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2018 CPAFMA IT Benchmark Survey Findings

Published on January 25, 2018 by Roman Kepczyk, CPA.CITP, CGMA, PAFM, Xcentric

The CPA Firm Management Association (CPAFMA) recently conducted its second comprehensive technology survey tailored specifically to member firms with the goal of identifying the applications, products and processes utilized by peers.  Where possible, the survey attempted to identify which applications firms are moving to in the cloud compared to traditionally on-premise managed solutions.  The survey was conducted in December 2017 to determine what information technology firms would be utilizing in 2018 and compared to the results from 2016 where appropriate.  This survey further highlighted the unique nature of CPAFMA member firms which tend to be medium and larger sized firms.  174 CPAFMA members participated, 88% of which had 10 or more personnel and 40% (70 firms) were multi-office.   The findings of the survey are summarized below and presented by CPAFMA Advisory Board Member Roman Kepczyk via MAPCast on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. A podcast is available on the CPAFMA.org website.

Server Infrastructure

A surprising trend in this year’s IT survey is the number of CPAFMA firms (85 of 166 respondents) that have outsourced their entire IT infrastructure to a hosted cloud provider rather than internally managing their own networks.  While five responding firms utilized Thomson Reuters Virtual Office and two selected CCH Axcess, there was a significant increase in the number of participants that moved to “private” cloud hosting vendors.  Xcentric (a Division of Right Networks) led the private hosting vendors with 77 member firms, followed by Cetrom having two respondents and Bayon Technologies, Network Alliance, NuWave, Tetherview, and Winning Strategies each being utilized by one firm. Traditional, in-firm networks accounted for 40% of respondents which was a noticeable drop from the 77% of responding firms reporting they managed their own networks in the 2016 Survey. Of the firms that managed their own networks, seven (4%) utilized a third party “colocation” facility which provided more robust security, power and Internet access than can be found within most firm offices.

Server Virtualization

Virtualization continued as a very strong trend with the majority of responding firms adopting this technology either internally or through their cloud vendor.  Simply stated, virtualization runs each application in its own “virtual server” providing great stability for accounting applications by minimizing conflicts.  While many respondents indicated they were not sure of what their virtualization strategy was, VMware was the preferred choice of 52% respondents, followed by 37% of firms choosing Citrix Xen, 10% selecting Microsoft Hyper V, and 1% selecting VDI (Virtual Desktop Interface), which has been trending in corporate environments outside of the accounting profession.

IT Staffing

Traditional accounting firm metrics have pointed to firms needing one IT equivalent staff person for every 25 to 32 firm personnel.  This year’s survey attempted to verify this number differentiating between firm size and internally managed versus externally managed networks.  Respondents from large firms (100+ members) had a 1:39 ratio between IT personnel and total personnel in traditionally networked firms, compared to a 1:80 ratio for those in the cloud, pointing to cloud providers taking on a significant portion of the IT burden.  This was also evidenced in firms between 50 and 100 members as traditional firms had a 1:40 ratio compared to cloud hosted firms with a 1:53 ratio. For firms with 20 to 50 members, traditional networks fared slightly better at a 1:32 ratio compared to cloud firms which surveyed at a 1:30 ratio.  The IT Staffing responses for firms with less than 20 members were mostly unanswered making the results unusable.

Significant Downtime

Another new question this year sought to identify what events caused significant downtime in the previous 12 months, with the number one item being Internet outages which impacted 18 firms.  This was followed by seven firms that experienced hardware failures and six firms that had cloud/host outages.  Six Firms were impacted by Ransomware and three firms were impacted by viruses and malware, which was a reduction from the 17 firms impacted in the 2016 Survey.  While the survey found BitDefender to be the most selected anti-virus application with 26 firms, there were 16 other applications that were utilized by at least two peer respondents, so virus applications have the least amount of consensus of any application in responding firms.

