The Cloud and the Business Desktop

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.

JJoanie Mann Bunny Feet

Make Sense?

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.

Criteria for Evaluating QuickBooks Hosting Providers: Going Beyond Pricing

Criteria for Evaluating QuickBooks Hosting Providers: Going Beyond Pricing

When a small business elects to run their QuickBooks desktop edition software in the “cloud”, it makes sense to work with an experienced provider – a company with the people and the experience to keep the QuickBooks desktop software working properly and securely.  The keys to selecting the best provider for the business are often hidden in the experiences of others; experiences which reveal issues that may significantly impact vendor selection and which have nothing to do with the price of the service. Criteria such as system performance, responsiveness to technical issues, resources for self-help, and knowledge of support personnel – these are the things that more frequently and directly impact the customer experience and, ultimately, the customer’s loyalty.

While Intuit supports QuickBooks Enterprise in terminal server and Remote Desktop environments, they only support the license when it is deployed for the single business organization the license was issued to. If a business has lots of different users on the platform and those users don’t belong to the one company who “owns” the infrastructure and the license, then the implementation is non-compliant and won’t be supported. Intuit also doesn’t offer direct support for QuickBooks Pro and QuickBooks Premier editions in remote desktop implementations, yet the software will work perfectly well in that environment. There are a few quirks and tricks to using the software in this manner, however, so provider technical experience specifically with QuickBooks is essential.

When working with a company providing managed application hosting services and not just managed server platforms, it generally means that the provider is taking responsibility not only for the server/network/infrastructure, but also for the setup, configuration and maintenance of system users and security, and the installation/management/maintenance of the applications running on the server.  When a business elects to outsource this level of service to any 3rd party, there are a variety of areas in addition to pricing which should be thoroughly explored prior to signing the service agreement.

When evaluating potential service providers, research the provider’s offerings and performance directly as well as evaluating the public’s perception of them, considering these 4 areas:

  1. Technology
  2. Innovation
  3. Business Practices
  4. Customer Satisfaction

The technology evaluation relates not only to the systems and tools applied to the service delivery, but also to the systems or tools applied to assist the customer with dealing with the service.  Too often, providers pay more attention to their ordering systems than their service delivery, believing that a quality customer experience rests more with simple purchasing processes than with a functional and well-performing application service.  Others may focus on delivering the best and highest quality application service, yet relegate their clients to sending emails or making phone calls to place service orders or request service information.  The providers who score the highest points in this category are those who recognize that both elements – service delivery and service administration – are critically important to providing a quality overall customer experience.

The innovation evaluation looks at the actual service infrastructure and delivery. This includes features as well as limitations.  One of the pitfalls of being an application service provider is the inertia created with existing systems and customers.  Once the platform is in place and there are a bunch of users on the systems, upgrading and updating the underlying technologies can be a tremendous challenge.  I have often related this as being like trying to change tires on a moving truck.  Unfortunately, systems age and lose functionality, compatibility, support, etc.

Keeping the platform updated isn’t the only element involved with scoring provider innovation.  Even more important than simple change management supporting status quo, true innovation speaks to efforts directed towards crafting a better, more functional and more useful solution delivery.  Many skilled technicians can set up a terminal server for remote access to QuickBooks using the “standard” tools available, but it takes more skill and understanding to create a service which offers more and better capability than everyone else.  The point isn’t that the provider is changing QuickBooks software in any way – that’s not really an option.  Rather, it is in how the provider elects to architect their systems and solution, and whether they are attempting to improve the experience and deliver with a unique approach rather than a generic one.

With increased competition and as some provider platforms experience challenges either due to age or capacity, certain “interesting” practices have emerged.  I now look at these business practices as part of the process of evaluating providers.  In the early days of hosting and application delivery, the business practices of various providers had some similarities, but not any more.  The practices which frustrate me most and which always cause me to score the provider with low marks in this category relate almost exclusively to transparency – or lack thereof.  Here are two scenarios which I’ve seen come up with some frequency, and which (in my opinion) are indications that the provider may not necessarily be one you want to work with.

  • A business has signed a one-year service agreement with a hosting provider, and has been required to prepay that annual contract.  The business was not provided with a demonstration or evaluation system prior to executing the service agreement; they simply trusted the information provided by sales.  After a few months on the service, the performance and support are so poor that the business wants out of the annual agreement, even though high service levels and support responses were part of the contract.  In order to be allowed to end the service agreement and stop paying for the service, the business was told they would have to not only buy out a portion of the remaining contract, but also sign an agreement not to communicate the service problems they experienced or the exit agreement terms with anyone. (*please note that I am essentially in agreement about having to buy out a committed term agreement, at least in part, but applying a gag order? Not so much).
  • A business is using the services of a hosting provider, and has a need to know details of their delivery (like server operating system version) in order to verify compatibility with a new software product they wish to purchase.  Before the business customer is allowed to obtain the information, the provider requires that they sign an agreement promising not to disclose the information they may receive to any other party.  (*note: While I recognize that this type of agreement is desirable to protect proprietary information, it is more often used to prevent the prospective customer from disclosing something potentially negative, and it certainly doesn’t do much in terms of building trust.)

The final evaluation is on customer satisfaction, where anecdotes and information is collected from both current and past customers of the provider.  Admittedly, much of this information I scour from various forums and discussion groups and interviews but it is truly amazing what you can learn about a business simply by listening to customer stories in various social venues.  The picture these stories paint is often (frequently!) very different from the “happy sunshine and rainbows” testimonials you find on websites and in marketing brochures.  Of course, who would buy from a provider who says their “support is great until you’ve been with us for a month, and then we pretty much don’t care about you any more”.  Also, people tend to be more vocal when they’re mad about something, so there is often more negative than positive out there in the social realm, so weight that carefully.  But the fact that certain provider names come up more often than others is the clue; when you don’t see the provider name come up in these discussions, it usually means they’re simply not making people mad.

There is a lot to consider in selecting the right service provider for the business, and the items listed above are just part of it.  While there are some (few) standards among application service providers, it is still what some might refer to as an “emerging” model and will continue to evolve with the market demand and technology.

For now, businesses just need to know that their solution provider is trustworthy and willing to communicate honestly and completely. Selecting the right provider – a provider who supports their business and model with full transparency to the client –  will help the business move forward just as the wrong provider is more likely to hold it back.  While pricing is an important and unavoidable aspect of the discussion, businesses should also put some focus on these other elements which help to reveal how the provider works with their customers, and to determine whether or not they can (or will even try to) meet your requirements now and in the future. 

Make Sense?

Joanie Mann Bunny FeetJ