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The Cloud and the Business Desktop (with QuickBooks)
Cloud computing is here – no longer is it considered to be temporary or just a fad. Even though there are many businesses in the country without access to high quality high-speed Internet connectivity, the levels of investment and revenue surrounding cloud and mobile computing solutions and technologies has proven that mobility and managed service matter to those who are connected. What’s interesting is that the popularity of the cloud and the emergence of cloud-based applications and services haven’t really put much of a dent in the need for the desktop, which remains as the business workhorse and – connected or not – represents the foundation for business productivity and getting work done.
Some years ago, business applications began to emerge in SaaS (software-as-a-service) format, meaning a customer could simply subscribe to an application on the web rather than purchasing and installing software. This option clearly resounded with many business customers and ushered in an era of online application services oriented specifically toward mobile users. Yet the desktop remains as the place where online solutions meet productivity (export any online data to an Excel spreadsheet recently?) and where accounting and finance connect with the rest of the operation.
Believing too much of the marketing-speak around cloud computing, many business users believe that they can only remotely access business software solutions if they are “cloud” and subscription model applications, and that the desktop products they know and have invested in cannot be available to them in a fully managed online model. In fact, a large number of the business owners I speak with that actually use hosted desktop services somehow believe that the software they are using is something special and different from that which would be installed to their PCs. The fact is that the software is not different, regardless of what they may think. More often than not, the hosted applications are EXACTLY what the customer had previously installed (or would have installed) to their own computers had they not been working with a hosting provider. Whether they are hosted or not… the desktop products generally function with all the features and capability designed into them because they are hosted on platforms they were designed to run on (like Microsoft Windows, for example).
Customers of the QuickBooks hosting companies often refer to their systems as “QuickBooks cloud, but not the online one”, not really understanding that it is simply the full desktop application that is being hosted for them.
Regardless of how many online application services emerge, and even if (IF) web-based versions of our favorite word processing and spreadsheet software become as useful as the installed kind, there will still be a need for the desktop if for no other reason than to make it easier to use and work with a variety of solutions at the same time. Perhaps this is why remote desktop computing and hosted application services are becoming increasingly popular approaches to cloud and managed computing services. The user benefits from having the feature-rich applications they need and a single place to access them and make them work together (the desktop value proposition), yet is able to have remote and mobile access, comprehensive system management and maintenance, data protection, helpdesk support and affordable monthly payments (the cloud value proposition). In many ways, application hosting models represent the best of both worlds for the business.
Consider how beneficial it would be to businesses who want the advantage of remote desktop and mobile access to applications to be able to run their QuickBooks (feature-rich desktop QuickBooks) and/or other business applications in an anytime, anywhere sort of environment. Businesses can obtain hosting services for QuickBooks Pro, Premier, and Enterprise – allowing organizations to have their QuickBooks financial applications managed, protected, secured, and made available to users all the time and from any location. Some hosting services may also support integrations and extensions for QuickBooks – for both desktop and Web-based applications and services. When the host can provide authorized subscription licensing for Microsoft Office, a business can have a complete, outsourced IT solution and pay only monthly service fees to get it. No installation or system management to worry about: the QuickBooks financials, the productivity, the operational systems and plugged-in applications can all be hosted in the cloud.
Following the Rules: Users and Licensing for Hosted QuickBooks
I have said many times before that the licensing for QuickBooks desktop editions appears to be a bit complicated, and a lot of that may have to do with the fact that so many people use QuickBooks in so many different ways. With a solution like QuickBooks (or Microsoft Office or other really popular and widely used software products) there is a tendency for folks to want the flexibility of accessing their software regardless of what computer they are using. Also, especially in businesses, there is the habit of installing software on a computer and then allowing anyone sitting at the computer to use the software. In some cases these approaches are okay with the software vendors, but in most cases they’re not. Yet too often, the small business owner doesn’t find out what the actual rules of using the product are until they try to deploy the software with a hosting service provider (because nobody ever actually reads the EULA, do they?). If the provider has any credibility at all, they will enforce the licensing rules of the software, but that doesn’t always sit well with the customer.
