Transparent use of the cloud to share accounts data
Optional PAYG subscription pricing
Revamped user interface
Mobile apps for Android and iOS devices
Automated backup with no need for users to log off

Not a full SaaS product
Local Windows software required for desktop users
No Mac OS X support

Sage has updated its local Sage 50 Accounts to allow customers to share their data via the cloud, and added new mobile apps, a new look and subscription pricing. Other, more radical, cloud developments are also in the offing.

From £25/month (ex. VAT) per user (one company)

Once virtually synonymous with accounting software, Sage remains a dominant force in the UK market and across much of Europe, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of bookkeepers, accountants and other financial professionals. Recently, however, the company has seen growth levels fall while new cloud-based accounting services, such as Xero for example, gain ground, particularly in the small to medium-sized business sector.

In response to this threat the company first launched Sage One, a fairly standard cloud-based accounting service for small subscribers, followed now by Sage Drive. This is not so much a new product as part of an update to its flagship Sage 50 package. It gives the market leader a fresh new look, the option of subscription-based pricing and cloud support, albeit in a slightly off-beat fashion.

Not quite SaaS

A number of cloud-based accounting packages have been released in the last few years, all following much the same Software as a Service (SaaS) model, with both software and data hosted in the cloud. Which is exactly what you get with Sage One. For Sage 50, however, the company has taken a far less radical approach. With this update Sage 50 customers continue to run their accounts software locally, but with the option to connect to the new Sage Drive service to keep a synchronised copy of their data in the cloud, where it can be shared and accessed directly by other users.

Once upgraded to the latest release, multiple installs of Sage 50 on Windows desktops can be configured to synchronise with and use the shared data held in the cloud, making it possible for remote offices and accountants to get access without the need for complicated VPN arrangements.

A couple of mobile apps have also been introduced to work with Sage Drive. Available for both Android and iOS, these start with a tracker app to enable company owners and managers to keep an eye on the financial status of their business, plus a more fully featured Mobile Sales app to generate quotes, raise invoices and perform other tasks on the move.

There are changes afoot on the pricing front too, although customers can continue to pay a perpetual one-off license fee for Sage 50 and manage updates themselves as before. In addition, however, it’s now possible to opt to pay by subscription starting at £25 per month ex VAT for a single user with just one company files. Updates are automatically included in this subscription along with access to data in the cloud via the Tracker app but, because the software itself isn’t hosted, things get a little bit more complicated when you to share data beyond that.

As before, a desktop licence is required for each concurrent user with up to 20 able to share the same company file at any one time whether connecting via the LAN or the cloud. In addition, however, new Connected User licences (£5/month each) are required for users connecting via Sage Drive either from a desktop or the Mobile Sales app.

Sage Drive in practice

The Sage Drive service isn’t available as a standalone product, so to check it out we downloaded the latest Sage 50 Accounts software (v21) and installed it onto a Windows PC (there’s no Mac OS X version of this product). As with previous versions, a local company file is created as part of the install and this can be shared over the LAN — or now, via Sage Drive, remotely via the cloud.

Having installed the Sage 50 desktop and activated our license we were thrown into the new interface, which is clean, uncluttered and easy to navigate. Bear in mind, however, that this Sage software is aimed at bookkeepers and other accounting professionals and so, despite the usual wizards and plenty of help, it can take a while to master. You also get a new Backup Manager as part of the v21 release, which can be configured to take backups automatically without having to get users to log off as with previous versions. A much-needed enhancement, the addition of this facility was clearly prompted by the adoption of Sage Drive, where users can be logged on almost anywhere.

Some setup work is required to get Sage Drive working; for our evaluation, this started with the creation of an online Sage ID. We then used a wizard built into the desktop software to connect to the hosted service and build a replica of our company file in the cloud. The whole process took just a few minutes, including specifying a unique encryption key to maintain the security of our data followed by the actual business of replication itself.

Thereafter the local and cloud copies were synchronised automatically, just like using Dropbox, Google Drive and other cloud storage services. We were also able to connect to the cloud copy of our data using the new Sage mobile apps, simply by logging in with our Sage ID, with any changes quickly synchronised across all our connected devices.

The good and not so good

For the most part, Sage Drive simply gets on with things with little management oversight required, although a simple web-based management console is available to allow and manage user access to the shared data.

Otherwise, it’s a very non-disruptive extension to the Sage 50 Accounts product, adding the ability to connect users remotely without having to invest in complex and costly VPN technology, and doing so without having to change the way users work or interact with the product. As such it should appeal most to existing customers looking for remote access to their data without the need to start over and migrate to a fully-hosted SaaS platform. It will also benefit accountants and financial advisers looking to access client data directly.

The new apps are another bonus, adding the freedom to access and use Sage 50 accounts data from mobile devices, with more specialist apps also available for multi-currency trading and construction industry customers. Small-business owners will also welcome the option of pay-as-you-go subscription pricing.

That said, Sage Drive is very much a compromise solution and the continued need for local software is likely to put a lot of customers off — especially those not already using Sage 50. Concerns have also been raised over potential synchronisation issues when users have to work offline and, in general, the trend is towards SaaS across all markets these days, not just accounting.

Sage clearly recognises all this as towards the end of our evaluation the company announced Sage Life, a fully hosted product built on the Salesforce platform. Designed to add a collaborative twist to ERP with delivery via a new hosted service, this should address the concerns of both new and existing customers wanting more than Sage Drive has to offer.