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iStock_000000129907XSmallIn my experience working with investors across the nation both small and large, there is at least one recurring theme.  Their sophisticated workflows hinge on semi-automatic processes that rely in part or completely on people.  I suppose that is a good thing when operator oversight is a plus, but when I get involved most of these firms have realized that they literally want to push a button and have things done as simply, quickly and reliably as possible.

Ten years ago, one of my clients experienced organic growth so rapid that it drove their firm from one that managed hundreds of millions to billions in assets in less than two years. While investment managers are known to consistently take pains to build processes that allow their businesses to scale efficiently, explosive growth can strain or disrupt established workflows.

In this case, the effect of the growth was dramatic. It demanded that certain processes be automated. One of the most important processes was related to trading foreign stocks in local currencies.  The influx of trades from new business was overwhelming.  Back-office employees that were already working hard needed to work even longer hours to keep pace with the incoming business.

More specifically, the firm’s back office needed to manually enter both transactions to trade currencies and the associated equity trades. In the multi-currency version of Axys, purchases and sales of foreign stocks in local currency require three transactions: two to exchange the currency and one to buy or sell the security.  As a result, every purchase or sale required two additional transactions related to foreign currency exchange.  They were entering three manual transactions in the trade blotter for every trade they made – even partial fills of an outstanding order required these transactions.  The entries to the trade blotter were tedious, time-consuming, and a potential source of operator error; the firm knew they needed to automate them.


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Understanding the Required Workflows

As part of their process, the firm waited until they got the executed FX rates from an assortment of brokers before they could enter the corresponding trades and post them in their portfolio accounting system.  This backlog of trades created a slew of manual trade blotter work that ultimately had to be done after hours to make sure the firm was ready to trade the next day.

A homegrown Order Management System (OMS) populated the Axys trade blotters of the traders at the company with open trades. Those blotters were utilized to track open trades and never actually posted.  Once the execution info was reported, our automation needed to create the additional transactions that back-office staff was entering manually. The workflow also required that the trade blotters for individual traders be updated to reflect that the executed trades were no longer part of the open trades. In effect, our automation needed to rewrite the traders’ blotters as well as the trade blotter of the operations employee running the app and post the latter.


Building the Prototype/v1

In a relatively quick timeframe (40 hours), we built a working prototype using Visual Basic that:

  1. loaded the outstanding trades from each trader’s blotter into an Access database
  2. created a process where outstanding trades could be selected and associated with trade execution info to generate the required trade blotter entries
  3. imported executed trades to the trade blotter for review and posting
  4. updated the open positions in the trader’s blotters
  5. produced reports (via Crystal Reports) detailing trades pending and actual execution info

In short, the app pulled pending transactions from their homegrown OMS and allowed users to associate foreign currency execution rates and other specifics of trade execution with specific orders to produce the necessary Axys trade blotter transactions automatically.  Once the execution info was recorded, the user would exit the app, which in turn automatically updated the user’s trade blotter and the traders’ blotters.

Version 2

The next version of the app was under development for over six months and cost nearly 40k, but it met the needs of the firm. The core functionality of v1 with respect to workflow was preserved, but we added many features.  In terms of the initial cost, v2 was expensive, but over a period of nearly ten years it required almost no maintenance. The multi-currency trade automation solved an immediate and urgent need when it was originally developed, and continued to save the firm hours of back office processing work every week for nearly ten years, until it was finally decommissioned in 2015 as a byproduct of the firm’s transition to Moxy and Geneva.

Though the application wasn’t cheap to build or maintain initially, it paid for itself many times over during its tenure as an integral part of the daily workflow at firm that knows the value of automation.


About the Author: Kevin Shea is the Founder and Principal Kevin Shea Impact 2010Consultant of Quartare; Quartare provides a wide variety of technology solutions to investment advisors nationwide. For details, please visit Quartare.com, contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@quartare.com.

This article is a follow-up to two previous articles: one that addresses the future of Axys and another that helps Axys users figure out whether they are on the right version of Axys for their firm.