This situation rears its ugly head quite frequently in the QuickBooks hosting world. Perhaps it is because there are a lot of possible working models involving QuickBooks users, or maybe it’s simply a matter of people not seeing the value of paying for what they want to accomplish. Either way, service providers find themselves being challenged every day in trying to explain to a customer why they need to have more than one license for QuickBooks and more than one service account if they want more than one person to access the hosted solution.
Different people at different times: The Concurrent User approach
One of the arguments people make for not having licenses for all of their users is that they don’t actually need everyone in the system at the same time. The belief is that there should be licenses enough only for the number of concurrent, or simultaneous, users that will access the system, yet each individual human being/user should have a login to the system with the software available (for convenience, of course). A QuickBooks 3-user license, they believe, should be able to be used by any number of business users as long as no more than 3 of them are in QuickBooks at any given time.
While the customer may be making a reasonable argument, it all falls down when you consider the license agreement for QuickBooks. Each user of the product is supposed to have a specific license. A business with a 3-user license (or 3 single-user licenses) for QuickBooks has the rights to allow 3 people (unique human beings) to use the software, not any combination of people as long as they number no more than 3 at a time. There is to be no sharing of licenses, and there is no “concurrent” licensing model: each person/user/human being is supposed to have their own license for the product no matter how often they access it.
Look but don’t touch: The Read-Only User approach
Another of the arguments people make for not licensing all of their users is that there is somehow a belief that if you don’t actually enter information, then you aren’t really using the software. This often comes up in situations where an accounting professional works with their client, or when business owners want to occasionally see what’s going on in the company. The approach centers on the concept of what a “user” is and suggests that users are the people entering or changing the data, and people only viewing that information aren’t really “users” at all. When the bookkeeper opens QuickBooks and enters an invoice, the bookkeeper is recognized to be a user. But when the business owner opens QuickBooks to view the financial statement or see the bank account balance, isn’t the business owner also a user? Yup, they sure are. Any person that actually opens the program on the computer is a user, regardless of what they do when the program is open. Just looking around at the data still requires that the program be open, and opening the program requires a license.
Two Fer: But the other hosting company lets me…
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. So, just because a different hosting provider might let you get away with things that aren’t right (but perhaps are convenient or cost saving in the short-term) doesn’t mean you should expect a different host to allow the same thing. If your current host says things like “as long as you don’t tell us…”, you should be concerned. This often comes up in a hosting scenario where there is an outside accounting or outsourced back-office professional working with a hosted client business. The outsourcer will want to access the client books, so they will want to have a login and access to QuickBooks software on the host system.
The trouble starts when the outsource professional doesn’t want to have to pay for their own service or licensing, yet they want to be able to login to the system and run QB just like the client does. Falling sometimes under that attempt to leverage a concurrent user approach (see above), these outsourcers just aren’t realizing that the benefits of accessing their client information and working in real-time with that data is often valuable enough to support the cost of a hosted account and license. Instead, they want their access to be free of charge and not be bound by silly rules of licensing, often because their client won’t want to pay for the accountant service in addition to their own.
This is when the “if you don’t tell us” stuff comes in – where the service provider may suggest to the accountant or outsourcer that they can simply login as the client and nobody would be the wiser. I’ll fess up and say I have even entertained this idea with clients a few times but always shy away from discussing it in-depth. While it is basically true that the service provider doesn’t generally know which exact human being is sitting at the other end of that remote desktop connection, that doesn’t mean that it is okay to leverage it into an abuse of services or licensing.
