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How one firm became computerized - in many small, well-planned steps.

In 1979, Anderson, Hunt & Co., a mid-sized suburban Atlanta accounting firm, invested $60,000 in an IBM System/32 computer to perform time and billing and to process client financial statements. The computer had a single terminal, which was operated exclusively by a clerk. Members of the professional staff never thought of the machine as one of their tools. "I'm not sure I could even have turned the system on," says Jon Anderson, a shareholder in the firm.

Today, all Anderson, Hunt staffers have 386 and 486 computers with color monitors, all running under Windows, and they are linked by a local area network (LAN) so they can communicate with each other and access common files and data. Anderson, Hunt has a staff of 23, including 3 CPA shareholders, 9 other CPAs and 2 CPA candidates. The remaining staffers serve in various internal accounting, administrative and clerical roles.

The move, from a firm with a single computer operated by one clerk to one where every staff member has a networked computer and relies on it, is the result of careful planning that will take the firm into the year 2000. Other CPA firms contemplating a similar commitment to technology would do well to examine Anderson, Hunt's experience.

THE GROWTH OF AUTOMATION

In the early 1980s, the System/32--with 16 kilobytes (Kb) of memory and a 20-megabyte (Mb) hard disk--was replaced with an IBM System/36, which added more memory, disk capacity and terminals. (By comparison, today's typical low-end personal computer (PC), a 386, has 4 Mb of random-access memory and between 80 and 170 Mb of hard disk space, and it costs about $1,400.)

In the mid-1980s, the firm bought some personal computers to run spreadsheet and word processing programs. It quickly became evident how useful they were, and the next step was to set up a network so some of them could share data without staffers' having to carry floppy disks from terminal to terminal. The network wiring system-called the topology-selected was IBM's PC LAN.

While the PCs automated some of the firm's tasks, the bulk of the computing-timekeeping, firm and client accounting--was done on the System/36. Over time, the PCs were used as input terminals for the firm's tax service bureau.

In 1991, the shareholders realized the firm needed a longer term technology strategy. "We recognized computers should be used by everyone," said Anderson. "And we wanted to automate in an orderly fashion with minimum disruption."

The first decision was whether to upgrade the System/36 with more user applications or move to a PC-based network so word processing, spreadsheet and other applications could be run. Since shareholders recognized the System/36 represented outdated technology, upgrading was rejected. The PC-based solution appeared to offer the flexibility the midrange computer lacked. Industry-specific software such as the American Institute of CPAs audit tools was available and practical only for PCs. Because the firm had a few clients whose work required fairly large-scale data processing, its managers decided to keep this work on the System/36 for the near term.

The greatest concern was reliability. Accordingly, hardware that was both state of the art and from well-known, proven vendors was selected. Because a LAN is only as good as its weakest link, care was taken not to let economy override reliability.

After reviewing the alternatives, the managers decided to install a LAN that eventually would handle all data processing needs. While they recognized the System/36 was more reliable than the network, the wealth of PC applications available weighed heavily in favor of a network.

TECHNOLOGY PLAN FOR THE 90s

The firm engaged a consultant who specialized in computerizing CPA firms. On the basis of his advice, it was decided the firm's technology plan for the 1990s would

* Put a 386 PC on every desk.

* Provide a Windows interface for nearly every software application.

* Incorporate in-house interactive tax processing.

* Provide for daily timesheets using spreadsheet software.

* Add a new time and billing system.

* Include electronic mail and calendaring services.

Anderson, Hunt's offices occupy three floors of a suburban Atlanta office building. The tax department is on the middle and bottom floors and the audit department is on the top floor. With the exception of a few cubicles on the top floor, each staff member has an office--a consideration in planning the network wiring scheme. Accordingly, the following were the technology plan's goals:

* Each person needed access to those applications necessary to carry out his or her job.

* Those applications needed to be available through an easy-to-use interface--that is, an opening screen menu from which users could select applications, instead of having to type complex commands.

* Each floor had to be equipped with at least two shared printers--a laser and a dot-matrix.

* Users needed access to electronic mail and messaging.

* At some point, some staffers needed access to network resources from outside the building, either from home, client sites or database utilities.

LAN installation began in October 1991. The goal was to have the network available when tax preparation software was installed by mid-January 1992. The deadline was met and the firm experienced no downtime during tax season.