Almost two years ago, I speculated on what would begood-bad-uglycome of Axys and whether Advent Software would answer to a growing demand among the Axys user base for major product enhancements after several years of minimal but consistent maintenance updates.

Among other things, my blog detailed an expectation for the same old thing as we have seen in the past – a maintenance release – but I also hoped that we would see a major release.  Since the current version was 3.8.5, it made some sense that version 4.0 might be the next release.

At their conference in 2013, Advent formally announced a major release that would include a user interface (UI) overhaul and the addition of permissions.  Advent also indicated that Axys 14.1 would be released in Q2 of 2014.  This was good news to many Axys clients.  I was off by 10 versions, but happy nonetheless that a major new release was in the works!

While I commend the UI overhaul and see those changes as a necessity given today’s technology standards, permissions have never been that big a deal to me or the clients I work with.  As the go-to technical resource for many firms that use Axys, I found we could almost always work around this issue.  The announcement of a major release no doubt made users hopeful that Axys would get the long-awaited attention it required.

 

Understanding Advent’s new versions…

Advent has embraced a versioning system that makes 14.1 the next release after 3.8.5.  From 2014 forward, there are two scheduled point releases one in Q2 and another in Q4. Advent’s other products also share a similar versioning and release schedule.

 

2014

As April 2014 went by I needed to remind myself that there were three months in Q2, and the release could just as easily come out in June.  Like many users I waited and listened, but heard no great news about 14.1.  As it turned out, 14.1 was a beta with no more than a handful of users outside of Advent partner firms participating in testing.   14.2 was released on a limited basis.  Thanks to the new version numbers, some Axys 3.8.5 users were thinking, “Wow! The latest release is 14; we really have fallen behind.”

Relatively speaking, a very small group of users had begun using Axys v14.x.

2015

Axys 15.1 was also released on a limited basis.  Those Axys users that want to try out the latest Axys version now need to fill out a questionnaire detailing information that helps Advent determine whether the software in its current iteration will work satisfactorily enough for them to allow or discourage testing of the Axys in each particular user’s environment.


Ten Things You Should Know About Axys 15.x

  1. The UI is a ribbon bar similar in style to more recent versions of Office.
  2. Though the software and data still resides locally, Axys 14.x and beyond require an internet connection to authenticate users via Advent Direct.
  3. The file formats are the same as Axys 3.8.5; that is one piece of good news for integrators.
  4. The ancillary products that work with Axys remain the same for now. Report Writer Pro, DTCC, Dataport and Data Exchange. There has been no change to those products yet.
  5. Reports can now be produced from the Axys program rather than the reports program (rep32.exe) alone.
  6. The function of specifying lots when positions are sold off has changed. It is no longer a pop-up.  Now users must specify the close method in a comment line that immediately follows the transaction.
  7. An additional server running SQL CE is recommended for the parallel testing phase.
  8. Scheduled scripts need to be amended to include authentication credentials.
  9. It is not available to Axys users running the single user version, but support for single user installs is planned for v15.2.
  10. Advent recommends running Axys 15.1 in a test environment for at least a quarter.

Axys users should understand the need to do a phased and methodical release.  This need is predicated on how long Axys has been around and how many programs and interfaces connect with it.  As it was designed and marketed to be, Axys is still the hub of operations for many firms.  By and large, Axys users have had the product for several years and many have built and or purchased additional tools that integrate with Axys.

Advent wants users to start using 15.x, but only after they have thoroughly tested all of their processes.  The easiest way to accomplish that, as Advent recommends, may be running Axys 15.x in parallel with Axys 3.x for an entire quarter.  One of the best things Axys has going for it is the fact that it works so reliably.  With that in mind, the last thing Advent would want to do is destabilize the platform and call their clients’ favorite thing about Axys into question.  However, a greater sense of urgency with respect to facilitating Axys 15.x implementations and bringing more substantive enhancements to Axys would be refreshing to see.