Backup Options

For traditional on-premise data backups, eight respondents still utilized tape backups and 34 respondents (29%) backed up to hard disks or solid-state drives, which we have seen to be more reliable and easier to utilize to restore files from than from tape.  The bigger trend of member firms backing data up offsite via Internet-based solutions increased to 64% of respondents compared to 50% in 2016, pointing to web-based backups as becoming the overall standard.  The survey also asked about backup frequency and 73% of respondents backed up daily, 8% between two and six times per week, 8% weekly, and 11% listed “other.” Once again, the variety of applications utilized by firms was significant with no one application having more than a handful of users.

Workstations

Dell still leads the pack for desktop brands with 68% of respondents making them the first choice followed 20% by HP and 12% by Lenovo.   For laptop brands, Dell was not as dominant with 60%, but continued to be one of the top three brands along with HP and Lenovo at 17% each. Within the remaining “other” computers were four firms selecting Microsoft Surface PCs, which could be signifying the start of a new trend as 3% of firms stated they would be going to smaller laptops in the next year. The most popular laptop configuration continued to be a 15.6” with full keyboard (including a ten-key number pad) at 58% of respondents, followed by 23% of firms buying 17” models as their standard, compared to 14% selecting 14”-15” with the standard keyboard and 4% buying 13” or smaller (including Microsoft Surface PCs) without an integrated number pad in the keyboard. The survey also asked what computer processors firms were planning on purchasing in the year ahead and 52% selected Intel’s i7, 44% Intel i5, 3% Intel i3 and 2% listed “other” which could be either Apple or AMD.

A new question for 2018 asked about how many firms had adopted a “hoteling” concept where firms had unassigned workstations which could be utilized by any staff member.  While 132 firms stated they had at least one unassigned workstation available for anyone’s use, 19 firms stated that 33% or more of their PCs were “hoteled,” while the largest segment of 43 firms had between 10% and 20% of all their PCs available for this purpose.

Workstation Software

It comes as no surprise that Microsoft Windows is the dominant operating system (with two firms stating they had one workstation running Apple iOS).  This year the survey asked firms to estimate what percentage of their workstations were running on different versions of Windows, and while Windows 7 was slightly ahead of Windows 10 in the number of firms, the actual number of Windows 10 workstations was greater than reported for Windows 7 (5,675 vs. 5488) pointing to more adoption of Windows 10 in the larger firms.  Regarding Internet Browsers, Google Chrome was the primary application selected by 71 firms (65%) compared to Microsoft Edge/Explorer by 34 firms (31%) which was a complete flip from the 2016 survey with 26% Chrome and 68% Microsoft. 

The 2018 Survey found a significant increase in the number of firms utilizing Office 2016 (including Office 365) with 45% of firms utilizing these versions. 34 firms (31%) continued to use Office 2013 and 26 firms (23%) were still on Office 2010.  With accounting vendors dropping support for the 2010 version, we anticipate many firms will jump onto Office 365 for the combination of productivity applications including Exchange/Outlook.  Adobe 11 was the dominant PDF application with 46 firms (42% of respondents) standardizing on it, followed by 34 firms (31%) primarily on Adobe 12/DC.   14 firms listed Adobe 10 and 15 firms listed Adobe 9 or Doc-It’s PDF program.  With technical support being discontinued for versions 11 and older we anticipate a push in firms going to the 12/DC version after busy season.

Monitors

The survey specifically asked for the standard monitor setup which pointed to 69 members (58% of responding firms) utilizing triple monitors as the standard.  This was followed by 24 firms (20%) using dual standard monitors of 20” or less, and 20 firms (17%) utilizing oversize monitors greater than 20”, which flip-flopped from the 2016 survey findings.  Six firms (5%) utilized quadruple monitors which combined with oversize and triple amounted to 80% of firms using more than dual standard in this year’s survey.

Tablets

41 peer firm provided tablets to all partners (24%), 11 firms provided them to managers (6%), and 5 firms provided them to all staff (3%), which was a noticeable reduction from 34% of partners and 10% of managers from the 2016 findings.  The survey found that 21 firms utilized Apple’s iPad followed by 16 respondents utilizing Microsoft Surface tablets which barely had any users in 2016 and could be signaling pilot programs in many firms.

