Contrary to What You Learned in Grade School… Sharing is Bad, Okay?

There is a place and time for sharing. Share your color crayons, share your toys… share your feelings with those you love. But when it comes to business technology and infrastructure, sharing isn’t always the best approach. Some things you should just keep for yourself… like the servers you use for hosting business desktops, desktop applications and business data.

When we first began the journey of bringing small business desktops and applications like QuickBooks to the Internet, the “cloud” was not yet a thing. Hosting providers put up servers in racks in data centers, installed software and stored data on behalf of customers, and did their best to find ways of making the service affordable. Elastic resources, massive scalability and built-in redundancy (which are benefits of a real cloud fabric) were not generally available nor were they even remotely affordable. Because the hardware, networking and other resources that make up the hosting infrastructure is costly, it is important for the hosting service provider to be able to spread those costs across the entire customer base.

In most cases, this meant creating shared servers where many customers run their applications and store their data. Even when a provider suggests that a customer has a “private” server, there is still a good chance the server is using shared storage and/or networking resources made accessible in the environment.

Sharing can be a good thing or a bad thing, and it often depends on the behavior of those involved. In shared application hosting environments, particularly desktop hosting environments, there is a lot of potential for intentionally and unintentionally causing problems that can and will impact other users and customers on the platform.

A simple provisioning error might allow a user to see data belonging to another company or have access to applications or services they should not.

With shared resources, bad actors and intruders can often escape permission boundaries, attaching to network shares and other computers on the platform.

Malware accidentally introduced by an innocent user from one company could easily penetrate the entire system, following paths to data storage locations and other servers, spreading the problem to many customers and systems and even data centers.

If you are operating on the compromised system you are at risk, even if the compromise wasn’t initiated by one of  your users or from within one of your applications.

In the realm of QuickBooks hosting providers, the issues around sharing infrastructure and resources have created some very difficult situations for hosts and for their customers alike – especially when it comes to dealing with computer viruses, malware and ransomware. A few high-profile events, as well as numerous incidents which have flown under the radar, have revealed just how damaging the shared approach can be.

With the IRS, AICPA and other agencies issuing increasingly strong guidance for tax and accounting professionals to protect client information, finance professionals should strongly consider the risk introduced through shared hosting service arrangements and evaluate if it is greater than the costs of having a more private system.

Cloud platforms available today are fully matured, delivering scalability and agility at price levels that are affordable even for very small businesses.  No longer solely for enterprise enjoyment, real cloud solutions and delivery models can be used by small businesses for desktop and application hosting without compromise. Every business deserves their own cloud, and we know how to make that affordable.

Cooper Mann works with teams deploying on the Microsoft Azure platform, offering an agility in design not previously available with legacy computing approaches. Because every delivery is absolutely private to each customer, the solution can be scaled up (or down!) on demand to suit the specific needs of the individual business. More important is the fact that each customer operates separately, so any bad behavior the system may suffer from is their own.

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QuickBooks 2018 Updates and Enhancements

QuickBooks 2018: Changes You See and Updates You Can’t See

QuickBooks 2018 has been released, and there are a number of beneficial enhancements and changes to the application that many will find very useful.  Sometimes it is the little things – like a past-due stamp that can be printed on invoices when they are re-sent to a customer – that can make getting the work done just a bit easier. Being able to search the chart of accounts is another thing that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but becomes one when you just can’t remember the account number you’re looking for. Frequently having to scroll through the list of accounts is taking more of your time than you’d think it would.

For the most part, it looks like there are some nice and needed changes that come with QuickBooks 2018. These changes address some functionality and usability issues (like supporting multiple monitors) and are visible to the user.  There are also other important changes that come with QB 2018 editions that aren’t quite as visible.

All editions (Pro, Premier and Enterprise) in the US, Canada and UK got some common updates, including:

  • Multiple monitor support
  • Search in the Chart of Accounts
  • Cash/Accrual toggle on reports
  • Past Due Stamp
  • Keyboard shortcuts for copy/paste lines in transactions
  • Secure Webmail option

For folks using payroll, there are now useful reminders for payroll tax liabilities, and for accountant edition users there is now the ability to merge multiple vendor records.  An exciting feature for many users of QB Enterprise is improvement to the sales order fulfillment process, including support for mobile (un-tethered) barcode scanners.

The changes that remain less visible to the user are primarily component updates and security improvements.  Additional encryption for certain PII (personally identifiable information) fields, version updates of framework and database components, and reliance on Internet Explorer v11 are among the items addressed. While these are not visible changes that impact the program functionality directly, they are necessary to keep the product up to date with Windows platform and to modernize the security in the product. In particular, users should pay attention to the requirement for Internet Explorer v11.  While Microsoft continues to promote Edge as the power browser for Windows 10, it is Internet Explorer v11 that QuickBooks requires.

