IT said, “No.”
What a bummer.
You spent hours assembling feature needs, talking to sellers, gathering proposals, and demoing software.
You found the perfect accounting software.
It has a beautiful interface. The reporting is awesome. It would definitely make your financial management tasks so much more efficient.
But now you have to start from scratch—all because your perfect program didn’t support some three letter acronym you’ve never even heard of before. “Argh,” indeed.
Well, it could be worse. At least, you didn’t purchase the software and find out it wouldn’t work after-the-fact.
Or maybe you did…
It’s easy to get the feature cart before the compatibility horse when evaluating software. Most accounting software evaluations aren’t lead by IT managers. They tend to be executive initiatives spearheaded by departmental leaders and small business owners. The focus is usually on business processes, rather than technical details.
To put it another way, when we talk to buyers about their needs, we hear a lot about things like receivables, budgeting, and order management. We don’t hear so much about ODBC compliance, encryption protocols, or even required OS compatibilities.
But ignoring the techy-stuff upfront often means discovering a showstopper later on.
IT people have a different mindset when evaluating software. It doesn’t mean caring more about bits, bytes, and bandwidth than the bottomline. It just means broadening your perspective to think about the back-end considerations that make it possible to run effective software.
Your best bet is always to include a tech expert on your review team. But understanding some basic tech considerations yourself is absolutely essential to conducting an efficient and effective software review.
You don’t need to know all the buzzwords and jargon. You just need to make sure you’re thinking through issues of deployment, OS compatibility, integration, and security with some rigor and clarity.
Who is going to host your software is one of the most important technical questions to answer when evaluating software. A common reason to outsource the hosting of your software to your provider is to avoid the expense of maintaining internal server equipment and the necessary support staff. Quite simply, it can be easier to have a provider handle server configurations, bandwidth allotment, and periodic software updates than it is do it yourself.
Too many buyers mistakenly assume though they are limited only to products with “online” or “web-based” in their title or marketing literature, if they want someone else to host the software.
A “web-based” program is simply one that uses a standard web-browser as the client side software. Most web-based programs happen to be hosted by the provider, but this is not necessarily so. Conversely, a client/server model doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to host the server internally. Many software providers will happily host your accounting application server in their data center, allowing you to connect with remote access software.
The accounting software market has traditionally been dominated by solutions that run on Microsoft Windows operating systems. It’s not a hard trend to explain. It’s simply a response to the operating systems users are primarily running.
The latest data shows that over 95% of desktop PCs globally are running some sort of Windows OS. There is a bit more variety in terms of server OS’s, but Windows dominates there as well.
If you’re running Windows OS machines, the accounting software world is your oyster and there are plenty of pearls to go around. If you are running something else, you’ve got a bit more work to do to find compatible software.
Because of the Windows OS market share domination, there are few accounting programs designed for other operating systems, such as Mac and Linux. While there are exceptions, programs that run on non-Windows platforms tend to be targeted toward the entry-level market. Finding sophisticated or niche-industry focused products to run on Linux or Mac can be frustratingly difficult.
The good news is that there are options for software buyers looking to run accounting software on non-Windows machines. Since any modern operating system will support the most popular browsers (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, even Internet Explorer), web-based options provide a fantastic workaround when you’re confronted with OS limitations.
Software buyers looking to run accounting software on machines that have been set up with non-Windows OS’s can save themselves time and their IT department frustration by expanding the scope of their search to consider web-based programs.
Another option is to consider desktop virtualization software. If your company runs Mac OS workstations, you can purchase virtualization software that will also allow you to implement a Windows OS on the same machine and run Windows applications.
How well software integrates with other programs in your technology environment is an underrated factor when choosing accounting software.
There’s a financial impact to pretty much any activity your company undertakes. If your accounting software isn’t integrated with other applications, you’re missing opportunities to make better decisions and operate more efficiently.
Consider the following example.
Time and billing software is frequently implemented without integration with the accounting software package. The disconnect between the programs causes inefficiencies and revenue risks:
- Both systems end up maintaining their own individual set of customer records. Double the customer info data input is required when the systems are disconnected.
- Without integration, data for each invoice billed will also need to be entered twice. This is not only inefficient, it increases the probability of data errors and billing delays.
- A lack of communication between systems can result in less than optimal decision making or tedious workarounds. For instance, if there are unpaid invoices in accounts receivable, perhaps additional work shouldn’t be performed to limit the risk of uncompensated services. Manual processes to communicate this information tend to be unreliable and add to the administrative, non-revenue generating workload.
