Sunday, March 04, 2012

Capacity Focus, 36: Open source accounting and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) as potential jump starters for better financial, cost and resource management in small businesses

The motivation for this post is a live case of having to deal with a small business looking at accounting system, inventory management and point of sale technology. The balance of cost, fiddly-ness of accessible software, and general difficulty to get and keep something workable, reliable and affordable going is just plain daunting.
[Before going further, let me give my basic perspective on proprietary vs open source software: it is no secret that this blog is no friend of the various digital empires, with their lock-in of proprietary systems, software and often prohibitively costly user licence agreements -- and yes, you do not actually buy the software, just the licence to use it. (Let's give an instance: I can say that I use the Libre Office fork of Open Office as my principal office suite, and find it more than good enough. I can see no good reason why a partnership of universities, governments, aid agencies and the open source software movement cannot create a critical mass to find a different way, based on open source core technologies and value-added plug-in modules and support services. Digital Productivity, not just digital literacy and consumption of systems from the digital empires.]
Back on the story. 

It seems that a more or less standard small business kit is Quick Books accounting, plus Retail Edge for Point of Sale and inventory management. Just for software, that is US$ 200 -300, plus $450, for a one station, one cash register load-out. Add in another US$ 1,000 - 1,500 for a typical POS setup with a hand held scanner. 

Count on general fiddly-ness, so you will need training and tech support on top. 

So, rule of thumb: go with the flow -- work with what is dominant, as there will likely be support from someone who has met and solved the problem. And grit your teeth and pay.

We have not gone to e Commerce integration, etc etc yet. Not to mention the needs of a manufacturing enterprise.

By contrast, an electronic cash register is US$ 100 - 200 at first tier.

No wonder we see a lot of small businesses with electronic cash registers, but with the back-office systems back in the dead tree age, though maybe an accounting package may be in use. Not least, that helps come tax time, and helps with accounts receivable -- esp. credit sales -- management.

Bottomline: this is a barrier to putting in an integrated accounting and enterprise resource management system. Which hampers effective management, and of course also locks out many eCommerce opportunities.

Could there be a better way?

I think so:

1 --> First, a fact: open source (and related) software is viable. Linux and Apache server software run much of the Internet. Open Office is solid. So is Java. Firefox, Opera, Chrome etc are strong browsers. Android is a serious contender for smart phones and Tablet PCs. And so forth. So, we can put suspicions of "amateur night" software to one side.

2 --> The first tier for business is obviously  GnuCash, a basic double entry small-business accounting package that comes with Linux Distros as a part of the free for download package deal, right next to Open Office. It has been ported over to windows (and the Mac OS X) for years. Key features:
  • Double-Entry Accounting
  • Stock/Bond/Mutual Fund Accounts
  • Small-Business Accounting
  • Multiple currencies
  • Payroll (using accounts receivable and payable)
  • Budgeting
  • Reports, Graphs
  • Financial Calculations
  • "Customer and Vendor tracking, Jobs, Invoicing and Bill Payment, and Tax and Billing Terms"
  • QIF/OFX/HBCI Import [i.e. can take in Quicken Files], Transaction Matching
  • Scheduled Transactions
  • Use of Open Financial Exchange [OFX] supports a format that "many banks and financial services are starting to use" 
  • XML information formatting
  • From 2.4, capacity to store financial information in a SQL database "using SQLite3, MySQL or PostgreSQL"
3 --> GnuCash has a built in training manual, and can be seen as educationally oriented, because of how it works as in effect a cluster of structured spreadsheets. So, students can be led to understand the way accounting systems work. (The commercial packages typically make it hard to see the innards of what is going on.) As the GnuCash site observes:
along [with] the application Manual, new users can take full advantage of the Tutorial and Concepts guide. This document gives background information on accounting principles and how they are reflected in GnuCash with many practical examples described step by step. [Cf book on GnuCash here. Also, cf. Bean Counter's basics course here. A GnuCash based introduction to accounting and book-keeping for small businesses is very viable.]
4 --> The challenges are fairly obvious: e.g. it is not yet integrated with a Point Of Sale and inventory management system. However, the use of XML and SQL databases point in that direction.

5 --> Those look like some useful target points for academic and/or aid agency research and development. A collaboration between Computing and Business Schools, with an injection from philanthropic or aid agency funding, could change this.

6 --> With that in place, we could have a viable package deal to enable small businesses. It would be especially useful if say through an XML interface, we could integrate GnuCash with an open source enterprise resource planning [ERP] system.

7 --> Indeed, that looks like a viable way to do an eCommerce bridge.