The network software selected was Novell NetWare 3.11. It fit the firm's physical needs, and since Novell held a large portion of the network market and other users seemed satisfied with it, it was a logical choice. Ethernet was chosen for the topology. Ethernet, the most popular network topology in use today, provides data-transmission rates of up to 10 million bits per second, a rate expected to handle current demands and provide room for growth. Ethernet also seemed to be in use in most of the other CPA firms Anderson, Hunt managers had surveyed; thus it was believed the firm would have many sources of technical information.

The other topology candidate was token ring technology--a design especially suited to large organizations with a need to connect to midrange or mainframe computers. The Anderson, Hunt managers decided not to spend the extra money for it.

To implement Ethernet, the firm selected a wiring technology, 10Base-T, which was necessary because the computers were on separate floors and scattered far apart. 10Base-T hubs (which are concentrators, needed to boost an attenuated signal so it can travel over long distances) were arranged in a star configuration, connecting every computer on the network to a central hub.

BUYING RELIABILITY

The design's key benefit is reliability. Since there is nothing but the concentrator between the server and any terminal, any single failure won't bring down the entire system, which can happen with other topologies. Each 10Base-T hub connects up to 12 computers to the network. Three of them were needed to support Anderson, Hunt's existing installation. While two of the concentrators are identical units, the third is an "intelligent hub"; it allows the firm to use optional LAN management software to monitor network usage, traffic and connections and troubleshoot problems.

Another advantage of the 10Base-T design is its use of unshielded twisted-pair wiring (UTP), which is similar to telephone copper wiring, rather than coaxial cable, and which is more expensive and more difficult to install.

UTP wiring consists of four twisted pairs, only two of which are used for the network. The other pairs can be used to connect a phone system. A wall plate that looks like a telephone outlet was installed in each office and in central work areas. Connecting a computer to the network is similar to plugging in a modular telephone.

The 10Base-T design is similar to telephone wiring in another respect. The wires from each office run to the telephone closet and are terminated at a standard telephone utility panel.

Another advantage of 10Base-T's star design is its flexibility: It allows computers to be moved easily between offices. Computers can be unplugged from the network and then plugged in elsewhere without shutting down the server or any of the other terminals.

For the server, the firm wanted an IBM PS/2 model 95, a 486 PC. But at the time, the maximum hard disk available was only 400 Mb. The firm's managers knew more storage would be needed, so a less expensive 320-Mb model 95 was acquired and two Micropolis 660-Mb hard drives were installed, bringing total disk storage space to 1.6 billion bytes (1.6 gigabytes). The server was connected to an uninterruptible power supply, a battery system that kicks in automatically in the event of a power failure, providing enough electricity for the computers to save their data and close down safely.

These were the approximate software and hardware costs: * LAN wiring for 28 nodes
(computer terminals) $3,000
* Three 10Base-T concentrators 5,500


* 28 network interface cards (the circuits needed in each computer to link with the network) 5,600 * A 486 PC server with
an extra-large hard drive 14,000
* Network operating system 3,500


* Consulting and installation
assistance 8,000
Total $39,600


Some money could have been saved by using a less advanced wiring scheme, such as thin Ethernet. Also, some consulting costs could have been saved if only DOS, rather than Windows, applications had been used. The firm already was using Windows applications on several terminals and had decided to expand its availability. Consulting costs could have been reduced even further by using in-house staff to set up the network; however, the firm's managers decided the in-house learning curve would have been too steep--and eventually might have been more costly.

STANDARD PURCHASES

The firm had been acquiring 386 PCs a few at a time since April 1991. The two basic computers purchased from then on were the IBM model 70 and the Dell 325P, both 386 PCs. All have at least 4 Mb of random-access memory (the minimum recommended for Windows applications). The model 70s have VGA color monitors (VGA is a standard for color screens) and at least 60-Mb hard drives. The 325Ps have even better monitors, super VGAs (SVGAs), and at least 40-Mb hard drives. (The SVGA monitors are better for graphical applications and have become standard for the firm's new purchases.) More recent purchases have been 486 models.