Making sure data can flow between software applications is an easy way to decrease overhead expenses and boost profitability. Integrating software is, for the most part, a one-time cost. Integration enables cost-saving benefits that stem from removing inefficiencies and improving data visibility that will continue to accrue as long as your run the software.
But ensuring systems can integrate can be intimidating to non-technical buyers. If you know what to look for, it’s not as hard as it seems.
The preferred software integration method in most cases will be via an API. API stands for application programming interface. An API establishes the rules for how an external program can make changes (adds, deletes, updates) in the software.
Verifying that API integration between software is possible amounts to a 4 step process:
- Ensure both software systems have API capabilities to allow for bi-directional integration.
- Identify the processes that will require a connection between systems and the data that will need to be passed.
- Inquire with providers or directly consult API documentation to ensure the necessary actions can be conducted for each piece of data that will need to be transferred.
- Find out how data updates between systems will be triggered. If you need to keep data synced up in real-time, make sure that this is supported by the API and that you don’t have to periodically trigger batch updates.
Integration without an API is still possible in many cases. As long as the application’s underlying database is open and accessible, changes to the data contained in the software can be initiated externally. Initiating repeatable direct changes to the database will require the creation of custom database scripts. In the absence of IT personnel capable of creating these scripts, most software providers can offer these services.
The other thing to qualify when pursuing a solution that would require direct database integration is to make sure each software program has controls capable of triggering a database script when certain conditions are met. Vetting this capability sounds complicated, but it’s really not. A quick email to the potential vendor of any solution of interest should yield a clear yes or no answer.
If your business has an IT department, chances are it also has a data security policy. No doubt, it is a longer and more technical document than anything you’d care to read.
The good news is that you can rule out fundamentally insecure software options with far less work.
First, it should be said that the majority of popular software accounting options feature relatively robust security capabilities compared to other types of business software applications. Accounting software by its very nature will manage sensitive financial data. One of the costs of doing business as an accounting software developer is ensuring strong application security.
Due diligence is still required, though. You’ll want to make sure that any solution you consider addresses each of the fundamental areas of data security: access control, encryption, auditing, and disaster-recovery.
Here are some quick tips on what to look for across each of the four critical dimensions of data security.
- Access control. Preventing unauthorized system access is the single most important step involved in ensuring your accounting software is secure. Each user should be set up with their own user account and unique log-in credentials. Many network security experts now feel that logging on with a single password is not enough protection and recommend two-factor authentication. (For a discussion of the pros and cons of two factor authentication with accounting/ERP software, check out this article.) In most situations, it’s not enough to simply control who has access into the software, though. If you anticipate having multiple users, you’ll want to make sure you can flexibly set user permissions. At minimum, you’ll want to make sure that you can set which modules each user will be able to access and who has read/write privileges. The ability to flexibly determine which processes require “approvals” and who can authorize these approvals will further strengthen your security profile.
Encryption. Almost everyone is familiar with the basic concept of encryption. Data is scrambled and requires a key to return it to the readable state. If unauthorized access is gained, encryption helps make sure that any accessed data will be undecipherable. The strength and extent of encryption capabilities vary between products. Any reviewer of accounting software should seek answers to the following encryption related questions from providers of potential solutions:
- What techniques are used to encrypt stored data?
- What encryption protocol is used to secure data when it leaves the protected local network (such as in externally hosted, SaaS situations or for tasks like credit card processing)?
- How does the software provide for strong encryption key management?
- Auditing. A log of all user actions taken within an accounting software system is a critical pre-requisite for forensic auditing in the case of a security breach. The audit trail provides the mechanism to trace any action taken within the software back to the user who initiated it. In fact, one of the standards involved in achieving GAAP compliance (generally accepted accounting principles) is the ability to trace any action back to the originating user. (So sharing user accounts between multiple individuals is inherently out of compliance with GAAP standards.) For larger organizations, with increased opportunities for fraud, it’s beneficial to seek out systems that provide continuous monitoring features—either within the software or as an add-on product. Continuous monitoring functionality monitors the audit trail to find patterns in the data that deviate from normal activity and offers alerts upon the detection of anomalies.
- Disaster-recovery. The loss or corruption of data due to hardware failures, unintended user actions, natural disasters, or theft is never a good thing. It’s a downright catastrophe though if the data has been properly backed up. Automatic backup capabilities are a must-have. If an easily configurable option for data backup isn’t offered in a product option, move on. For buyers considering SaaS software, make sure to ask your provider if backup data will be stored in a geographically separated location. If you are planning on hosting your own accounting software and don’t have access to another location for backup data storage, seeking out a solution that offers cloud backup services or contracting independently for these services is advisable.