Two or more people sharing a single login just isn’t good ju ju, and it’s usually against a whole bunch of licensing rules and rights of use. The funny thing is that many customers who initially leverage their service in this manner end up finding it was a really bad idea. I saw a scenario a few years ago where a business allowed their outside auditors to share the logins of regular employees in the finance department. When an employee tried to login to their remote desktop, they opened the session the auditor had open – exposing the employee to a lot of data that was not theirs to see but which the auditor user in QB had access to. The company called it a security breach and it was on their part – and it was allowed to happen because they shared their remote desktops with the auditors rather than giving the auditors their own accounts with their own security profiles. What seemed like a good, cheap approach on one day rapidly turned into a big issue the next, and the service provider had no power to prevent it from happening.
The moral of this story is simply that following the rules is the right thing to do and most reputable hosting service providers will try, even if they don’t end up doing it really well. There are always going to be those who figure that the risks don’t measure up to the potential rewards, so they will do what they choose to do. I’m always left wondering about those guys; if they have no problems breaking these rules, I wonder what other rules (or confidences) they are willing to break. Hmmm.
Good Habits for Healthy QuickBooks
Using a QuickBooks desktop product is pretty simple – you install it and then you run it. For many users, it’s just that easy and uncomplicated because they don’t need 3rd party integrated software, they don’t sync their files to other computers or services or try to share their QuickBooks data, and they remember to exit QuickBooks and back their files up each and every time they use them. On the other hand, many QuickBooks users experience quite a lot of frustration with the product – frustration which may often be the result of a poor practice when using the software. QuickBooks has been engineered over many years to be as simple to use as possible, but at the same time has grown to be a product with lots of features, add-ons and extensions. Users have also found ways to make QuickBooks do things it wasn’t really designed to do, this truth being one of the good things and the bad things about the product. When it works, it works great. When it doesn’t work, it’s beyond frustrating. It is a shame that a lot of the problems users have with solution may be rooted in the habits and behaviors of the QuickBooks users themselves.
Bad software use habits will cause problems whether the software is installed on the user PC or whether it’s being managed by a hosting service provider. Certainly there are some issues that hosts may mitigate, but the following is a list of good habits for keeping the QuickBooks software and data healthy and working that should be standard operating procedure for any QuickBooks user, whether QuickBooks is being hosted or not.
Keep the company file in good condition.
I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping the file in good condition. What’s the accounting and financial data worth, after all? A little time spent taking care of the file can save on a lot of time and headaches trying to reinvent the information. A QuickBooks company file is really a database, and is a rather complicated framework for keeping track of all sorts of related information. Anyone who has used QuickBooks desktop products for a while understands that the data file can get screwed up for a variety of reasons, and it is no fun. Yet QuickBooks has utilities to verify and rebuild data files, so it makes sense to periodically use them to check for problems. Like a check-up with the doctor, these utilities can help diagnose issues with the data file before they become really big issues. Another good practice is to back up the company file to a “portable” once in a while, and to then restore it for use. This process can not only validate the integrity of the file, it also helps condense and “condition” the file. Particularly when using a hosting service, but also when just running local on the PC, conditioning the data file once in a while can help prevent data corruption and/or loss (of data, time, productivity, revenue).
Close the company file and exit QuickBooks once in a while, would ya?
Users who leave their computers on all the time are missing out on the fun of letting their machines reset and do a POST (power on self-test), which means the machine or operating system could have an issue and the user wouldn’t recognize it until the machine was powered off and then restarted. For this same reason, programs and their data files should be closed when not being used – so they can run through their own startup and validation routines before you use them. Also, leaving the program open means it is active on the computer, and leaving the data file open means that it’s available (read=vulnerable). A random bypasser accessing the computer, a program crash, a machine crash… loss of power or a kitten running over the keyboard could all result in catastrophic damage to the application and/or data. It’s just better for all involved if the files and programs are closed when not being used. Maybe use a screensaver with a password, too.
Don’t try to use QuickBooks with a VPN (virtual private network) connection.