8 --> The mention of ERP points to the next level. ERP systems, as the just linked summarises:
Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems integrate internal and external management information across an entire organization, embracing finance/accounting, manufacturing, sales and service, customer relationship management, etc. ERP systems automate this activity with an integrated software application. Their purpose is to facilitate the flow of information between all business functions inside the boundaries of the organization and manage the connections to outside stakeholders.[1]

ERP systems can run on a variety of computer hardware and network configurations, typically employing a database as a repository for information.[2]
9 --> Such systems are commercially available, and are of course quite expensive. But, there are open source systems. Three interesting possibilities are: Apache Foundation's OFBiz, ADEmpiere, and Open ERP. There are others, but these are a good first look cluster.

10 --> All of these have integrated inventory management, accounting and point of sale systems, and much else. 

11 --> Given the weight of the Apache Foundation, it is useful to clip their list of features:

  • advanced e-commerce
  • catalog management
  • promotion & pricing management
  • order management (sales & purchase)
  • customer management (part of general party management)
  • warehouse management
  • fulfillment (auto stock moves, batched pick, pack & ship)
  • accounting (invoice, payment & billing accounts, fixed assets)
  • manufacturing management
  • general work effort management (events, tasks, projects, requests, etc)
  • content management (for product content, web sites, general content, blogging, forums, etc)
  • a maturing Point Of Sales (POS) module using a rich client interface
  • and much more all in an open source package!

12 --> OFBiz is also deliberately made as a modular system, designed to integrate with other modules; indeed it is offered to developers as a way to do tailor-made systems without having to start from scratch. That suggests, why not incorporate a gateway from GnuCash, leading to a migration path as a business grows?

So, it looks like there are now some pretty viable open source options, and there is promise of development. END

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Raspberry Pi -- RS [Radio Spares . . . ] Components taking expressions of interest and Premier Farnell features the SBC on its Element 14 forum and online store for engineers and enthusiasts

As was blogged yesterday, the Raspberry Pi single board Linux based educational computer -- cf 14. pp. quick guide here -- launched a few days ago (it seems, Feb 29), and the first lot (all Model B, US$ 35, with 256 MB of RAM, two USB ports and a 10/100 Mb/s Ethernet controller -- BTW, comparable to a smart phone or tablet PC) was sold out in one day; actually in minutes.

Of course, this was actually the developer release, of a rather bare bones board. As responders in an Element 14 forum -- more on this below! -- discussion observe:
JB: RasPi's first production release was targetted towards developers -- people who could get all this information from the FAQ (currently suspended), Wiki (, and Forum (currently suspended), and aren't fazed by a bare board with no case, power supply, SD card, cables, or peripherals.  The education release with case and book is slated for later this year.  The hope is that enough developers will get RasPis soon so they can create and/or port software that will be useful for students and newbies.

RW: This is the developer release. There will be pre-programmed SD cards. There will be user guides and text books. There will be user-friendly GUI environments and plug-and-play home cinema experiences. Later. Sometime around September. That will be the Educational release. This is the Developer release; it's for developers, who are now going to generate all that goodness that you want.

CR: It's my guess that a lot of enterprising people will be looking at ways of making this easy, but they need to get their hands on hardware first.

I would not be surprised if by about Christmas there are pre-loaded SD cards available for educational things, games etc. all needing no more knowledge to get started than plugging it in and switching it on.

They will be for sale in the same sort of places that cassettes for the original Spectrum and BBC Micro were on sale in the 80s.

The Pi supply is going from a few dozen in the world now to 10,000 in the next few weeks, then I guess hundreds of thousands in the next few months.  A lot of those will go to enthusiastic developers and all sorts of things will emerge.  But software takes a remarkably long time to develop; it looks almost finished quite quickly but getting it reliable and well documented seems to take for ever.
That helps put all of this in a very realistic context!

It seems that on the first go, the Raspberry Pi Foundation people were only able to get a 10,000 lot targetted at developers. It seems that the Broadcomm ARM architecture chip that is the core of the educational single board computer [SBC] is particularly constraining. 

But the Raspberry Pi folks now announce:
. . . For those of you just joining us, we have entered into licensed manufacture partnerships with two British companies, Premier Farnell and RS Components. They’ll be manufacturing and distributing the devices on our behalf, and handling the distribution of our first batches as they arrive in the country. We continue to make a small profit from each Raspberry Pi sold, which we’ll be putting straight back into the charity.

This arrangement means that we can build volume much faster than would have been possible on our own. We are no longer limited to batches of only 10k Raspberry Pis; the Raspberry Pi will now be built to match demand. Both partners have worldwide distribution networks, so wherever you are in the world, you will be able to buy from a local distributor. This will save you money on shipping, and both partners are taking preorders, or expressions of interest, for the Model B from the start. There has inevitably been some confusion around pricing and parts of the ordering process; within a few days, we hope to have a country-by-country summary of each partner’s policies, showing how the $35 price of a Model B translates into a final cost. In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences either here or in the forum.
RS Components [way back, that meant Radio Spares . . . ], one of the two distributors, has put up a page to take expressions of interest, i.e. effectively to pre-order.

