The Cloud – for beginners

It would be impossible to ignore all the recent discussion on “The Cloud” in particular and the benefits of cloud computing generally. However, as with most must haves there is an element of confusion and mis-information and I hope this short article will help clarify some of the issues.

Over the years, there have been many paradigm shifts in accounting practices – in recent memory these have included the introduction of the PC, the internet itself, the requirement for online filing of returns with HMRC and very soon the adoption of iXBRL for tagging accounts and tax computations.

There can be little doubt that The Cloud is the next major shift.

So what is it exactly? It doesn’t help that over the past few years there have been a number of name changes to suit whatever’s fashionable at the time. When I first became involved with the concept some 11 years ago with the introduction of Easycounting, one of the first internet based accounting systems, it was known as  ASP (Application Service Provider). It then transformed into SAAS (Software as a Service)  and is currently being referred to as the Cloud. What it might be called in a few months time is anybody’s guess and is it any wonder there is some confusion!

And to match its differing labels are a variety of definitions. However, in my view the simplest and best summary is:

“ using the internet to host your software applications and store your data files”

The essence and the simplicity is that applications and data are stored, via the internet on remote servers. Information can be accessed and processes run from wherever and whenever there is internet access. A popular definition, coined by John Paterson, of what was then referred to as an SaaS application, takes this concept further…known as the Hotel test it states:

“Next time you’re on holiday, walk into the hotel lobby and log on to your application using whatever machine and browser they have. If you can access all the data and all the functionality in your SaaS application immediately, without having to download any extra software, it’s a true SaaS product.”

Whilst there are many advantages in Cloud use, principal amongst them must be the easier, swifter and smoother communication with clients in that you can both access the same data at the same time. This can only enhance your client service offering and improve efficiency when discussing issues and monthly accounts etc.

Other advantages include:

  • Remote working – it is not always necessary to travel to client premises to access their information and work on their accounts.
  • Anytime -anywhere access – staff can also work from remote locations.
  • Obviates problems of file transfer and issues arising from version shift etc.
  • Upgrades happen automatically – no rolling out of new software every time there is an amendment.
  • Potential infrastructure cost savings

When discussing the Cloud, the question of security often raises its ugly head and as with many issues relating to new technology and ideas, perception quickly becomes reality and takes on a life of its own.

The reality is that security using the Cloud is better than that prevailing in most office networks. Most Cloud applications are operating from dedicated hosting environments where security and back-ups are far superior to anything that could be achieved in everyday environments.

When, for example, did you last check your that your backup (indeed when did you last make a backup?) could realistically be reinstated onto your system in the event of a hardware failure?

There’s no doubt, gainsayers notwithstanding, The Cloud is here to stay and in eighteen months to two years, I predict it will become the norm. A note there for all of us that it’s important to gain the high ground now, whilst the opportunity exists.

The virtual office – part 2

When I first set up my new practice – RFM Associates – about six months ago, I wrote a blog entitled the Virtual Office, giving a brief overview of how I was operating in a virtual environment.

I thought I would revisit the subject to see how things have worked out, how processes have changed and how it has affected the way the practice operates

Apart from my team growing in numbers – and actually emphasising the efficiency of working in a virtual environment, the major change has been that I have deserted Bill Gates for Steve Jobs and have become a committed Mac user. This was largely instigated by my Iphone and Ipad use as it just made sense to complete the set. Having done so it is obvious that the Mac aficionados have been correct in their praise of what, in my opinion, is a far superior operating system.

As for the virtual environment, it has greatly increased the efficiency of working both with the team and clients. By using only Cloud applications, location is irrelevant and we can work wherever we happen to be situated. The support team have access to all files and documents without the need for expensive network equipment and logistics.

As an aside, I spent the year end break researching various Cloud applications and Ipad tools. One of the apps that I investigated was  Remote Conductor which effectively enabled the Ipad to act as a remote connector to the desktop so that files etc and software can be operated on the Ipad. It is a clever app and works well (there are others as well) but I realised that I actually didn’t have any need for it as I don’t keep any files or run any applications on the desktop. Everything is done in the Cloud.

Anything I start or need to access on any one of my devices is immediately available on all the others – having started this blog on the Ipad, I finished it on my desktop and can review it on my Iphone. The unexpected call from a client means I can access their information wherever I happen to be. (Ok this may not be an advantage but you get the point!

So an update on what we are using:

Email – Google Apps. A very efficient and fully featured application. Calendars are accessible by the team so that we all know where everyone is or meant to be. There are plenty of additional applications which are accessible through Google apps and can be rolled out centrally. Contacts are available to everyone in the organisation and applications such as Manymoon and Norada 360 work well as task managers and client data bases.

File storage – Dropbox. A great cloud based filing system enabling all client files and data to be stored in a secure and centralised Cloud application. File folders can be shared amongst designated members and can be accessed from any location. It is also an excellent method of obtaining and sharing information with clients – avoiding the need for restrictive emailing of large attachments. A particular client with whom I work is responsible for almost 100individual companies. Year end accounts are made available via a shared dropbox folder which increases the efficiency with which such a large amount of data can be exchanged with the client.

Accounting – regular readers will know that I work closely with E-conomic, a leading Cloud based accounting system. Clients can share data efficiently and we can access accounting reports in real time. The system works especially well in our outsourcing department with clients scanning in their invoices which can then be processed and linked at a transactional level.

There are, of course, many alternatives to the above applications and these are growing exponentially. But the principal remains the same -anytime anywhere access. Limited IT infrastructure and true working flexibility.

The virtual office is here to stay – I am just waiting for my virtual cup of coffee!