP systems.

What varies from edition to edition are some features and capacities. For example, Accpac 100 ERP does not have vendor contract costs in the purchase order module, while Accpac 200 ERP and 500 ERP do. Sage Accpac 200 ERP and 500 ERP are built on the same platform, so an upgrade for additional capacities and features is easy to do. This might be necessary, as Accpac 200 ERP has a limit of 10 concurrent users, while Accpac 500 ERP can accommodate as many users as the server can reasonably handle, or an unlimited amount of users if multiple servers are used.

Accpac 200 ERP is built on top of a SQL database. We tested the application using the Pervasive SQL database, but your clients can also run Accpac 200 ERP on Microsoft SQL, Oracle, or IBM's DB2. Using Pervasive, we first installed the database, then the application. This process went very smoothly, and we were up and running without problems. Accpac 200 ERP can also be run off of a Linux server, using any of the above databases, and can be configured to be completely Web-based, though the number of simultaneous users remains the same whether the software is accessed via a network or the Internet.

We found Accpac 200 ERP to be easy to navigate. The screens are well laid out, and we had no problem finding the desired tasks. All of the modules appear comprehensive and robust, though there is a slight limitation in some areas. These include GL account segments, which are limited to three (which is enough to handle company, division and account number), and only a single budget. Given the limitation of 10 simultaneous users, it's possible that the migration from 200 ERP to 500 ERP might happen fairly quickly.

Accpac 200 ERP, and its larger sibling, Accpac 500 ERP, are solid, mature products, and the 200 ERP-to-500 ERP upgrade path provides plenty of room for a growing client. The only question is whether your client is ready to jump from an entry-level accounting system to even as powerful an application as Accpac 200 ERP. If not, one of the other Sage products, or an application from another vendor, may be a better approach.

SAGE MAS 90 4.2

While Sage has a lot of accounting products, they aren't all created on the same software base. Many of its products were originally developed by other companies acquired by Sage. MAS 90 and its sister products, MAS 200 and 500, come from a division of Sage that was originally State of the Art Software. MAS 90, as a product, has been around for several decades, though it has no resemblance to the original application.

MAS 90 and MAS 200 are functionally similar; the biggest difference is the database each is built on top of. MAS 90 uses a proprietary database that is not user-accessible without an optional ODBC access kit. It is automatically installed as part of the installation. MAS 200 can be purchased with either the proprietary database or Microsoft SQL, which would entail a somewhat more elaborate installation and configuration process than the one we experienced. Again, as the MAS products are intended to be installed by qualified resellers and VARs, rather than the client themselves, this should not pose a problem.

While we tested only GL, MAS 90 has a huge variety of available modules that encompass core financial applications such as GL, AP, AR, fixed assets and bank reconciliation. Additional modules are available for different entity types, including manufacturing, distribution and sales organizations. Finally, e-commerce, CRM, HR, payroll and job costing applications are available, as are business intelligence tools such as dashboards, Crystal Reports, F9, Microsoft FRx and similar applications.

Sage positions each of its product lines a bit differently. MAS 90 (and MAS 200) provide a nice balance of power, ease of use, and customizability. Data entry fields can be hidden and moved to create heads-down data entry screens that maximize productivity. The wide range of available modules and integratable applications such as HR and payroll from other Sage divisions lets MAS 90/200 accommodate clients from small-to-midsized or mid-to-large-sized. Sage also offers a migration tool for QuickBooks and Peachtree Accounting users that lets them easily move over to the more powerful system. This makes MAS 90 a viable upgrade path for these products.

PEACHTREE QUANTUM 2008

The way Sage has been gobbling up accounting software companies, it's surprising that all of the packages reviewed here aren't Sage products, rather than just three of them.

Peachtree Quantum 2008 is pretty much Peachtree Premium Accounting, though it supports a much higher number of users - 10 named users compared to Premium Accounting's five named users. The "named user" requirement, in which specific users are granted access rights, is not as flexible as some of the other multiple-user approaches. With Peachtree Quantum, specific users are entered in the user maintenance screen, and only these 10 users are considered to be licensed.

To a large extent, Peachtree Quantum 2008 would be of interest primarily to those clients that already run Peachtree Premium Accounting. Premium Accounting and Quantum 2008 have the same feature set, though Quantum also contains all of the features in Peachtree's industry-specific editions (construction, manufacturing, distribution and nonprofits), though your client will have to choose only one edition type (which includes the above editions, general business, or Accountant's Edition) at installation time.

Our noting that Quantum 2008 has the same feature set as Premium Accounting should not be taken as a criticism of the software. Premium Accounting is extremely capable, with over 140 different reports and Crystal Reports to create custom reports or modify the ones included. We've always been fans of Peachtree's multiple inventory-costing methods, and for 2008, Peachtree has made improvements in reporting and forms design and added the ability to add attachments to records for customers, vendors, employees and inventory items. These "additions" can be documents, spreadsheets and images, and the attachments can be e-mailed along with invoices and statements. As with other editions of Peachtree Accounting, Peachtree Quantum includes a very serviceable payroll application.

Also included is a training course on CD. This won't be necessary for most clients, as the software appears identical to the Peachtree software that they are already used to working with. The most noticeable difference for many users will probably be the increase in response time with large numbers of transactions and with files that have a large number of records.

Ted Needleman, a former editor of Accounting Technology, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Stony Point, N.Y.

Vendor Information

Denali

Cougar Mountain Software

Boise, Idaho

(800) 388-3038

www.cougarmtn.com

Price: Starts at $1,195 per module; additional users - $395 each.

QuickBooks Enterprise 8.0

Intuit Inc.

Mountain View, Calif.

(800) 4-INTUIT

www.quickbooks.com

Price: Five users - $3,000; 20 users - $9,000.

Traverse Version 10.5

Open Systems Inc.

Shakopee, Minn.

(952) 403-5700

www.osas.com

Price: Varies; starts at $500 per module for a single user.

TurningPoint 5.0

Red Wing Software

Red Wing, Minn.

(800) 422-2434

www.redwingsoftware.com

Price: Starts at $895 per single-user module; payroll - $795 for a single user.

Sage Accpac 200 ERP

Version 5.4

Sage Software

Pleasanton, Calif.

(866) 308-2378

www.sagesoftware.com

Price: Varies; starts at approximately $5,000.

Sage MAS 90 4.2

Sage Software

Irvine, Calif.

(800) 854-3415

www.sagemas.com

Price: Varies; starts at approximately $3,800.

Peachtree Quantum 2008

Sage Software

Norcross, Ga.

(877) 495-9904

www.peachtree.com

Price: Up to 10 users - $3,750.

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