With the accounting industry moving towards cloud computing and fully online working models, users of Intuit QuickBooks desktop editions may believe that their best option is to migrate to a web-based edition of the software rather than continuing to use the version of QuickBooks they have come to rely on. While QuickBooks Online Edition may seem like the best option for anytime, anywhere access to financial applications and data, it might not provide the functionality or features that QuickBooks desktop edition users need. When the business needs the full capability of the desktop edition product, hosting that solution with an application hosting service provider may be the right answer.
“Hosting” QuickBooks desktop editions means that a hosting service provider installs and manages the QuickBooks software and the company data files on their own cloud-based servers. Users don’t have to install QuickBooks on their PC, because they use the Internet to connect to their QuickBooks software and company data hosted by the service provider. Whether the service is accessed by clicking on an icon on the local PC desktop or by logging in via a web page or portal, the underlying technology is still Windows and QuickBooks.
The Benefits of Hosting
There are numerous benefits to having QuickBooks desktop editions hosted and managed for the business:
- Anytime, anywhere access. Being able to run the QuickBooks software and access company data via the Internet allows business users to work in a single company data file no matter where they may be working from. Businesses with multiple locations or a mobile workforce find that centralized access to applications and data allows users to function as though they were all in the same office.
- No retraining and no data conversion. Businesses can move their existing data to the host rather than converting it to a new format, and users of the solution don’t need to be retrained on the software because it is the same software they have been using.
- Collaboration with outside parties, such as an outsourced bookkeeper or accountant. Accounting professionals can work on client accounts more frequently, seamlessly sharing data with the client even as the client may be working in the system. Eliminating the need to copy or sync data files, and creating a means for outside professionals to work more closely with the business can be a key element in the success of an outsourced relationship.
- Reduces the IT management burden for the business. Outsourcing the sourcing, implementation, and ongoing management of computing and software systems allows business owners to focus on the business operation rather than on the technology which supports it. In addition to delivering a considerable amount of freedom to the business owner, outsourcing IT services may also deliver significant cost savings for the business.
Hosting QuickBooks Can Be Complicated
Using a hosted QuickBooks model can benefit business users in a lot of ways, but it is important to recognize that a hosted application approach is not the same as a “true” SaaS or cloud-based application approach. For businesses considering a move from locally-installed QuickBooks to hosted QuickBooks desktop editions, there are a few things you should know that may help you determine whether or not this is the right move for you.
With most web-based application solutions, there is a single application and data framework which serves all subscribers. This model is often referred to as SaaS (Software as a Service), where the web-based application is the service, and the infrastructure supporting it is invisible to the user. This type of architecture is more cost-efficient to deploy for many users, and system redundancy and fault tolerance are designed into the solution. A hosted QuickBooks service, on the other hand, must work with the QuickBooks desktop products as designed. This means that the QuickBooks desktop editions still need all the typical resources the PC-based installation requires, and that the applications must be deployed in a fairly individualized manner for each user, consuming more system resources per user. Because of this the cost and complexity of a hosted QuickBooks approach is generally higher than with SaaS/cloud solutions. At a very basic level, most QuickBooks hosting providers are able to deploy desktop editions of QuickBooks with most of the features and functionality present in the application.
There are a number of areas of the QuickBooks application which are designed directly in conflict with the concept of a hosted, shared application service model, making QuickBooks hosting a fairly complicated business.
Installing the correct application licensing levels and multiple editions of the product, allowing individual user settings for printers and forms, and even providing multi-user access are areas where some service providers are challenged. It depends on how the service provider implements the solution as to whether or not these challenges are adequately addressed or overcome. In many cases, as with individual user settings (including last file used, printer setups, etc.) the provider may decide to go with a “lowest common denominator” approach, giving each user a default or generic setup each time the user logs in.
Third Party Applications:
There are also business risks involved if the platforms or hosted applications are not properly licensed. In a hosted environment, it may be technically possible to give users access to software applications for which they have no valid license or right to access. Further, there are certain application licenses which do not allow hosting by 3rd parties. Service providers are challenged not only with properly licensing their own platforms and systems, but must also ensure that all customer applications to be hosted are properly licensed and eligible for hosted delivery.
Multiple User Performance and the Number of Servers:
The QuickBooks desktop product was not designed to be run by multiple users simultaneously on a single computer, which is essentially what the hosting service is providing. For example, if one user wants to print a report or perform a reconciliation, they may be repeatedly presented with a message such as “the file exists”, which they can only click through until the process finally completes. This is an extremely frustrating situation for users as they are unable to complete the task in the software, and the service provider is often powerless to alleviate the problem in any other way but by throw more servers at it. Adding more servers and handling fewer users on each server increases the complexity of delivery dramatically, and therefore the cost.
The question of adding servers becomes an even larger issue when the provider considers how to handle software updates and upgrades, which occur quite frequently in the QuickBooks world. The service provider must manage and install software updates and are compelled to perform these updates as quickly and as frequently as they become available, largely because the user is notified of the update from within the QuickBooks program. When users are told they need to update their software, they generally try to do so. When an error is then displayed, or if the user continues to get a message that the software must be updated, it is a perceived service issue or failure.
When the provider has a large number of servers running the same software products, they must update those installations in a short time frame, so that users are not faced with potentially incompatible versions or differences which could corrupt the data file. When users from the same company log in they may be running on several different application servers. This means that it is possible for them to end up with different versions of the application if the provider has not updated all servers at the same time. The more servers there are running a software product, the more difficult it becomes for the provider to ensure that all instances of the product are updated at the same time.