Just because a user can connect their remote PC to the office network doesn’t mean the PC will work like it’s in the office. In the office, it’s a Local Area Network, and the speed is fine enough to allow multiple computers to share a QuickBooks company file in multi-user mode. When there is a remote PC connected via a VPN, it’s usually a Wide Area Network connection, meaning that the network has been extended to include the remote computer, but that network connection IS NOT fast enough to allow the remote user to open QuickBooks along with others in the network. QuickBooks multi-user access only works on a local network (where local means the machines are all “local” to each other – on the same LAN). When QuickBooks is hosted by a service provider, the QuickBooks stations and the data files are all located inside the host’s network, making it all LAN stuff. The only remote part of it is sending the input and output (display, printing, keyboard and mouse) information “over the wire”. This is why a hosting model works when the app and data are hosted, but doesn’t work when only the data file is hosted.
Use Automatic Update, not Manual (but DO update).
Features change, new technologies must be supported, and user expectations adjust based on a wide variety of influences. What this means is that software products will necessarily experience change over time and users will be expected to update them. The first release of any new product is rarely flawless. It’s during that first introduction to a volume of users where many issues are found, making the v1 release of a software product something many people try to avoid. Yet there are still lots of folks who just can’t wait to have the newest thing, even when it comes to something like software patches. Regardless of how much they may put at risk, these folks want each and every patch and update as soon as it is available somewhere. These are the users who end up debugging the software for the rest of us, so I guess we should thank them.
For most users, however, it makes sense to wait until the software has been out for a bit and those initial issues identified and corrected, perhaps bypassing v1 and going straight to v2. If the product will allow, that is. QuickBooks has this great (or annoying, depends on how you look at it) feature that can tell users when there is an update available. This “automatic update” feature checks with Intuit to see if there are updates available for the product, and then tells the user they can download and install them. Generally, Intuit pushes these updates out only when they’ve been debugged and are deemed ready for volumes of users. If people want to get an update before Intuit pushes it out, they may be able to obtain it for manual installation. This is not the recommended method of handling QuickBooks updates; for most users, waiting until the product tells them it’s time to update is best.
QuickBooks online, or QuickBooks Online? Use Software on the web without using Web-based software
There is a trend among software makers these days to more fully leverage the “power of the web”, and why wouldn’t they? The Internet has become the way businesses and users get and stay connected, and has become a foundation for how business gets done. Remote and mobile access to information and applications has become an expectation of users, as social computing models have encouraged them to remain connected on all of their devices and from any location. Online describes a working model that many businesses strive for, and software makers are seeking to capitalize on the trend.
The belief that software should no longer be installed and run from a local device has been adopted by some of the largest software vendors in the market, which would lead many users to expect that this is the important trend to follow. Being encouraged to ditch their desktop software products and transition to using the web-based or SaaS alternative, users who have grown to trust their software products are now facing new buying decisions. Any time a customer is forced to make a buying decision – like moving from a desktop product to a SaaS solution – there is a potential that the customer will go with a different vendor and leave the product line altogether. Yet this is exactly what is happening with small business applications, and specifically with the tried-and true QuickBooks products – the solutions which had become the cornerstone of small business finance.
Where QuickBooks Pro, Premier and Enterprise desktop editions were the favored and trusted small business accounting solutions, Intuit is now on a wholesale push to get users transitioned to the QuickBooks Online edition. In doing so, they’ve opened up the door for new competitors, because they’re forcing their QuickBooks users to make a new buying decision. Assuming that customers will adopt the QuickBooks Online solution simply because it’s “QuickBooks” was perhaps a poor assumption on the part of Intuit. Particularly by naming the product “QuickBooks”, Intuit invested the trust and long-standing recognition of the brand and product line into the online edition, and the user base and market has not been amused. “It may be called QuickBooks, but it’s not the QuickBooks I want” says one customer. Apparently, the QuickBooks Online edition is not what many experienced QuickBooks desktop users are looking for in a new version of the product.
