More than a new buzz phrase to add to the list of client-server, ASP, hosted provider and software as a service (SaaS), cloud computing is a new stage in technology evolution. Clouds provide technology such as software, storage or extra computing cycles more cheaply, more flexibly and with no up-front capital investment. The downside is that customers give up control: when technology lives in the cloud, operating systems, physical location and software version control all become irrelevant.
Cloud computing lets companies access applications online without paying up-front for licenses or hardware. Cloud-based application providers also take care of all the management and upgrade tasks. Companies pay for only as much as they need.
Cloud-based treasury services are relatively new, says Mark Lobel, a partner in the security practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers, especially those independent of the financial institutions they connect to. "These are still relatively early days," he says. For the most part, these products allow corporate treasurers to see reports and analyze data, but not to execute transactions or make other changes, due to security concerns.
But in the long term, cloud providers will help push the industry toward better integration and more standards, Lobel says, which will mean lower costs and more flexibility for corporate clients. "What clouds do is break down a lot of artificial barriers," says Brian Butte, a cloud computing expert with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
An example of this is FinancialForce.com's new cloud-based accounting system, FinancialForce Accounting, which links easily to third-party payment systems like SunGard, PayPal and check printing services, as well as all the sales and customer service applications available from Salesforce.com.
"If you happen to be a Salesforce.com customer, when you load our application into your Salesforce environment, it instantly comes alive with all the sales data you have in Salesforce," says FinancialForce president and CEO Jeremy Roche. The platform can also be used as a stand-alone system for companies that are not Salesforce customers. Salesforce.com is a minority owner and Netherlands-based Unit 4 Agresso and its subsidiary, accounting software vendor Coda, the majority owner of the new venture.
Roche declines to disclose number of customers the company has but says its product users are in eight countries. Typical customers include small and medium-sized businesses that use the platform to replace traditional accounting software or spreadsheets, and large companies using it to handle bookkeeping for particular product lines or divisions. Prices start at $125 per user per month, with flexible pricing available for large customers, Roche says.
The new product replaces Coda's earlier cloud-based offering, Coda 2go. There is an open application programming interface (API) so that customers can integrate to other systems if links aren't already available, Roche says, such as direct integration with banks. Users can also use feeds to pull banking data automatically into the platform.
The product also includes role-based dashboards, analytics, full reporting tools, and live integration with Excel and Google spreadsheets, he says. There is full support for multiple currencies, account or transaction level and tax support for eight countries. Since it's a cloud-based application, new features will be rolled out on a regular basis.
Currently, new customers either build their chart of accounts from scratch or import it from their previous systems, Roche says, a process that can take anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on whether the company needs to analyze or change its account systems.
In the past, banks and custodians have provided hosted cash management and related services to their enterprise customers. But as more cloud-based service providers enter the marketplace, treasurers can cut the cords that tie them to these institutions-without requiring that their companies' technology departments learn to manage new and complicated applications.
For example, in the past, the University of California would have used a treasury workstation or management system to handle cash positions. Today, it has opted for a cloud-based service from Houston-based Treasury Sciences, a division of eFORCE Global.
When buying software, it's relatively straightforward to calculate how much the license costs, how much the hardware costs, how much the maintenance will cost--and whether or not it's a good deal. With cloud, there's less visibility about the underlying costs of running the system, says Richard Powell, senior banking manager at the university, but there's also no need to worry about the underlying work of running the system.
Overall, Powell says, "It's a reasonably good value combination--of the outside management process, the updates, the maintenance, the integration with other partners."
The Treasury Sciences product only requires a Web browser to access the system, says Ravi Pande, Treasury Sciences' managing director. Data flows from banks through secure channels directly to the Treasury Sciences data center, he says, and the connectors take between three and four weeks to set up.
Treasury Sciences has another offering--the same workstation, but without the direct bank integration--useful for a test environment or a trial period, with data uploaded by the customers themselves. This service doesn't reside on the Treasury Sciences servers, however. Instead, the company turned to another cloud provider to handle the computing, Amazon's Enterprise Computing Cloud (EC2).
It's a cloud service sitting on top of another cloud service. And, since no bank integration is required, customers can be up and running almost instantaneously, Pande says. "Clients may want an environment where they test their processes and make sure they're working." (For more on Treasury Sciences, see A Faster Replacement for Worksheets.)
Not only do cloud providers interface with banks, but also with third-party custodians.
Intuit, for example, uses Boise-based Clearwater Analytics instead of maintaining in-house investment accounting software for its $2 billion investment portfolio. "Investment accounting is fairly complicated and there haven't really been good solutions to keep track of investments until Clearwater came along," says Bill Bascom, Intuit's assistant treasurer.
Each of Intuit's five investment managers provides reports at different times and in different formats. Clearwater not only provides a better solution than the custodians, but gives Intuit a way to verify the market values reported by the custodians, Bascom says. "Clearwater has a consolidated format and it's available practically in real time, so it makes it easy for us to account for securities."