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Nov 1993

Choosing flexible off-the-shelf accounting software. (The CPA & The Computer)

by Clark, Brian

    Abstract- The increasing role of on-going process improvement as a tool for staying competitive calls for the revision of high-end, off-the-shelf general accounting software packages. Fortunately, the required upgrades are readily available. In fact, owing to the customization strength of these programs, users can modify them according to the particular needs of their industry and organization. Thus, selection of a general accounting software is done not only on the basis of the organization's size, user base and operating requirement, but also on the inclination of the software to be customized and modified to address future requirements and eventual hardware and software innovations. Decision-makers should consider such issues as client/server optimization, source code handling and enhanced security when looking for a flexible, adaptable and easily customized general accounting software.

Information management, and accounting systems in particular, are already being influenced by the demands of on-going change. For example, companies used to change their mainframe accounting packages every seven to 10 years. Later, accounting systems on mini-computers were changed about every five years.

Today, upgrades of high-end, off the-shelf general accounting software are released regularly, with a high percentage of users implementing the upgrades. Some of these programs are strong in customization, so they can be tailored to meet specific industry and organization needs.

As a result of these trends, choosing a general accounting software package depends on more than an organization's size, user base, and operating requirements as they are now. An important factor is how easily the software can be customized and upgraded to meet future needs and future hardware and software developments.

Until quite recently, these goals tended to be mutually exclusive. Software that could be easily customized could not be easily upgraded, and vice versa. But new developments have made it possible to modify source code and easily upgrade accounting software and, more recently, to upgrade software without modifying source code.

The most flexible accounting packages now make it possible for users to add their own processing criteria and data to screens that are logically linked to the processing of the application software, and provide reports based on the combination. They make data accessible for use with other development tools. And, they work with other developers to produce complementary products.

So, what are the characteristics of a flexible, adaptable, and easy-to- customize off-the-shelf general accounting package? Here are some answers:

Client/Server Optimization

While there is much disagreement about how to define client/server architecture, there is significant agreement about its benefits. Chief among these is flexibility. Client/server architecture is the most flexible computing architecture yet, because it uses a collection of relatively inexpensive components.

Typical components of a network-based computing system include: workstations, file servers, hard drives, network interface cards, database server software, etc. Changes in configuration can be made in small increments, without replacing a large, expensive, centralized mainframe or minicomputer.

To get the most from client/server architecture, software must be designed to take advantage of this modular design. Accounting software that is "optimized for client/server architecture" strategically divides the workload between the workstation, the central database, and the server to improve system speed and performance.

Client/server architecture also makes it possible and cost-effective to allow different office locations to be linked electronically and to adapt to changes in the physical location of hardware due to office moves and organizational restructuring.

Client/server architecture is scalable because it provides a logical growth path. As the organization grows, more users can be added to the system just by adding more workstations to the network. Since each workstation has its own processor, the computing power of the other users is not diluted as significantly as in a shared processor system.

Accounting software optimized for client/server can be used in both single-user and multi-user environments. A NetWare loadable module (NLM) offered with some accounting packages can speed network performance in a client/server environment because NLMs process user requests concurrently rather than one-at-a-time.

Though many accounting software products use proprietary technologies, accounting systems that are built using industry standard database tools and technologies can be more easily integrated with other systems.

Source Code Handling

Some accounting software programs do not provide access to source code (the instructions used to write the application in the language it was written), so significant rewrites and even minor modifications are impossible. Others, with varying degrees of difficulty, make it possible to modify source code and keep the data integrity intact.

SolomoNotes, a new add-on module to the Solomon III, a high-end, general accounting package from Solomon Software, makes it possible to upgrade or even completely restructure an accounting system without any modification of source code. Using the module, new fields, screens and even completely new add-on applications can be intelligently linked to the accounting database without source code modification and without affecting data integrity and audit trails.

Screens can be customized so that you can add data you want. SolomoNotes adds the data into a database that is separate and independent from the existing database.

Enhanced Security

The foundation of security on a network is the network operating system. For example, NetWare can grant "read" and "write" rights to individuals by file. But this capability alone isn't enough, since it provides the individual access to all or none of the information in the file.

To address this limitation, accounting applications in the 80s offered their own "functional" security at the menu item level. This approach works fairly well at a departmental level where it is acceptable to prohibit users outside the accounting department from having access to information inside the accounting system. It does have a number of weaknesses, however.

For example, this type of security doesn't permit partial access to files. It circumvented by exiting from the application and using another application or tool capable of reading the data from the hard drive.

With client/server architecture, enhanced security is possible because the application usually executes on one machine and the database executes on another machine. Only the database server is granted file rights, forcing applications to go through the server to data.

Most database servers have a dictionary that allows users or developers to define the tables, fields and screens that a given user can read or update. This approach works whether the application is proprietary or an off-the-shelf report writer or executive information system such as Forest & Trees.

In a market where it is sometimes difficult to differentiate one vendor's product from another based on features, the ability to provide easily created, custom accounting solutions cannot be overrated. With the "feature wars" coming to an end, the new battleground for accounting software players may be customization.

Brian Clark is the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Solomon Software, a leading developer and marketer of accounting software for DOS, NetWare, and Windows available through a nationwide network of authorized resellers.

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