It is important to note that Intuit‘s support for 3rd party applications is sometimes impacted with QuickBooks updates, particularly when it comes to security, encryption and unattended access to QuickBooks data.  Changes made to how QuickBooks encrypts stored credentials (among other things) caused many 3rd party solutions to lose their ability to connect to and sync data with QuickBooks while unattended (like a middle of the night sync, when nobody else is working).  Many applications had to return to a user-attended sync process, where a user in QuickBooks had to manually initiate the sync which allows the application to connect to QuickBooks and run.  With the release of QuickBooks 2018 this issue remains, which means that you should check with your 3rd party software provider regarding any possible automation changes or additional configuration that might be required due to the update.

For those running QuickBooks in a server-based or hosted environment, there are a few additional considerations regarding some of the changes in QuickBooks 2018. Some of these items represent known technical limitations of working in a terminal server/RDS/hosted environment, and sometimes they’re limitations or restrictions based on the technology being used and how it is applied. It is in this area where the suggestion that hosted QuickBooks will work EXACTLY as the program does when locally installed is not entirely true.

Multiple monitor support, for example, may or may not be easily handled by your hosting provider or remote access solution.  In particular, if you access your hosted service as a Remote Desktop or Virtual Desktop, you may have only one actual Window (the remote desktop window) to work with.  Even if your hosted QuickBooks were to attempt to open multiple popup windows so you could move them to different monitors, you’ll still be limited to the dimensions of your remote desktop. If the remote desktop doesn’t span over multiple monitors, then the QuickBooks windows that open in the remote desktop window won’t either.

The option to keep a user logged in to QuickBooks is another item that may not be useful or workable in a hosted environment, and isn’t necessarily a great idea even if running QB on a local computer.  This option keeps the user logged in to the QB “instance” which can make working with lots of company files a bit faster and makes loading/unloading QB seem faster because it doesn’t really unload or shut down.  While it may be convenient to eliminate the wait times during these login processes, the offset in security risk and problematic application functionality may be higher.  Leaving a user connected to QB for a fast login means that an unattended PC becomes a vulnerability as someone could access the app and files without having to enter credentials every time.  In a hosted environment, the functionality tends to leave QuickBooks running in a user session, often causing the user to be unable to launch QuickBooks if they log off and back on to the host system (getting the message that QuickBooks is already running or the company file is already open).

Support for 3rd party integrations varies in hosting environments, too, but the granting of administrative permissions to users is largely consistent: users do not get administrative permissions. This means that some applications which require Windows administrator permissions to run cannot be easily handled in a hosted delivery.  Additionally, applications that run as services on the computer, and particularly those with controls accessible via the task manager, are difficult to manage in a hosted environment because users are generally not able to access the task manager on the machine to start or stop running services.

Among the most challenging items to support in a hosted environment are mobile and handheld scanning devices.  Mobile scanning devices have become essential tools for inventory and product management, providing users with the ability to rapidly access item information by simply scanning a barcode.  Manually keying in data increases the potential for errors, but also requires a machine with a keyboard be nearby. With mobile scanners, workers are able to input item information regardless of whether they have a computer nearby or not (which is often the case in a warehouse or out on the shop or store floor). The software sees the barcode scanner input as though the data were typed in, which eliminates input errors and failed lookups by ensuring the item number is correctly entered every time.

Where the challenge with a hosted solution comes to play is in communicating between the hosted software (QuickBooks in this case) and the scanner device.  Usually, a scanner must be able to “see” the computer running QuickBooks on the local network.  The scanning device, like a networked printer, is able to communicate directly with the PC on the network so it is able to work with the software running on the PC.  When the QuickBooks software is running on the hosting provider’s computers, the mobile scanners in your business location aren’t able to “see” the host computers on the local network so they may not be able to communicate.

The time for software upgrades is also the time to take a look at how you’re implementing the software to ensure that your business has the most effective and easy to manage system possible. Rather than simply installing the new version on top of the old, consider whether your systems and software might be handled in a more cost efficient and useful manner.

If you’re installing the new QuickBooks editions in-house, maybe it makes sense to take a look at doing a server-based approach, which reduces the number of software installs required, centralizes the access and applications which makes managing the system easier, and creates a single system to back up and administer.

If you’re looking to eliminate the burdens of installing and maintaining your software, backing up your systems and dealing with hardware issues, moving to a managed hosting solution may be the right answer.

Software upgrade time is the right time to explore these options, giving your business the opportunity to test out new delivery models and services without impacting the production system.  There is always some element of risk in updating applications, so it is important to make sure things are ready before starting the process. Make sure all systems are fully backed up, and make sure you have the tools necessary to re-install the old versions of your applications just in case there are changes you can’t work with or problems you didn’t expect. If you’re not sure the best way to approach upgrading your QuickBooks system, contact me and we’ll find the right answer together.

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