One of the key requirements for the network was ensuring remote access. Not only was it important to be able to call in and retrieve E-mail and phone messages but also the ability to run applications from remote sites was essential. This goal was met by dedicating a refurbished IBM AT computer as a communications server. Using pcAnywhere LAN 4.5 software, staff members can call in and control this host server from their remote computers.

The four members of the firm's audit staff now have a portable computer each. The portables are equipped with network interface cards so the auditors can plug the machines into the network when they are in the office. The portables soon will be fitted with modems for accessing E-mail and uploading timesheets from remote sites.

On one floor, two of the printers, a laser and a wide-carriage dot-matrix, are connected directly to the server. On the two other floors, they are connected to a device called an Intel NetPort, which plugs into an unused LAN outlet. This device looks like a PC to the LAN operating system and it drives multiple printers at the same time. It's inexpensive ($500) compared with a dedicated PC for print-server duty. The firm first tried to connect multiple network printers to a user's workstation but found this to be a nuisance; it slowed down performance to an unacceptable level.

When planning the network, the firm's managers knew some staffers would be using a computer for the first time. To ease the transition, each PC was loaded with Microsoft Windows so each application could be accessed through the same easy-to-use interface. Today, with the exception of the CLR Fastax software, each application is available as an icon (a symbol) in a Windows group.

When users log in, the first thing they see is their E-mail screen menu. They can read messages from other firm members or check phone messages. All phone messages are received by the receptionist and keyed into the mail system. The once-ubiquitous pink message slips are history.

Once logged in, users are brought automatically into Windows, which then provides a menu of common applications. CPAs familiar with Windows on a network know they have the option of setting up most of the program files in a shared directory and then having individual files stored in their home directories on the network.

Following are the network applications:

* Microsoft Excel 4.0 (spreadsheet).

* Microsoft Word for Windows 2.0 (word processing).

* Lotus 1-2-3, release 2.3 (spreadsheet).

* WordPerfect 5.1 (word processing).

* WordPerfect for Windows (word processing).

* Harvard Graphics for Windows (desktop publishing).

* AICPA ATB3 with Consolidations (accounting).

* TaxForm 91 from Direct Link Software (tax).

* Income Tax Planner, BNA Software (tax).

* Estate Tax Planner, BNA Software (tax).

* PageMaker 4.0 (desktop publishing).

* Unilink Time and Billing System (utility).

* CLR Fastax GoSystem (tax).

* Futurus Team electronic mail system (E-mail and calendaring).

* Norton pcAnywhere LAN 4.5 (remote control).

SOLVING PROBLEMS

It took about two months of hard work to get everything installed and working correctly. Having both Windows and DOS applications running on the LAN added some technical challenges. Not everything went as smoothly as planned. For example, the E-mail version was a new product and did not initially work as well in the network as the older DOS product. The few problems that did develop, however, could not overshadow the resultant benefits. Instantaneous electronic messaging has made computers indispensable even for those who originally were skeptical of the usefulness of having a computer on their desks. The fact that virtually every application is available at the touch of a key is another key benefit, as is the ability to share client and work files.

When asked their opinion of the network, most firm employees pointed out that the firm enjoyed one of its most trouble-free tax seasons in recent memory. To them, that's the real test of any system.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

* STARTING IN 1979 with a single midrange computer operated by a clerk, Anderson, Hunt implemented a technology plan that put a personal computer (PC) on every staffer's desk. All PCs are connected to a local area network (LAN) so they can communicate with each other and access common files and data. * ETHERNET was chosen for the wiring. For the network software, Novell NetWare 3.11 was selected. To implement Ethernet, the firm selected a wiring technology called 10Base-T, whose key benefit is reliability. * WHEN PLANNING THE network, firm managers knew some staffers would be using a computer for the first time. To ease the transition, each PC was loaded with Microsoft Windows, which opens with a customized menu of applications. * A KEY REQUIREMENT for the network was ensuring remote access. Staffers needed to be able to call in and retrieve E-mail and phone messages and to run applications from remote sites. An old IBM AT computer, loaded with pcAnywhere LAN 4.5 software, did the job. * IT TOOK ABOUT TWO months of hard work to get everything installed and working correctly. The few problems that did develop, however, could not overshadow the resultant benefits: Instantaneous electronic messaging and the ability to share client and work files.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Planning a Computer Network
Author:Hunt, Donald W.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:2546
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