QuickBooks Database Manager:
In a single-company network, the QuickBooks database manager is used to broker multi-user access to the QuickBooks data file. With this type of implementation there is generally a single database manager running, matching the year version of the QuickBooks product. In a hosted environment, the service provider likely has multiple database managers running, because the hosting environment is supporting multiple year versions of the product. In most cases the service provider is offering hosting for up to 4 year-versions of QuickBooks at any point in time.
The difficulty with the database manager is not in the fact that several year versions of the DB manager may be required on the file server or servers, it is in the fact that the database manager is not able to adequately report on its activities on the server. When the service provider offers multiple year versions of QuickBooks, each year version must be handled by the database manager software for that year. When these multiple database managers are installed on the same file server, only the most current year edition running is able to provide even basic information on the DB manager activities. This is not an issue or problem unless the database manager has trouble, hanging up and not responding to requests, or simply crashing.
The result of a database manager crash is the inability to access the QuickBooks company file in multi-user mode, and the program may freeze or stop responding as well. Frequently, QuickBooks database manager crashes are caused by QuickBooks company data files which become corrupt or unreadable. When this occurs on a local business network, the solution is usually to simply stop and restart the database manager on the server. If the problem persists, then the data file may need to be conditioned or repaired.
When a database manager crashes on a hosted system, all customers on that same file server and running that same year version of QuickBooks will experience the crash. When the crash is caused by a bad QuickBooks company file, the identification of the user and the offending data file is extremely difficult because the Database manager is not reporting which file caused it to crash. Only when the customer attempts to open the file repeatedly, repeatedly crashing the server, and then ultimately calling for technical support from the provider is the offending file identified (maybe).
Finding the Right Hosting Provider
While QuickBooks in a hosted environment is not perfect, most hosts do a very good job of managing the intricacies of QuickBooks products in their environments, and provide high levels of application functionality and service to their subscribing customers. Many providers also do a fine job of supporting QuickBooks compatible add-on applications.
Finding the correct service provider for your business should be approached with a thorough understanding of what you expect from the service and provider, and what is your responsibility.
- Remember that the hosting service provider does not control how the software is built – they only get to work with the software that Intuit distributes to the market, the same as anyone else. This means that you shouldn’t expect anything more from the software, simply because it is hosted.
- Intuit determines which QuickBooks licenses may be hosted and which licenses are available for rental subscription, and each provider makes their own choices on which of those solutions to offer. Make sure that the specific editions and versions required are available from the service provider, and find out what their policies are regarding updates and upgrades.
- Each Authorized Commercial Host for QuickBooks has an essential level of system security and redundancy, and every provider has a responsibility to make sure you can access your software and data. But technology is not perfect, and problems may arise. Understanding the host’s method of providing customer support and communicating with customers during a service events or issue is an important aspect of working with them.
- The operating model and business practices of the hosting service providers may vary a great deal from one to another, and it is the customer responsibility to understand the terms and conditions of services from their selected provider, including payment and cancellation terms as well as guaranteed service levels and support responses
- Every service provider determines their own approach to platforms and system architecture, so you shouldn’t make any assumptions about whether or not you can have additional software hosted, your various peripheral devices will be supported, or even that all your computing devices will be supported. Verify all of these things with the provider to make sure you are getting what you expect. You, the subscribing customer, are responsible for making sure you have adequate licensing for the products you are using, and that the licenses conform to the requirements of a hosted delivery. (An example of this might be an Adobe Acrobat license, which must be a volume license to support valid installation on a terminal server). It is equally critical that you also know that the provider is adequately licensing any platforms or applications they provide to your users as part of the service. If you get something for free, you may want to check a bit further and make sure you should be getting it at all (like Word/Excel “functionality”).
- The service provider is responsible for obtaining and installing software updates for products they are hosting. However, if you request that the provider host a product as part of a customized service, then you will likely be required to provide the application software, updates, and licensing. Once again, make sure that the licensing you provide is eligible for installation by a 3rd party application hosting service.
- Each customer is responsible for maintenance of their company data files and keeping archive backups. This means that it is important that you perform periodic conditioning of the data file so that your data doesn’t cause problems on the host system. It also means that, while the service provider likely makes at least daily backups of whatever data you have on their system, they aren’t keeping that “month-end” or quarterly backup copy of the data file like you’re used to. You need to make backup copies of your data file on the host system if you wish to keep an archive of a month-end, quarter or year-end data file. These archive backup files, as well as the company file you use normally, would then be part of the regular backup performed by the provider.
All in all, a hosted QuickBooks solution can be a great choice for many businesses, as well as the accounting and bookkeeping professionals supporting them. Easing the burdens of dealing with QuickBooks installations and management of multiple editions and versions, especially for accountants and bookkeepers, is a big deal.
For business users in general, a hosted approach can deliver the same application capabilities, functionality and modality as locally-installed desktop applications, yet with many of the added benefits of an outsourced IT and cloud application approach. Managed service, security and data protection, and mobile and remote access are features added to the solution when it is hosted by an application service provider, making some hosted application deliveries seem much more like SaaS or cloud solutions. Unlike a SaaS or cloud solution, however, if you aren’t satisfied with a QuickBooks hosting service, you can always just take your ball and go home.