Article

Gauging the enterprise-readiness of open-source financial apps

Amy Kucharik

Today, Linux-based applications are being used to manage and make large sums of money in the financial services industry. Meanwhile, applications for businesses outside the financial services space are few and far between. Only two open-source financial products -- Nola and SQL-Ledger

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-- have gained much notice in the business world.

Linux's viability as an enterprise financial applications platform is a given in the financial services industry, according to IBM Corp. executive John Vitkus. Many, if not the majority of financial services companies have already opted for Linux, or at least have "a very clear strategy for when they will deploy," said Vitkus, IBM's program director for Linux in the financial services sector. They know that "if they're not using Linux, they're behind the times."

Wall Street's endorsement gives Linux some street credibility, but corporate IT shops need more than testimonials, according to Sam Greenblatt, chief architect of the Linux technology group at Computer Associates International Inc., in Islandia, NY. IT administrators need Linux-based applications that will work well in their businesses. Financial firms have the bucks to build their own apps, but businesses outside the financial sector need enterprise-ready, third-party products.

Where are those enterprise-level products? There are many products, but most of them haven't been fleshed out, according to author Christopher Browne, creator of Web site "Finances, Linux and stuff." Browne refers to these products as "vaporware" and lists several examples on his site.

Many of the available open-source financial applications were developed for personal or small-business use; GnuCash is one such tool. The slower development in the enterprise sector probably results from the need for a much larger number of features, explained Rich Bodo, managing director at Mountain View, Calif.-based OpenSource Telecom and a consultant for a new company, Santa Clara, Calif.-based TelephonyWare, which has been using SQL-Ledger for its accounting needs.

Bodo said that business-enabled financial applications require a large feature set, something that an individual programmer would probably not find profitable to tackle without a contract. Whereas an application like GnuCash is useful to the individual programmer and thus benefits from many individual programmers' attention, "it takes a long time to get the functionality for a business application. It's not useful to each individual programmer."

At the moment, only SQL-Ledger and Nola have gained traction with business users.

Nola

Nola is a free Web-based software package that integrates accounting, inventory, point-of-sale, contact management, billing, purchasing and reporting. Designed for use by medium-to-large organizations, Nola is open-source and runs on Linux, Windows and other operating systems.

Nola is a free application produced under the GNU General Public License by Fostoria, Ohio-based Noguska LLC, a company that has been writing software since 1978. Noguska counts companies like Bechtel Group Inc., Xerox Corp., and Detroit Edison among its customers.

As a Web-based application, Nola is set up on a dedicated machine as a Web server, and users log in with their browsers. Early versions were difficult to install, so Noguska created an installation CD.

Despite Nola's promising features, adoption has been slow because many users feel there's a lack of necessary documentation and support. "I was deeply disappointed in Nola. I found bug after bug in the Nola product. I then tried the spin-offs OSSuite and Aria and found they had fixed some bugs but introduced others," said John A. Sullivan III, chief technology officer of Nexus Management, a global outsourcing company based in Brunswick, Maine. Sullivan eventually went with SQL-Ledger, although he "found some issues there, too." Nexus still uses proprietary production accounting systems, but it has implemented open-source applications for other critical systems, such as infrastructure and security.

Nola has been available since 2000, but it is still a work in progress, said Kathleen Howard, Noguska's programming director. A new version, Nola Pro, will be launched soon. Nola Pro will provide more data import/export capabilities and other functions that will make the software more appropriate for medium-to-large businesses.

Sullivan is looking forward to the new Nola product. "I think Nola has a much better feature set than SQL-Ledger; if only they could get it to work," he said.

A recently created alternative to Nola, Aria, is based on the Nola code and was written by a development team made up of former Noguska employees and Nola users, according to project manager Josh Flechtner. Development began in the fall of 2002 because of growing dissatisfaction with Nola's development cycle. Reportedly, Aria corrects the bugs that existed in the Nola code, Flechtner said.

SQL-Ledger

SQL-Ledger (SL) is a double-entry accounting system in which accounting data is stored in a SQL server and displayed using any text or GUI browser. The entire system is linked through a chart of accounts. Each item in the inventory is linked to revenue, expense, inventory accounts and tax accounts. The system automatically updates the accounts when goods and services are sold or purchased.

SL "is usable now and has been for several years. It is directed towards the retail and manufacturing sector," according to Dieter Simader, president of Edmonton, Alberta-based DWS Systems Inc. and the developer of SL. On the plus side, he said, SL is platform independent, scalable and customizable. It stores data in a SQL back end and can be integrated with other applications that use a SQL back end. It may also be extended to include other applications, like calendars, customer relationship management (CRM) software and other systems.

A down side of SL is that "the learning curve is steep," Bodo said. "It's like getting an accounting package that you've never used before with no docs." SL requires a database such as PostgreSQL, along with the Apache Web server, Perl 5, the Perl DBI module for generic database access, and the DBD-Pg module for PostgreSQL access, along with the SQL-Ledger package.

"Setup is difficult," Simader said. However, "once everything is in place, it can be used by people without any accounting knowledge."

SL can be configured for load balancing to distribute the Web server to several servers, and the SQL back end can be mirrored to other servers, Simader said. "Since all this is controlled by the Web and SQL and not by SL, you are limited only to what the underlying servers can do," he said. He recommends using PostgreSQL or Oracle databases with SL.

SQL-Ledger has proven itself in business settings. For example, the Georgia Green Party uses SL for membership management and accounting functions. Welke Customs & Logistics, a Canadian freight forwarder, uses it for general accounting. And TelephonyWare, which is about two weeks from launching, has already implemented SL. According to Bodo, "the cool thing about it is we feel we're getting our infrastructure right. We're using Interchange, our shopping cart program, interfaced with SQL-Ledger."

Bodo said SL is the best open-source financial app he has found: "It just seems to have the most features."

In the end, it may take time before open-source accounting applications reach the stage where corporate IT shops feel they can rely on them. IT pros told SearchEnterpriseLinux.com that Nola, SQL-Ledger and similar products will have to mature greatly to win the hearts and minds of IT managers.

Even with maturity, open-source financial applications face stiff competition from commercial products. In accountant Todd Boyle's opinion, "a person would have to be nuts to go into any of the OSS accounting packages when there are tens of millions of CDs out there for current and older generations of QuickBooks or Peachtree that you can use under Wine."

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