Premier Farnell has taken a very interesting, more community-based approach (as well as also providing space to make expressions of interest). 

They have launched Element 14 as a community and online store -- described by PF as "the first collaborative community and electronics store for design engineers and electronics enthusiasts and a part of global electronics distributor Premier Farnell LON . . . " -- and are featuring the Raspberry Pi.

They have hosted an interview with Robert Mullins (co-founder of Raspberry Pi Foundation) at their YouTube Channel:

Well worth the pause to watch.

And, let's keep an eye on developments, this is plainly a gateway technology for transformational education in Information, Communication and Control Technologies [ICCT] at a "for all" level. Which, we desperately need in the Caribbean. (Cf remarks here on the Royal Society Furber Report on Computing in Education, and here on ICCT in education.)  END

Friday, March 02, 2012

Raspberry Pi Launches, sells out in one day, crashes servers of suppliers

Over the past few days I saw a spike of interest in the KF post on the Raspberry Pi business card sized computer board for US$ 25 (and US$ 35).

On following up, I saw that it had launched and had drawn so much interest that it crashed the Web Site of Farnell, one of two initial providers. It of course sold out the first run in a single day. The back-order time is expected to be about a month.

Cf BBC reports, here and here. END

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Matt 24 watch, 151d: Some balancing thoughts on the Afghanistan burned Quran riots and murders

When I was growing up, I remember learning of how a respectful way to dispose of a flag that had seen better days or had been defaced was to respectfully cremate it, even as of course cremation is often seen as one form of decent burial.

So, you can imagine the double-shock of seeing that flag burning was also used as a means of degradation and dishonouring. And of course, books that have been defaced, damaged or worn out are often disposed of by burning, but in Nazi Germany, disrespectful and censoring book-burnings were the precursors to far more momentous fires at places like Auschwitz.

In short, context is all in something like this: the self-same physical act of destruction by fire can be a mark of respect OR of utter disrespect, depending on intent.

As a result, it is all too easy for malicious propagandists to snip out of context something like burning defaced Qurans from prison libraries -- yes, they were used to send contraband messages scribbled in them --  and maliciously twist an act of reasonable and even respectful disposal into perceived acts of degradation. And, then, to stir up the hostile into foaming rage and hate. In the case in Afghanistan, such fomenting of hate has issued in multiple murders of people who had little or nothing to do with what happened.  

Worse, we now hear of reports that soldiers acting under orders to destroy defaced books from prison libraries used to send such contraband messages (itself a serious mark of disrespect that tells us a lot about the real attitudes of the IslamIST extremists . . . .) -- soldiers who in all probability did not know what books they were burning (they were in unfamiliar scripts) -- may potentially be subjected to military or civilian tribunals for following orders they had no reason to question. 

That pattern of hostile, hateful words, behaviour and murder is very wrong, and a much worse wrong than even an intentional and disrespectful burning of Qurans -- which we have no reason to believe happened -- would have been .

So, let us immediately put a bit of balance on the table, from a responsible Muslim Cleric, from the same WND news article that informs us of the possible trials:
In a PBS interview, Imam Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, said it was acceptable to burn the Quran if it was in a state of “disrepair.”
“When Muslims want to respectfully dispose of a text of the Quran that is no longer usable, we will burn it. So if someone, for example, in their own private collection or library had a text of the Quran that was damaged or that was in disrepair, so the binding was ruined, etc., or it got torn, they might bring it by to the Islamic Center and ask that someone here dispose of it properly if they were unsure how to do that,” Turk said. “And what I’ll do is I’ll take it to my fireplace at home and burn it there in the fireplace. So I sort of take the pages out and then burn it to make sure that it gets thoroughly charred and is no longer recognizable as script.”
Spencer added, “You are supposed to burn a Quran that is worn out and you are not to write in it. Do they have a problem with the burning of the Quran? No, they do it all the time.”
In short, burning in a respectful fashion is an appropriate way to dispose of a Quran that has fallen out of use, one that is routinely used by Muslims. (I need not elaborate in details on situations in Pakistan, where Qurans have been disposed of routinely by dumping in filth, and where pages have been used ignobly, in all probability by people who know no better. [And yes, the linked source is over the top, but she documents what no-one else seems to be willing to, and which we need to hear.])

 What is far more important here, is that we must stop the hoggish-spirited madness that would lead to using situations like this to stir up rage, hate and murder.

Hardly less important, the way this has been reported in major media without balancing context speaks strongly to irresponsibility and agendas on their part too. Let us take this as an opportunity to learn how to be critically aware when we are exposed to news, views and so-called entertainment in today's world of spin-based media manipulation.