In 2013, Advent made an informal and perhaps unspoken promise to continue to make substantial improvements to the Axys platform through announcing their upgrade plans and committing additional resources to make enhancements to Axys.  Though Axys users can clearly see the signs that Advent has made a significant additional technology investment in Axys, the majority of Axys users have not been able to take advantage of those improvements yet.

Future improvements aside, the primary reasons to stay the course with Axys remain the same as they have for quite some time:

  1. it is an established standard
  2. function over form
  3. simple to host and maintain
  4. relatively low-cost versus most emerging alternatives
  5. a platform you can build on

Firms that want to adopt the latest version of Axys in 2015 will need to work to make it happen.  I suspect that the best-case scenario for many firms would be for them to start testing with 15.x in 2015 and eventually go live in 2016 after year end processing has been completed.  Given the competitive nature of today’s portfolio management systems, the slow motion release of major Axys updates could lead to more firms leaving Axys (and possibly Advent) to pursue alternative solutions with enticing features they may be able to take advantage of on a more predictable timetable.



About the Author: Kevin Shea is the Founder and Principal Kevin Shea Impact 2010Consultant of Quartare; Quartare provides a wide variety of technology solutions to investment advisors nationwide.

For details, please visit Quartare.com, contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@quartare.com.

sticky-notes-to-do-listAround this same time last year, many of us said our final goodbyes to Windows XP and Exchange 2003.  This year, Microsoft’s latest End-Of-Life (EOL) event – along with good sense – will force most of the firms that are still using Windows Server 2003  to replace it with a newer version of the Windows Server operating system (OS).  July 14th, 2015 marks the end of extended support for the 2003 product line – after that date, there won’t be any more security updates.

For those unfamiliar with the issue this raises, compliance regulation and standards related to private information and security dictate that firms must keep up-to-date with regular patches to the software and hardware that powers their businesses.  Your firm’s Written Information Security Program (WISP) should detail a policy of adherence to these standards, among many others, and in there somewhere you have almost certainly indicated that you are keeping your systems updated with respect to security.

Like Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 has been around long enough and really should be replaced, so there is not much point in delaying the switch.  Most firms have likely changed over to Windows Server 2008 or 2012, but those that haven’t made the change yet should be planning on upgrading their server(s) in Q2 of 2015.

 

rackAlternatives to Windows 2003?

Assuming your firm is committed to Microsoft Server products, you have two choices:

1. Windows Server 2008 r2 (2008)

2008 is a mature operating system, which is still in use at a large number of firms today. However, mainstream support for 2008 ended earlier this year (1/13/2015), and though extended support is available until 1/14/2020, it probably doesn’t make sense to move from 2003 to 2008 in 2015. Firms that have existing 2008 software licenses may not want to incur the additional expense of 2012 licenses, and those with significant compatibility concerns may opt to install Windows 2008 on new server hardware.

2. Windows Server 2012 r2 (2012)

2012 is the latest and greatest from Microsoft. It has a shiny new interface and a bevy of neat features like deduplication. My experience with 2012 has been overwhelmingly positive. Though worries about 2012 compatibility with legacy applications may delay widespread acceptance of this operating system, many firms will ultimately choose to make the switch to 2012.

What happens if we stay on Windows 2003?

Your server will still work, but you will not get any more security updates from Microsoft, and your firm will technically be out of compliance.

What else could happen?

Software companies and other parties your firm interfaces with will assume that you are making these updates.  Your firm’s failure to upgrade to a later version of Windows Server could cause problems that you and your staff may not be able to anticipate.

As an example of this, one of my clients that was slow to upgrade all of their Windows XP systems last year found that the latest version of Orion’s desktop software, which was automatically updated sometime in Q1 of 2014, was incompatible with Windows XP.  Unfortunately for the client, there wasn’t a way to reverse the update or use an older version.

