Cloud computing may not yet be the best solution for every accounting firm, but it was clear from many of the sessions at the recent AICPA Tech+ Information Technology Conference, held here, that practitioners need to be aware of how the medium can, and will, change the way they do business.

With the institute co-locating its technology confab with its annual Practitioners Symposium this year, there was no lack of information on how the more than 800 attendees should be thinking about running their business and what tools and strategies they'll need to consider in moving forward.

The one theme among the technology-focused sessions that emerged loud and clear was that the profession needed to look no further than the cloud to see where technology is headed.

In a keynote that focused on an update of professional issues, 2009-2010 AICPA chairman Robert Harris reiterated the need for accountants to be considering cloud-based solutions for their practices and their clients.

"I am seeing a significant growth in Web-based services in the market; in fact, 95 percent of organizations will increase their use of cloud-based services," said Harris, a principal at Harris, Cotherman, Jones, Price & Associates CPAs, in Vero Beach, Fla.

Harris recognized that the combined conference -which occurred for the first time this year - offered attendees a lot of information on how they can grow their business and serve their clients, ultimately urging them to be proactive about their practice initiatives.

"You don't have to go out and create the next wheel; just take home one or two new ideas that you can use to help your firm and your clients and you will be successful," said Harris. "Think about the bottom line of the services you offer; in most cases, anyone can replace that. What you need to do is put the services that you want to offer clients in a format that is more effective for them. Don't wait for them to come to you."

The rising importance of cloud-based technologies to the accounting community has also been showcased via CPA2Biz, the marketing portal for the AICPA's products and services, and more specifically in CPA2Biz's Trusted Business Advisor Solutions program, which currently lists six technology partners, all of whom feature SaaS offerings.

The most recent CPA2Biz partner was announced during the conference, as Web-based audit confirmation services provider Capital Confirmation was added to the growing list of program members, which also includes Bill.com, Copanion, Intacct, Paychex and XCM Solutions.

Also during the confab, project-focused ERP software maker Deltek Inc. made an offer to acquire Denmark-based enterprise software concern Maconomy, a purchase that would effectively give Deltek an additional 600 customers in 60 countries - particularly advertising, public relations and consulting companies, and accounting firms.

CLOUD CAVEATS

Of the 35 technology-centric information tracks during the conference, over a dozen focused specifically on cloud and SaaS-based products, initiatives and issues.

One of the more well-attended sessions focused on the total cost of ownership of SaaS products and services. Hosted by CPA and tech consultant Geni Whitehouse, the session, titled "Calculating the True Cost of Ownership in a SaaS World: Is It Really Cheaper?" made the case that although SaaS accounting offers great promise, the reality is that no SaaS solutions currently live up to that promise, and that a great deal of scrutiny is called for before switching to the cloud.

"The fact is that it is hard to make accounting software as we know it work in the cloud; you just can't reconfigure an on-premise accounting solution and call it SaaS, and right now no solution is 100 percent SaaS for what CPAs need," said Whitehouse. "The guys that are making it work to any degree are native to the cloud, but there are still costs and other promises that need a closer look before you choose them."

She stressed that there are good cloud-based solutions that accountants can use, but they require close examination before selecting and "buying into the promise."

"I think it will take us a while as a profession to get over our data being somewhere else, but we have made great strides and at the end of the day, if you are going to change anything you do, it has to be a good time for you to do it, not just because there are solutions out there for you to use," said Whitehouse.

The cloud focus of the conference was not entirely by design, nor was it the intent to push the new medium as a "must-have" for attendees. That said, there is no denying its importance to the future of the industry, as AICPA Tech+ Conference chairman and CPA Peyton Burch noted. "Around cloud computing there are several issues, such as security, cost and disaster recovery, and there are a lot of technology issues that are around the move towards cloud computing. This is definitely the way a lot of business technology is moving," said Burch. "On-premise solutions are still widely popular, and they work best for certain organizations, but what we tried to address is what are the security concerns, what are the support issues versus on-premise solutions. There are a variety of key issues that the profession has to deal with every day and we tried to isolate those around certain cloud initiatives."

Burch also noted that the idea of co-locating the two conferences was "well-received," based on initial attendee feedback. "In years past, we had heard that attendees weren't all getting everything they wanted to from either conference, so we looked at the overlap of the speakers and it made sense to get this group together," he explained. "They all seemed to like the larger group environment. The vendor floor was vibrant and there was exposure to people with really up-and-coming innovative technology."

"I don't think people realize how important [cloud computing] is going forward. A lot of this conference did focus on that and this is something this industry has to be on top of," said Jose Antunes, a senior accountant at Red Bank, N.J.-based WithumSmith+Brown. "When I look at our software and technology for our firm, we know we have to be there."

Although the cloud took center stage, the Practitioners Symposium track also featured a number of sessions that addressed front-burner issues for running a successful CPA practice. The topics included partner compensation, the convergence of International Financial Reporting Standards with U.S. GAAP, the strategies of fraud detection, how to advise distressed companies, federal tax updates and client-retention strategies.

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