Technology: adapt or die

By Steven Cohen, managing director Softline Pastel

I recently realised that the term ‘cloud computing’ is not as broadly understood as I had assumed. Maybe it’s because I work in the tech sector that these buzz words are part of my everyday vocabulary but I was surprised to discover that 77% of professional accountants claim to have no understanding of what accounting in the cloud is.

This statistic comes from independent research we recently conducted. And what is interesting to me is that while a large proportion of professional accountants don’t know what cloud computing is, 53% would recommend an online accounting product to their SME clients. So, there’s obviously confusion out there because cloud computing and working with an online application is exactly the same thing. And accountants are clever people, so if they are grappling with the principles of the cloud, so must many others!

Cloud computing 101

When we refer to the cloud we’re talking about where the program is hosted, or stored, and the answer is that it lives on the web and not your computer. It’s the same as your Facebook account where all your information is stored ‘somewhere on the internet’.

Facebook (although I am not an avid user) is a great example. When you’re using it, I guarantee that you don’t think about whether it’s the latest version or if the information you see is the most current. You just know that the answer is yes and that somebody clever ‘out there’ is taking care of everything!!

Well the ‘out there’ is the cloud! Perfectionists will criticise me for this – but the heart of the argument is that the cloud refers to the web or the internet – they’re basically the same thing.

So, what are the advantages of the cloud?

I’m finding that in my personal life, things are getting messy. Between my desktop, laptop and iPad, my data is stored in too many places and I’m struggling to remember which version is the most current. But I firmly believe that this is the transition phase of migrating from the traditional way of doing things to having all my stuff working from the cloud. And I’m starting to make the shift by storing the documents that I work on regularly in Dropbox; a data keeper in the cloud. Dropbox makes sure that my data is always up to date and I can access it from anywhere, so I’ve already solved two main issues – my data is current and safe!

The anecdote: encyclopaedias go electronic

Remember Encarta – Microsoft’s excellent encyclopaedia that was around in the late 90s and early 2000s? I love this analogy. Let’s trace it from the beginning: For hundreds of years leading up to the 1980s, encyclopaedias like World Book and Britannica were actual physical books. There were usually 24 hefty books in a set; one for each letter of the alphabet as well as the annual year book which intended to keep the base information relevant.

Then a massive shift; encyclopaedias went electronic and two meters of shelf space in every home were freed-up. Encarta was available as a disk and offered something like 60 000 pieces of reference material including interactive images, timelines and maps. The ability to simply click links and jump around topics was great; you got the info you wanted quickly and knew it wasn’t dated. But can you believe that Encarta - this great invention - couldn’t have lasted for more than 10 years because the whole thing shifted to the cloud and is now called Wikipedia.

Books were our point of reference for several hundred years and now we just don’t use them anymore.

The moral of the story?

The world has changed - there’s a new way of doing things. Using the encyclopaedia example, no one questioned the shift to online – in fact it was a welcome progression, so why are we apprehensive about cloud computing when we make so much use of it already?

If businesses do not adapt to this new, and better, way of working, they run the risk of very quickly becoming prehistoric in their service delivery which is just not a sustainable strategy for success.

Accounting in the cloud

Accounting in the cloud is exactly the same as the accounting we’re all used to; the only real difference relates to where the software application is hosted and where the client’s data is stored.

This way of working will not fundamentally change how the core business process is conducted but it will certainly make it easier for businesses to manage their accounting processes, particularly with an increasingly mobile workforce and the growing number of external corporate consultants. Accounting in the cloud gives accountants and business owners alike the ability to conveniently access records and transact from remote locations with little or no advanced setup.

But working online is about far more than just accessibility; the cloud makes the lives of users considerably easier. It removes the need for manual program installations, and the array of associated hassles. It also means that users never have to worry about upgrades or backups as the system will automatically be the latest available version that is, by its nature, backed up as information is saved.

So for those willing to embrace accounting in the cloud, the result will be a streamlined book keeping and accounting process across every client that feeds into a central database and minimises the risk of data errors, or worse, losses. The more tangible benefits are felt when new legislation or tax rate adjustments, for example, simply feed into the system without the cost or aggravation of having to buy and install new programs.

Safe as houses

Our survey also tells us that security concerns are a major driving force preventing the uptake of cloud-based services amongst SMEs. I hear this kind of commentary from our clients all the time. And I repeat myself at every opportunity that security concerns shouldn’t deter users from embracing the cloud because service providers in this sector probably offer better security than regular IT vendors, leaving your vital business information safer in the cloud than on your local network.

For example, the security for our online accounting solution, Pastel My Business Online is iron clad. It includes physical armed security and restricted access to our data centres. We have firewall and intrusion detection with ongoing system reviews to identify possible weaknesses and new vulnerabilities. There are also technologies in place to ensure that if server errors do occur we can minimise downtime. And we back up data daily and store that information in two separate locations.

Making the move

Moving your business applications online is a must for anyone who wants to ensure that they remain at the cutting edge of service delivery. The fact that the cloud assists with streamlining internal business processes is also a good reason to make the move!

While users remain apprehensive about all of their data and activities taking place in what they consider to be cyber space, I’ve started recommending a hybrid approach to tackling the move online. A less scary approach is to keep certain applications on your actual server while others run in the cloud. This allows users to remain in control of the majority of their work but can slowly familiarise themselves with the way online services work.

I would suggest that there is one of two ways to split the application locations. The cloud is either for the mundane yet necessary activities that end users spend disproportionate amounts of time getting right on their own or for highly specialised services that require outside expertise. The heart of the system –client and financial data – should sit on your mainframe in the office.