At the time, I was surprised, especially because the customer wasn’t given any notice of the “feature enhancement.”  It didn’t make sense that a software company would launch an update incompatible with existing customer desktops that were still supported by Microsoft.  Thankfully, Orion addressed the issue quickly by providing the users affected with remote desktop (RDP) connections to Orion servers for an interim period.

About the Author: Kevin Shea is the Founder and Principal Kevin Shea Impact 2010Consultant of Quartare; Quartare provides a wide variety of technology solutions to investment management and financial services firms nationwide.

For details, please visit Quartare.com, contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@quartare.com.

Earlier this year, Advent sent an alert to Axys users about Windows 8 issues and how to deal with them, as an interim solution to problems that Windows 8 users can face.  It is good that Advent is proactively alerting users, but I am not recommending that any of my clients move to Windows 8 just yet. Upgrading your office to Windows 8 is premature, unless you are willing to pay the premium and deal with the frustrations typically associated with being an early adopter of the latest Windows operating system.

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If your firm uses Axys, you may be wondering whether a new release is in the works. Though Advent hasn’t publicly set a release date for the next version yet, I expect they soon will. Based on what Advent has done in the past, users should expect a 3.9 release in the near future. That release will likely support Office 2013, and Adobe Acrobat 11, and may also feature improved Windows 8 compatibility.

Though these types of updates seem minimal, they have more substance than you might think. Axys remains a very functional and cost-efficient option for advisors. Compound reports generated in Axys 3.8.5 using Excel 2010 graphs rival output from APX at a fraction of the cost. If your compound reports look dated, find out what version of Excel you are using. Using the latest version of Excel in conjunction with a version of Axys that supports it can give your reports a newer look and feel.

Axys 4?

I would like to think that Axys 4 is in the works, but a major revision would probably mean a name change – perhaps “Cloud Axys?” Longer-term, expect Axys to undergo a technology transformation if Advent wants to keep the platform alive and decides to commit greater resources to future updates that keep pace with technology trends. While the number of APX, Geneva and Black Diamond users have continued to grow, Axys users still account for a considerable number of Advent’s clients.

Historically, Axys was the lynchpin of Advent Software’s success and center of their hub of solutions for their customers. Replacing the PMS of an investment advisor is more complicated than it seems.  It impacts many of the systems at an advisor’s office, as well as the people you need to support your business, the skills they need, and what third-party solutions are available.

It would be ideal for Advent if Axys customers moved to another Advent product in the future. Those conversions and newer software licensing agreements would generate more income, while eventually allowing Advent to phase out Axys without major renovations.  However, Axys users looking at APX, Black Diamond and Geneva don’t always see a clear path.

In the past two years, Tamarac/Envestnet and other competitors have won over some Axys customers. My firsthand knowledge of a couple of advisors who made the move to Tamarac leads me to believe that Advent didn’t need to lose these customers. Through better communication, negotiation or product positioning, they could have kept the business.  On that note, I spoke with an Axys user last week that requested an APX quote after seeing a demo in Q2 and never got one.

Perception is Reality

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“Be where your enemy is not.” -Sun Tzu

Current Axys users represent a ground of contention that will not be ignored by Advent’s competitors and should not be ignored by Advent. At stake is the perception of who provides the very best PMS platforms for investment advisors.  Advent may be willing to let some of their Axys clients go quietly, but in doing so they risk losing those relationships long-term, if not permanently, as well as other advisors in their sphere of influence.  Axys users represent a critical mass that could fuel the growth of  Advent’s competition in the near future.  Left unchecked, Advent competitors garnering Axys users now could ultimately vie for current APX, Geneva, and Black Diamond users down the road.

Obviously, Advent cannot be all things to all customers, but they can make a better effort to keep existing Axys clients in the fold.  In order to do so, Advent must improve communications with Axys users, affirm their commitment to Axys, and continue to add technology enhancements to Axys on a regular basis.

About the Author: Kevin Shea is President of InfoSystems Integrated, Inc. (ISI); ISI provides a wide variety of outsourced IT solutions to investment advisors nationwide.

For details, please visit isitc.com, contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.