by Rakesh Sharma
Published on 10 April 2011
In our blog reviews, so far, I have mostly been focused on solutions developed for cloud computing and with revenue models customized for SaaS.
The menu for this week is different. This week, I will review Blue Link: an inventory and accounting management software that was originally designed and implemented as an on-premise solution (or one that was stand alone and required exclusive licenses). It has moved onto a SaaS model only recently. Although the idea seems academic, it has implications on multiple levels including costs and interface.
In this post, I will look at its interface, functionalities, and how it can be of use to you.
WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?
Let's start with what it's not about. "We are NOT a good fit where there are any significant manufacturing requirements (light assembly is as far as we go)," says Genevieve Woo, marketing coordinator with Blue Link. If that sounds like they are more into logistics, then you are partly right.
"We are particularly strong in industries that need to track lot numbers, expiry dates, etc. as well as where there are unusual needs - for example if a prospect is switching from an old legacy system that was customized for them," says Woo.
The other interesting thing about Blue Link is that they were an on-premise solution before migrating to a cloud-based solution. So, has this migration resulted in a change of interface and functionality?
Not really, at least as far as the look and feel of Blue Link software is concerned. "The interface and functionality remains the same," says Gonzalo Perez, consultant at Blue Link. "The significant difference lies in the web-enabled add-on components." He is referring to Web.Venture - a web add-on for storefront components. This solution enables B2B businesses to take orders online and match it with their inventory in the back-end. Blue Link also integrates with Demac Media, a Magento solution company, for B2B "etailers" back-end needs.
The other significant difference lies in costs. For small business owners, I suppose that would be a great differentiator. Blue Link offers discounts for existing customers to switch from an on-premise to a hosted solutions provider. Based on rates provided by the company, the difference is pretty significant (between 100 to 200 percent). That data point is significant enough for small businesses to consider when they opt for a particular solution.
Gonzalo says, regardless of whether the solution is on-premise or hosted, it is relatively painless to deploy a new custom solution. According to Michael Nealon, chief financial officer at Southern Implants, a Blue Link customer, deployment is a combination of customer readiness and coordination of support staff. "We took our time to get our data sets in order," he says. "However, once we were ready, deployment barely took any time."
Blue Link can be accessed through Microsoft Terminal Servers or remote desktop thin clients. This is a huge benefit for companies such as Southern Implants. Nealon says his company, a medical devices company, the terminal server has been an excellent resource for his salespersons. "Our salespersons can access Blue Link from all over the world," says Nealon. "This includes accessing systems at night or on the road." Translated into simple terms, this means salespersons can access multiple sales reports in a variety of formats at any time of the day thereby increasing productivity and efficiency.
The people behind Blue Link recommend a Windows Small Business Server for optimal performance. In fact, it can be also run using an existing Windows XP solution though there are performance issues, according to its manufacturers.
THE BASICS: WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
It looks very much like a traditional ERP solution. Navigation is not difficult once you get used to the menu structure. However, as compared to other cloud solutions for inventory management and accounting, this one is definitely different in look and feel. I suppose part of it is due to the fact that the software has been migrated from an offline to an online cloud-computing based one. However, the developers should definitely consider an interface revamp to align with existing solutions in the market and attract new customers.
GETTING INTO THE DEEP
According to its website, Blue Link is a business and accounting inventory management software to small and medium-sized businesses. That should not be too complicated and it is not. As I noted earlier, the solution is fairly traditional. In that sense, it is also more robust as compared to other cloud computing based solutions.
What it does not have in terms of interface, the software more than makes up through functionality. This means you have a plethora of role-based options, flows, and reports. In an earlier post, I mentioned the need for a flow-based system in inventory management.
Blue Link's solution is flow-based: each step in the process is dependent on the previous step. For example, purchase orders or quote orders are followed by review screens with special permissions assigned to specific users. Initially, I thought that a pre-defined flow-based system might limit customization in the software. I was wrong. "Our software is customizable and specific for small to medium enterprises," says Woo. "In effect, we can customize the solution for different customers for different purposes."
SUPPORTING YOUR BUSINESS SYSTEM
From the look and feel of its website, I assumed that support might not be a strong point with Blue Link. However, I was analyzing the solution from the Web 2.0 perspective of webinars, user guides, and assorted help files.
There is something to be said about support that is not provided through a hyperlink or a disembodied voice on the other end of your phone, though. According to Nealon, his experience with support has been extremely positive. "Maybe because they are a small company, we get a higher level of care from them than if we would have been with a larger company," he says.
That said, Blue Link does have an excellent ecosystem of topics to engage and educate potential users. White papers and assorted documentation help you decide whether to go in for an on-premise or SaaS solution. In addition, they have an array of webinars to explain each module and, also, to help you decide and choose a SaaS (Software as a Service) solution over a hosted solution.
However, there is scope for improvement. For example, they could include discussion boards and forums to discuss problems and possible resolutions to their software. In addition, an integrated help guide (I suppose one is available with purchase) would also help potential users decide whether to choose the solution or not.
Is it for you?
Despite its unconventional interface, Blue Link gets high marks for the breadth of its functionality available at a low cost. A prominent drawback of cloud computing is that customizations are expensive and, in some cases, not possible. Blue Link has worked this problem out by offering a combination of on-premise and SaaS solutions. However, online support is one area where they could improve their performance. In addition, Blue Link's website could do with a makeover. This is because a website is an introduction to the tool. The level and audience for most of the information on the website seems to be an existing user. Not much is available to entice and convince a potential or novice user of the benefits of using Blue Link.
Given their experience and expertise, it should not be too difficult for the company to become a frontrunner amongst other products in the same category.