Tips for Selecting a QuickBooks Hosting Provider for Your Business
Hosted and managed application services are not really new technology – they are very similar to the service bureau computing models of years past, where green-screen dumb terminals were connected via telephone lines to large host systems located “somewhere else”. Today, remote desktop technologies and high-speed Internet connectivity are combined to allow hosted services to deliver the performance and functionality, and nearly as much flexibility, as localized computing.
With Intuit’s announcement of an authorized QuickBooks Hosting program early in 2010 came increasing levels of market awareness of the potential benefits of a centralized, hosted QuickBooks model. While some providers had been offering hosted QuickBooks software for years, the program created by Intuit has encouraged others to join into the model. Unfortunately, some wanting to join the model have proven to be providers with little or no experience in delivering managed application services. Others, who may have experience in hosting QuickBooks, saw barriers to the program and decided not to participate. This puts their clients as risk by using a solution which is unsupported by the software license or developer.
How does a business select a hosting service provider for their critical business financial applications and data when there are so many companies saying they can do this? Here are a few basic criteria that should be met by any provider, and then it comes down to the details – and we all know that’s where the “gotchas” are.
Following is some general guidance we can provide on ASP (application service provider) or hosting provider selection. This list is not exhaustive by any means, and there may be other important aspects of the delivery that your specific business or unique situation may need to address.
1. Is the hosting provider authorized by Intuit as a commercial host for QuickBooks?
If you’re going to use QuickBooks software in a hosted environment, you should make sure your provider is authorized by Intuit to deliver the service. Opinions vary on this subject, but the facts are the facts:
Intuit requires that commercial hosts certify with the MSPA (Managed Service Provider Alliance) prior to engaging with Intuit. This accreditation validates certain aspects of the provider delivery, so at least there is a basic assurance that the provider has the necessary elements to provide a hosted application solution. Intuit then takes it further by requiring that the host agree to meet certain basic requirements in terms of infrastructure redundancy and data management.
Further, the ability to assure customers of the valid use of their software licensing, and to not invalidate their ability to get support for that software, is a very legitimate basis for requiring Intuit authorization.
2. How does the service provider package and charge for services? Ask what the basic subscription covers, and what other things might you be charged for with that service (setup fees, annual software upgrades or updates, etc). Is the service shared/public cloud or private?
Some providers offer only shared (public cloud) services, where all servers have the same software on them, and subscribers are balanced among these servers. When this is the case, it may be difficult or impossible to add certain applications to the hosting service. Further, it generally means that, when software updates are introduced, those updates span to all servers in the series – for good or bad. The biggest benefit of this type of delivery is increased fault-tolerance, because if one server goes down, you can generally connect to a different one and continue working with a minimum of disruption. The drawbacks are generally lack of flexibility in adding applications, integrations, and ad-hoc services.
While most providers offer some level of shared service, they may also offer custom (private cloud) services where the business can elect to have a variety of software applications hosted and managed by the provider. The custom delivery model requires much more from the service provider in terms of experience and expertise with software installations and management, and capacity planning. The concept of getting your own “virtual server” may seem compelling, because the service provider sells the benefits of having almost any applications you want. The downside is that many providers do not provide the consulting and planning that should accompany such a system, and allow the client to get into trouble with incompatible applications or overburdening the system with too many applications or too much data.
If the provider offers customized service, then they likely providehosting for more than a single application. Again, experience is critical when working with a provider who will deliver multiple applications or potentially complex integrations. You want to be sure your provider has demonstrated competency in working with a variety of solutions as well as software providers.
3. What are your options for adding applications or services later? Can you have other applications hosted besides QuickBooks?
4. Is the technology used to host QuickBooks industry standard, or is it based on something proprietary or unique? What is the underlying technology used by the provider in their QuickBooks hosting service? Recognizing that one of the major points of outsourcing the IT service is to not have to concern yourself with the intimate details of the technology, it is not necessarily wise to completely divorce yourself from the issue because it may matter greatly in terms of the ability to expand or support your implementation.
While the platform technology may not seem like it makes a difference now (it’s the provider’s responsibility, not yours, right?), it can make a huge difference later. When it comes to dealing with a variety of applications, implementing that software in an environment that it can be supported in is very important. If the technology or delivery environment is proprietary, how do you know that the software will run properly – now and in the future, and can you be sure of getting a reasonable level of support for your software in that environment? Proven, industry standard technologies are always your best bet to ensure compatibility with current and future products, and to enable your software provider to support your solution. This may, over time, prove to be one of the more critical aspects of selecting a provider, particularly if you plan to use more than a single software product.
5. What is the method of service delivery? First, what is the technology used – Remote Desktop or RDP, Citrix, Quest EOP, Thinworx, Ericom… there are a lot of choices out there. Different technologies offer different features, and you should explore this area to ensure that the delivery and functionality meets your needs and those of your users. Also ask if the provider utilizes a secure portal for website login, and if it can be co-branded or private label branded. Other questions may include whether or not the delivery supports the use of multiple monitors; whether the application presented as a full remote desktop service orlaunched from an icon directly on the user desktop. Can you access the file system directly, and can you upload and download files whenever you want to? How does printing work? All of these questions relate to the presentation of the application (QuickBooks or others), and can impact working habits and user behavior.
6. What are your options for customer service and technical support? Technical support and support services provided with QuickBooks hosting is another important area to explore, especially if you intend to promote the hosting solution to clients. If the quality of the support included with the service isn’t sufficient, then not only will the value and usability of the service be diminished, but so could your reputation and the trust of the client you brought on. Recognize also that the service provider should not be directly responsible for your local PC, network, browser or security, printers, or other elements outside of their control. This may also extend to data file corruption or data issues caused by the application. While the service provider is not responsible for these areas, it’s nice to know whether or not they will at least help you with them.
7. What are the billing and payment terms – is there a minimum contract duration or is it month-to-month service? Are there volume commitments, or volume discounts? Some providers offer different terms for shared versus customized service, and term or user commitment levels may vary with service level and provider. Generally, the hosting service is provided as a monthly subscription service. Some service providers require prepayment of term agreements. When you pay ahead for the service, it’s very difficult to end the engagement if it doesn’t work out for you, and you could end up being locked in to a service that is not what you need. If you have customized service, then it makes sense for the provider to require the commitment because both parties are investing in the delivery: you’re investing in the term agreement and the provider invests in the infrastructure and engineering to create your customized service.
8. What are your options for terminating service, and what happens to your data when you do terminate service? Every provider should recognize your ability and right to terminate service, but under what conditions and terms? Make sure you know the rules, or you may be left out of touch with your solution, your applications or your data. Prior to terminating service, make sure you have all of your data backed up to local computers or devices. If the ability to backup your data locally, or obtain copies of your data at any time, isn’t a feature of the service, then you should be concerned that you may not be able to get your things back when the time comes. Upon termination of service your service provider has every right to make you pay any fees due for hosting prior to releasing your current data. They aren’t keeping you from your information and are providing you a remedy (pay your bill). The service provider is simply enforcing your requirement to pay for the services rendered before you can take your ball and go home.