Phone System

A new question this year asked what type of phone system firms utilized to determine how many were going to the web-based Voice Over IP (VOIP) services.  While the majority (83 firms) continued to use a traditional on-premise phone system, 44 firms responded that they had transitioned to an external VOIP system accounting for 35% of the respondents.  In our consulting with firms, we have found most firms search out service providers to maintain their existing phone system until the vendor can no longer provide support at which point they transition to external VOIP solutions as a more cost-effective solution (but still a significant capital outlay). The survey asked which vendors peer firms utilized and no individual provider tallied more than five responses in either category.

Smartphones

The 2018 survey had 56 firms (44%) that provided smartphones to partners, 19 firms (15%) to managers, and 3 firms (2%) provided them to staff.   This was a decrease from the 2016 survey that found 60% of respondents providing smart phones to partners and 24% to managers, which may be trending to BYOD as the standard in the future.  For types of phones, Apple’s iPhone was selected almost three-fours of the time with Android phones accounting for the remainder. Overall, 43% of firms provided some kind of stipend for personnel, which was the same as in the 2016 survey.

Scanner Technology

Fujitsu continued to be the top production scanner vendor of choice with 78 (64%) of respondents (which increased from 57% in the 2016 IT Survey).  This was once again followed by Canon with 25 (21%) of peers selecting them and then Kyocera (6%), Xerox (3%), Ricoh (2%), Sharp (2%) and Lanier (1%). The 2018 survey also asked firms to estimate what percentage of documents were scanned centrally, distributed/shared or individually, which was interpreted as 84% of firms utilizing centralized scanning, 79% utilizing distributed/shared scanning and 55% having some desktop scanning.

CPA Practice Applications

Below we summarize the administrative applications which CPAFMA peer firms utilize to run their internal operations.  The number of firms selecting either on-premise or cloud applications have been identified, where possible, but point out a continued transition towards cloud adoption either for the entire firm or individual applications.

Tax Applications

This survey was combined with the previous SaaS/Cloud survey with the intent of identifying which applications are moving to the cloud as there have long been tax, document management portal and research tools available.  Below we summarize the tax application trends within CPAFMA peer firms.

Audit and Accounting Applications

The survey also asked questions specifically in regards to assurance services to identify adoption of the following applications and utilities:

IT Governance

The vast majority of peer firms (79 firms representing 71% of respondents) utilized a technology budget that was reviewed at least annually.  Surprisingly, only 37 firms (34%) had a designated IT Committee.  Of those that did have a committee, 11 met quarterly, ten met monthly and three met annually.  The other nine respondents stated they met “as needed.”

IT Training Resources

The survey once again had respondents list the best training resources with the most firms selecting the accounting vendor user conferences: CCH (18 firms), Xcentric (16), Thomson Reuters (12), and XCM (two). This was followed by 16 firms listing the CPAFMA National Symposium and/or Technology Fly-in and 11 going to the AICPA ENGAGE (formerly TECH/Practitioners Symposium).  The CPAFMA and AICPA ENGAGE conferences will be held together this year (June 11-14, 2018) in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Cloud Future

The survey’s final question asked when the respondent believed that the majority of CPA firms will run entirely in the cloud with no local servers.  A surprising 40% estimated it would happen between 3 and five years, another 40% thought it would be between five and ten years and 8% believed it would take 10 years or longer.  14% estimated that it would be less than three years, which we would agree with by quoting Bill Gates when he was Microsoft’s CEO:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.  Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction!"

Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP is the Director of Consulting for Xcentric, LLC and works exclusively with accounting firms to implement today’s leading best practices and technologies incorporating Lean Six Sigma methodologies to optimize firm production workflows. Roman is also the author of “Quantum of Paperless: A Partner’s Guide to Accounting Firm Optimization” which includes the results of the 2018 CPAFMA IT Benchmark Survey.