Desktop QuickBooks users don’t have to move to the Online edition just to get the benefits of the cloud with their beloved QB. Secure remote access provider MyQuickCloud, as well as some other hosting companies, help businesses run the QuickBooks desktop products as online service. These providers deliver fully managed applications and data, allowing users to access their QuickBooks desktop products online and from a variety of devices just as if they were web-based. Gaining the benefits of anytime/anywhere access with the added advantage of not changing software is a direction many users are electing to go. While the price of a hosted solution may not be as low as a QuickBooks Online subscription, it is generally far less than a subscription to Salesforce.com, for example. Isn’t the business financial data at least as valuable as CRM? The price isn’t unreasonable, and the benefits of online/remote access, managed IT, protected data, and an ability to take your ball and go home if you like are huge. Grab your data file, install QuickBooks on your PC, and you’re back in action. Can’t do that with most SaaS solutions, can you? It’s only do-able with desktop software, which you can run in the cloud with a hosting provider or run on your own PC.
Assuming that all software will ultimately run online could be a big a mistake. As technology advances and new capabilities introduce new complexities, the “heavy lifting” shifts from the center to the end points and back again. While there may be a trend towards SaaS and leveraging the power of a remote system, the reality is that our devices – desktops and laptops, tablets and phablets and phones – are all getting more powerful. Many SaaS applications and remote access technologies rely upon (and find ways to push more resource utilization to) the local device. Video processes more quickly, input and output devices are more easily recognized, and the storage on the device is faster and easier to access. A lot of work happens on the local device, and it will continue to be this way as the devices continue to get smarter and more powerful. “There’s an app for that” for a reason: apps on the device work well and give users the functionality necessary to get things done efficiently.
SaaS is not all that’s out there – much of the software businesses know and love is still available the way they want it. QuickBooks users need to know they can get their QuickBooks online without having to use QuickBooks Online. The desktop is not dead, and it won’t be for a long time. Desktop software isn’t dead either; it’s just being pushed to the background as software companies attempt to wrap their arms firmly, with subscription based business models, around their respective customer bases.
Whether hosted in-house or offsite, licensing models for hosting QuickBooks can be very confusing.
The demand for solutions to address user mobility, better collaboration and improved information security is increasing as connectivity improves and cloud services and threats evolve. Server-based computing models and application hosting are increasingly popular as businesses seek to embrace teleworking and telecommuting models for their entrenched applications and systems, creating a foundation for improved productivity and work/life balancing (or integration). On the technical side, the benefits of centralizing applications and data include improved efficiency in managing, maintaining and securing systems. For many small businesses, this means centralizing the installation and maintenance of core business applications like Intuit QuickBooks Pro, Premier or Enterprise.
Whether it be offsite with a commercial hosting provider or on a co-located server somewhere, or an onsite installation on the in-house server, hosting Intuit QuickBooks licenses can be straightforward or complicated depending on what you are trying to do with them. Because QuickBooks was designed as a standalone single-user application, there are a number of challenges when it comes to preparing it for server-based use. The primary issue is often simply understanding the QuickBooks licensing model, which is not particularly INTUITive (sorry).
Licensing hosted QuickBooks applications comes with two different sets of implementation issues: the technical implementation (the installation and setup) and the logical allocation of licenses to users (the licensing rules).
When it comes to the technical implementation, many an experienced engineer has beaten their head against the wall trying to get QuickBooks to work properly in a workspace or session-based system (e.g., terminal server), all because they expect the product to implement like a “normal” client/server application. While QuickBooks may use the Sybase database manager guts to handle multi-user access to QuickBooks data files (I think it is still Sybase), the architecture required to properly service a networked QuickBooks installation does not necessarily mimic what would be used with, for example, a .NET desktop client application with an MS SQL back-end. First, the QuickBooks data files cannot be remote to the application, meaning that both the client and the database manager (which is actually working as an adjunct to the client) must exist on the local network; it will not work over a WAN connection, which is why so many folks get frustrated when they put their server “in the cloud” and attempt to connect from a local client using a VPN. It just won’t work that way with QuickBooks; it all has to be on the local network – client, server, data… all of it.