Let's refresh our memory from this KF reference page:

>>(I) The "Straight or Spin?" News, Education & Views Evaluation Grid:
I believe the following analytical "straight or spin" grid will be helpful in assessing the quality of news, commentary and education we are exposed to in our region:

(a) Headline & Lead
(b) Story &/or Views presented
(c) Characterisation of People &/or Institutions
(d) Context: underlying Issues, Alternatives and Historical Setting
(1) Factually Accurate?
(2) Fair, or Just?
(3) Kind or Gracious?
(4) Balanced, or provides a Counter - balance?

Fig. 1: News, Education and Views: "Straight or Spin?" [Key: Y, "yes" = 1; N, "no" = 0]

(II) Using the "Straight or Spin?" Grid:

As can be seen, the straight or spin grid gives four main facets of a typical item of news or commentary, or a lesson/lecture (or even a textbook chapter): (a) the head and lead, (b) the story proper, (c) characterisation, and (d) context. It then asks a basic question:
Is the presented information: (1) accurate, (2) fair, (3) kind and (4) balanced?
It is a reasonable expectation that, consistently, the answer should be YES, for all components of a news, educational or commentary item, or a presentation or even a sermon. However, to err is human, so there might be an occasional slip that requires minor correction. So, we can now grade the quality of our news, education and commentary services:
      • B to A: Consistent Score 13 - 16: a reasonably good to excellent service, but if errors keep on cropping up in any one square (e.g. cells 1a, 2c, 3b or 4d), there is a systematic problem (e.g.; 1a: inaccurate headings and leads, 2c: unfair or unjust characterisations of people or institutions, 3b: unkind (say, through sensationalism that exploits people's pain) presentation of stories, 4d: biased context), and corrective action is obviously needed. [The examples make the "structured common-sense" approach plain: do you wish to consume information from sources that are consistently inaccurate in how they headline and lead stories on issues and news? Or, from one that often slanders people or institutions it does not like? Or, tries to make money off sensationalising the suffering of others? Or, tells only half the story through suppressing materially relevant context? Etc.?]

      • D to C: Consistent Score 8 - 12: This source has a major, systematic problem with at least one of the four requirements of sound, straight information, and is probably pushing an agenda counter to the interests of the people of God and the wider community. The source and the editorial policy require major reformation.

      • F: Consistent Score 7 or less: Do not trust this source, period. Warn others about the evident distortion, bias, deception and agenda. If the source has significant institutional power and is unwilling to be corrected, make the creation of an alternative that will consistently correct and expose the errors and agenda a top priority.
Unfortunately, for far too many local, regional and international sources of news, entertainment, commentary and even education available in or to the Caribbean, the proper assessment in this post-modern relativistic age is: F.>>

We would do well to heed this sort of warning.

(An aside to the operator of a hate-site: do you not see that I have a perfect right to object to abuses, including by the Mullahs of Iran etc, and that I have a proved, decades long track record of standing up for the abused, including those abused by churches? And, do you not see that your hostility-driven wish to push me and other Bible-believing educated Christians into the same boat with IslamIST terrorists is slander? For shame!)

Well did the Apostle James warn us:
James 3:5 . . . the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life,[a] and set on fire by hell.[b] For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison . . . .

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

4:1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions[a] are at war within you?[b] You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions . . . 
 Let us heed such counsels and turn away from the path of slander, hate and where it leads. And I say that, knowing full well that those who hate and imagine themselves clever will try to twist this about, projecting the wrong unto me as a way to evade responsibility for their wrongs.

I say to such: I have and have had may own daily moral struggles, as are faced by those who will walk in the way of penitence and trust in the Cross and the Resurrection of Messiah.  It is on the strength of knowing the struggles I face and have seen others face, and have had to help others recover from, that I speak in warning. I have seen too many lives shipwrecked, and I would not wish that on a single further person. So, let us instead walk in the better path.

That is why Jesus warned, in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matt 7: . . .  3Why do you [a]stare from without at the [b]very small particle that is in your brother's eye but do not become aware of and consider the beam [c]of timber that is in your own eye?
    4Or how can you say to your brother, Let me get the tiny particle out of your eye, when there is the beam [d]of timber in your own eye?
    5You hypocrite, first get the beam of timber out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the tiny particle out of your brother's eye.
    6Do not give that which is holy (the sacred thing) to the dogs, and do not throw your pearls before hogs, lest they trample upon them with their feet and turn and tear you in pieces. [AMP]
Notice, how Jesus gives a double warning here: (a) against hypocritical judgement (and with this he gives the counsel, do your own repenting first . . . ), AND (b) against the folly of throwing precious pearls to pigs who cannot appreciate, will resent and will attack in a vicious way that tells whose spirit animates them,

It is time to stop the hoggish-spirited madness.  END