Integration - Need to know

How much can practitioners gain from new and improved versions of the applications they use to run their practices and service their clients? Lesley Meall ponders the potential of SQL and .Net.

You don't need to know how to build a watch to tell the time,' says Gary Boomer, CEO of Boomer Consulting in the US, and an expert on ways in which accounting practitioners can exploit technology. So, while a few of you might like the idea of exploring the bits and bytes behind technologies such as .Net and SQL, most accountants can forget about the underlying technology as long as they appreciate its potential to change their practice for the better.

'Practitioners need to be able to understand technology well enough to make sense of what the techies are telling them and see how it can benefit their firm and its clients,' says Dr Paul Booth, technical manager of the IT Faculty with the ICAEW, 'and accountants are becoming increasingly IT literate.' So, when Microsoft SQL Server 2005 hits the UK (it was released in the US at the beginning of November) most of you should be able to see the business benefits it offers.

'Most accountants are spreadsheet bigots,' says Boomer, 'and we think we can do anything with one, but we can't.' As he adds: 'Excel isn't a database, and a dedicated tool is much more effective.' Amongst other things, the new release of SQL Server will bring database mirroring and offer a fantastic uptime and a high degree of redundancy; it will also put exceptionally flexible modelling and reporting services at the fingertips of accountants. It will be available in a variety of versions, including a free one, and offer firms the opportunity to transform the way in which technology supports their business.

'I'm sure it'll make a big difference to us,' says Mark Saunders, the partner responsible for IT with the 14-partner firm Wilder Coe, 'but we will get most of our guidance from our software suppliers.' The firm is already using SQL and .Net versions of some of the applications it uses to run its practice, including MYOB, Practice Net and the Practice Engine, and it is keen to use more. 'When all of the applications are available in SQL and .Net versions, we'll be able to link everything very easily,' he says, in theory.

Over the past few years, specialist suppliers have demonstrated an increasing tendency to upgrade their products to make them SQL and .Net compatible; while loudly extolling the virtues of the transition. But beyond the hype some have done more to exploit these benefits to their own advantage, rather than that of their clients.

The industry-standard database technology (SQL) and the strategy for connecting systems (.Net) combine to make it easier for software developers to create new applications and get incompatible systems to work better together. So, they can reduce the time and expense of developing and delivering increased functionality, as well as making it easier for end users to create and share compatible data. As this benefits the best of breed approach, it's not been the focus of much marketing effort. 'Some software companies prefer it if you take their complete range of software,' comments Saunders, and they can make integration more difficult than it needs to be.

'We make the data source available to the firms that are our clients,' says Willy Francis of the Practice Engine Group, 'so that they can extract and manipulate it and export it to other products as easily as possible'.

The software developer also works with other software suppliers to facilitate this, where possible. 'Some are more open to the idea than others.'

But if practices are to exploit the benefits of industry standard technology platforms in the future, without being held back by the integration issues that are an unnecessary hang-up from the past, more suppliers will need to follow suit.

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