Paraic Nolan, technical director of accounting software provider Big Red Book, gives a user’s and a vendor’s perspective on moving to the cloud.
How would you describe your role – how many parts technology and how many parts business?
I have quite a number of roles – we’re a small business. I have the business side with my finance director on, and [a role in] what products to sell.
My own background is that I’m a chartered accountant. I sort of fell into the IT sector, though I’ve always had an interest in technology all throughout my career.
I would always have a hands-on view, that if you’re building a product you should be using it so you can understand the pain points from a customer point of view.
What are some of the main systems that run the business?
I suppose you’d call it dogfooding: we use our own accounting software internally, along with Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Visual Studio 2010 is the primary tool we use in terms of writing code.
My favourite application is in combination with Team Foundation Server – essentially, that is a platform that lets you do a number of things. I’m product manager for Big Red Cloud, so I can write a requirement and it allows remote management of all the various teams.
Because we’re in the development area, we’re obviously using a lot of Microsoft technology – the .Net stack. We’ve developed Big Red Cloud for Azure using .Net technologies. Our application is actually running in a data centre in Dublin.
Talk us through the process – how extensive is the planning for a move to the cloud?
We actually had a false start. Our desktop product is built on Delphi and our initial approach was to look at our Delphi application. We found a company in Ireland with code-conversion tools, but it turns out it wasn’t as easy as we thought. We went through quite a painful period to learn that it wasn’t.
In August 2011, we said the way to do it is, to use a Microsoft phrase, ‘re-imagine the product’ and we looked at it from the ground up.
The accounting core doesn’t change, but the difference is the architecture, moving to a multi-tenanted cloud platform.
And you’re also using cloud systems in the business for yourselves?
We had an in-house mail server. I had an opportunity to become part of the Office 365 beta and I jumped at it. It’s been absolutely fantastic. I am also the internal IT administrator, and now I’ve no server here to maintain for it, it’s in the cloud.
For Big Red Cloud, what made you choose Microsoft Azure rather than competing cloud services?
The biggest factor for me is that it’s a pure platform as a service. We worry about writing our application, period. They look after all of the hosting and the scaling. We looked at Amazon and Salesforce and a few other options but in terms of pure PaaS, Azure came out on top.
I’ve never yet had to manage a server on Azure. On Amazon you would have. As a small company with limited resources, Azure made the most sense. We just have to focus on building a great application, and they focus on the rest. We also became Bizspark members and that entitled us to get some free Azure usage.
There are a lot of claims made for how cloud can save businesses money – what’s been your experience?
It’s certainly saved us money. Our old Exchange server was steaming – literally on its last legs – so there was a potential cost of a few grand, and we were also spending on spam protection and mail backup.
The biggest saving for me is time because I don’t have to maintain a mail server. We still have DNS servers but it’s lighter.
Did you feel at any stage like you were signing your IT career away?
My main angle was to try and remove the workload for myself … The fact that I don’t have to worry about the mail server means I can focus on more value add. My value to the company is infinitely more valuable to deliver a product we can sell than if our mail isn’t working.
So you were open to the idea, but is it fair to say a lot of IT leaders are reluctant to use cloud too much because they feel it’s going to take over their role?
Cloud isn’t going to get rid of the need to have the technical skills in the business. They might have to pivot a little bit. A lot of the skills they have can still be used in the cloud environment.
When you move to the cloud there’s still things to add or maintain, like user accounts, maybe you want to put in workloads, document workflows, document controls, as well as portals for customer or internal users. For example, we may need to maintain rights and privileges to documents.
Maybe there’s more web-based skills to the role in future. You also have to have knowledge of servers and virtual servers. They still need to be maintained and patched in certain cases. Some enterprises will still need full-blown applications running internally and will still need those systems to be maintained.
Has it surprised you in any way – the effect on your daily role and responsibilities?
I guess it has. It’s been a huge change in my role. In this business, things change every couple of years. We had existing applications and we were really in maintenance mode. This was a really major rethinking of our strategy. It was a new product redone from scratch and I was heavily involved in that. It was a real learning experience for me – the process-based side, how to deal with a remote team of developers and how to interface with them.
What advice would you give to others in your position who haven’t made the move yet?
The thing is not to be afraid about it. People need to realise that this is going to happen anyway. It’s much better if you’re in the IT department and you bring something to the CEO – you’re bringing value to the business by saying: ‘here’s what we could potentially save by moving to the cloud’. Then you’re part of the process instead of waiting for it to happen.
On a personal level, what are some of your favourite technologies?
Being an accountant, Excel is the king of applications. I cut my teeth on SuperCalc, and I can remember Excel first coming out. In terms of product applications, it would be Excel and OneNote.