It is notable that many businesses use Dropbox and other file sync solutions because they want to be able to get to their data from multiple locations, but the data they’re getting must be “local” to the apps that use it. It doesn’t allow for simultaneous multi-user access, but it can be an effective way to share a file. The caveat is that the file (at least in the case of a QuickBooks file, or Outlook PST file, etc.) should not actually be used from the sync folder. Sync folder should contain copies of data files that users wish to sync or share with other devices. But I digress…
With a server-based implementation of QuickBooks, technicians will install the QuickBooks desktop software on the server, and will determine whether or not that same machine will also handle the company data files. The QuickBooks DB manager is part of the installation of QuickBooks, and the file system and drive where the QB files are to be managed must be recognized as a local drive on the server running the QBDB manager. The overhead used by the database manager isn’t huge, but it can impact the performance of users on the server. For this reason, some techs will decide to implement a separate file server to manage the QB data files, taking that load off the app server.
- The QuickBooks software uses the database manager to “host” access to company files. This simply means that a single server with the data on it is providing managed access to QuickBooks application users.
- When QuickBooks application software and data is installed and centrally managed on a server (instead of QuickBooks being installed on individual PCs), that means QuickBooks application is being “hosted” on that server.
- When a 3rd party provider supplies the server, the QuickBooks installation, data storage, and your way of connecting to it all, that provider is a “host” providing hosting services for your QuickBooks.
In a dedicated hosting environment, the data is often stored on the same server as the applications, whereas in a shared hosting environment, the data is often stored on central file servers which serve multiple customers. This is why, in some shared hosting situations, one bad data file can take down the database manager services for all the customers using that same file server.
Users open the QuickBooks application on the server instead of having the application installed on individual PCs. The single server-based installation of the software is able to be used concurrently by all users logging in to that computer. With the database manager running, the file is essentially “hosted” on that machine, and the file may then be opened in multi-user mode. OK so far. The problem generally comes about when a second user on the same computer/server wants to open the same QB data file as the first user.
Because the QB database manager is looking at the license of the client application accessing the data file, it will recognize when two different users/sessions with the same license key attempt to open the company data file. If that license key is a single-user key, then the database manager knows it should allow only 1 concurrent user in the file. QuickBooks doesn’t get installed for each user on a computer or server; it is installed one time on the machine and each user on that machine runs from that single shared installation. Any particular version of the QuickBooks application may be installed only once on a single computer, but it is possible to install multiple editions, year versions, and “flavors” of QuickBooks on a single machine (cannot be more than one installation of each unique product). There will be more than a few annoyances when running a variety of QBs on the same computer, but it is technically possible.
In order to allow multiple users to simultaneously access the same data file from a central installation of QuickBooks, the license key installed on the computer must be a multi-user key. QuickBooks Pro, for example, can be keyed to 3 concurrent users, meaning that the license will allow up to 3 users with that same license key to simultaneously access the same company file. Technically (but not lawfully) this installation of QuickBooks on the machine could allow a virtually unlimited number of users to launch the QuickBooks application simultaneously, limited only by machine resources. This is where the logical allocation of licensing comes in.. the rule of licensing QuickBooks.
The logical allocation of unique licenses for each QuickBooks user is a little easier to understand than the technical implementation. The rule is simply that each user of QuickBooks is required to have a valid registered/activated license. That valid license is a license purchased and activated for that business.
Making QuickBooks desktop editions more useful by adding secure remote access and centralized management makes a lot of sense. For companies who rely on the functionality and features of the desktop products (QuickBooks Pro, Premier and Enterprise), a hosted approach is the only way to really address mobility and multi-location requirements. Remember that hosting doesn’t necessarily mean offsite, although that could make sense for the business, too.
Centrally-managing QuickBooks applications and data creates greater efficiency and improves overall IT management capability for the business. At the same time, a centralized model introduces a better strategy for mobilizing the workforce and connecting remote users and offices. The struggles of understanding and implementing proper QuickBooks licensing begin to seem very small when compared to the benefits of deploying a centralized system that’s easier to access, manage and secure.