Client/Server Accounting and Information Systems

In this article, I discuss the integral role of client/server accounting and information systems in helping today’s businesses meet competitive challenges. First, I will provide an outline of the client/server computing model. I will address how to determine whether the client/server model is optimal for running your company’s accounting applications. I will then briefly discuss three examples of off the shelf client/server accounting software solutions. Finally, I will touch on the process we use in helping our clients in the development, evaluation and selection of business accounting and information software.

The essence of the client/server model is a three tier application architecture employing object oriented design principles in each tier. The first tier is the presentation tier. This is typically a desktop application that runs under a GUI (Graphical User Interface) operating environment such as Microsoft Windows, OS/2 Presentation Manager, Motif, or Macintosh. This GUI application often integrates with other desktop applications through various workgroup productivity tools such as Lotus Notes and document imaging tools. The next tier is the business rules tier. These are the rules that apply to the operation of your business, such as how a billing or a credit request is handled. The third tier is the database management system. The database structure, which in a relational database is represented by rows, tables, views, keys, data dictionaries, relations, rules, and operators, is in essence a mirror of your business and how it functions. Sybase SQL Server, Oracle, and Informix are examples of true relational database systems employed in this tier. In the physical implementation of the client/server model, the GUI desktop application typically resides on the "client" and the database and business rules layer are on the server. In the most sophisticated client/server and distributed computing implementations, application processing is partitioned across multiple servers spread out over multiple sites.

This three tier model contrasts with the "older" yet still used model that incorporates all three tiers into one, often proprietary application or program. There are at least two major problems with this "older" approach. First, you are locked into proprietary hardware and software from one vendor. Second such applications are often difficult and costly to change. In a world of privatization, regulation, deregulation, expanded international markets, mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, layoffs and rapidly shifting customer relationships, the inability of your IS department to rapidly respond to such change can spell the death of your business.

A business needs to look at restructuring its applications along client/server lines if those applications fail to provide the quick, on the spot retrieval of vital information needed to make critical business decisions. Client/server implementations often require substantial hardware and software acquisitions.Even taking into account the replacement of high maintenance mainframes and minis with low cost workstations and servers, it may "cost" more in the short run to implement client/server solutions. However, a client/server IS strategy, combined with sound business planning allows your company to rapidly adapt to change of all types and stay competitive. In some cases it can impact on the company’s very survival.

Typically companies do not start from scratch when implementing client/server applications. If they have a mainframe or mini system, it may still be used for data storage, network management and transactional processing. Sometimes companies will give their older host applications a "face lift," by writing new GUI front ends for them. This last approach is often doomed to failure since the underlying application and design metaphor has not changed. What you end up with is a pretty application with no additional functionality that is even harder to use than the original!

Today there are a growing number of off the shelf client/server end user solutions written with 4th Generation tools. Examples of such 4GL design tools include Visual Basic, PowerBuilder, Gupta’s SQL Windows, Dynasty and Forte. The applications written with these 4GLs are often portable across multiple operating environments such as Windows, Motif, Macintosh, and OS/2 Presentation Manager. Further, through middleware technologies such as ODBC and EDA/SQL, these applications can access data from a large variety of relational and non-relational databases. Properly designed end user applications developed with these tools will be easy to modify while maintaining full application integrity.
I will now briefly touch on three examples of-off-the shelf client/server applications that are geared to solving the demanding accounting needs of mid to large companies. The three include Platinum Software Corporation’s SeQuel to Platinum, Great Plain’s Dynamics C/S+ and Timeline’s Open Financial Server.

SeQuel to Platinum is written to exploit the power of the Sybase SQL Server RDBMS. It fully supports stored procedures, triggers and rules. It uses gateway products from Sybase to access data on other RDBMS systems such as Oracle and DB2. On the client side, it supports Microsoft Windows, Windows NT and OS/2 Presentation Manager. On the server, it supports Netware, OS/2, UNIX and Windows NT. Modules currently include: General Ledger/Financial Report Generator, Order Entry, Inventory, Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable, Purchase Order and Cash Management, SeQuel Publisher and SeQuel Tools. SeQuel Tools is a comprehensive collection of programming specifications, APIs and utility programs. SeQuel tools incorporates RAD (Rapid Application Development) technology with the ability to generate applications that are portable across Windows, Windows NT and OS/2 Presentation Manager.

The initial release of Great Plain’s Dynamics C/S+ will support the Faircom Server. Faircom Corporation’s widely used database technology is also incorporated in the Macintosh and UNIX versions of Great Plains Software. Dynamics C/S+ supports what Great Plains calls the process server. Various process intensive tasks such as report printing and large batch postings can be assigned to one or more designated processor servers, thus easily distributing the workload and optimizing performance. The General Ledger coding scheme is quite flexible, supporting up to 66 character account codes and 41 definable account segments. Current modules include General Ledger with Advanced Financial Analysis, Payables Management, Receivables Management, Invoicing, Inventory Control and Payroll. Great Plains used their own development tool, also available to end users, called Dexterity to develop Dynamics C/S+. Macintosh, Windows and shortly Windows NT are supported on the client side, and applications developed with Dexterity are portable across these GUI environments.

Timeline, Inc. was founded by an investor group that includes former Microsoft President Michael Hallman. With Timeline’s Open Financial Server product, there is no restriction on the size of the account code block or its reporting hierarchy. Open Financial Server itself is written in Microsoft Access and uses Access Wizards that accept user defined account number structure, reporting relationships and optional data fields to generate the forms, tables and reports needed to support the accounting system. The source code table allows you to define the kinds of transactions you will be processing for your accounting system. Specific source codes, in turn, can be associated with user defined update or processing rules such as whether management approval is required, which accounting periods can be updated and which amount fields are updated in the database. Open Financial Server allows a choice of servers including SQL Server, Sybase and Oracle.

We offer a variety of approaches to guide your business through the Client/Server maze. The services we can provide your company are as focused or broad based as you desire. A broad based approach may involve assembling a team of consultants with appropriate industry specific and/or application development expertise. We flowchart and analyze a department or company’s key business processes. We analyze your work flow, forms, applications and databases. We then combine an in depth knowledge of your business needs with our systems integration expertise to develop a comprehensive game plan. A flexible plan that establishes priorities, details expectations and sets timetables. We will work with you to implement that plan and then continuously monitor the results. A more focused approach may involve doing a business needs analysis and presenting off the shelf accounting, retail, medical, distribution or manufacturing solutions for review. Please feel free to provide feedback concerning areas that are of most interest to you.

Lowell Greenberg
Copyright Lowell Greenberg. All rights reserved.
Revised: September 28, 1996.

 

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