Tag Archive: Advent


iStock_000007871357XSmallYour firm has just completed its implementation of APX. All systems are go including a small collection of SSRS reports, which meet some but probably not all of your firm’s requirements. You have new reporting capabilities, and now the question is “will your firm ever use these new features?” SSRS is also known as Microsoft Reporting Services, which sounds a little less complicated. No matter what the name is, SSRS is a beast – the following issues will challenge your firm’s ability to embrace and leverage SSRS technology for the foreseeable future.

1. TOOL INSTALLATION – SSRS tools like Report Builder and Business Intelligence Development Studio (BIDS) will not be installed on most of your PCs. They are kept at an arms-length from most users, and rightfully so. Though SQL Server Manager and SSRS reporting tools can be accessed on the database server, it currently isn’t Advent Software’s policy to install the applications that give users access to these tools on all users’ PCs. Assuming you have someone at your office with relevant report-writing experience, getting their system configured to make SSRS reports and/or modifications is special request. I have worked with many APX users. By default, most of them do not have access to the tools, so they could not use them or even see them. Some firms using APX 3.x do not even have access to SSRS reports because they have not been installed.

2. ENVIRONMENTAL COMPLEXITY – Once the tools have been installed, the collection of SSRS reports is open to users’ review and modification, but the infrastructure and understanding it requires is cumbersome. Most APX users do not have the skills necessary to create SSRS reports, and very few of those who do are interested in doing it. For those unfamiliar with SSRS and other similar report-writing tools, seemingly simple reporting modifications can be a pain if datasets aren’t designed with your specific reporting needs in mind. Those writing reports need to make frequent backups. Occasionally, reports can become corrupted and cause their writers to lose hours of work.

3. TIME – Compared to creating compound reports and building reports using Advent Report Writer Pro, developing reports using SSRS and other similar report writers like Crystal takes much more time. This is the norm, but not the rule. There are specific report-writing tasks that SSRS is more efficient at performing, but overall report-writing with SSRS is exponentially more complex than using Advent’s standard report-writing tools. This is due to the fact that SSRS development and modifications are the domain of Business Intelligence (BI) professionals and other system integrators who do it for a living. Report Writer Pro and compound reporting were developed by Advent to be used by investment operations end-users with limited technical know-how. SSRS was created by Microsoft, and is not designed with these same users in mind. Some simple SSRS reports take minutes to create, but it is much more likely for users to spend hours, weeks or even months working on reports.

4. COST – Since your firm is unlikely to have BI report developer resources internally, you will need to hire outside resources to develop your reports. That sounds familiar, right? Assuming that you, like many Advent APX clients, spend somewhere around 100k to 200k annually on APX, you can expect to pay at least another 15k to 30k annually to get the reports you want and keep them maintained by qualified third-party resources. You may be able to get the work done cheaper, but anyone delivering reporting services on a platform this complex at a significantly lower price will not be in business for long.

5. AVAILABILITY OF QUALIFIED RESOURCES – Since SSRS is still relatively new to Advent users, there are very few BI resources available with specific experience working for APX users. The learning curve is steep. Significant integration and reporting work needs to be done for individual firms to fully embrace SSRS as their reporting platform, and short-term that leads to a smaller pool of available resources to do the work.

RUNNING WITH SSRS
Due to the complexity inherent in combining various data elements via SSRS and workflow automation, some APX users may still be better off using the REPLANG and compound report functionality first introduced in Axys. Standardizing your firm’s reports using SSRS on Advent’s APX platform could be tough. For many users, standardizing will mean trying to make standard (REPLANG) reports look like they were created in SSRS, or worse, completely reengineering those reports in SSRS.

Advent deserves credit for implementing SSRS. It is a progressive move aimed at satisfying the enterprise users for which APX was designed, but some firms using APX should ask themselves whether they truly are an “enterprise” before they start implementing tools designed for enterprises. (In the near future, I will be blogging on the issue of firm identity and the role it plays in the success or failure of technology implementations.)

Long-term, there is good news for many APX users. Though creating reports can be very complex, the format of SSRS reports is extremely portable, which should eventually lead to more report sharing among APX users. Unfortunately, while this may be good news for APX users, BI developers and integrators like ISITC have to be more concerned with the portability of their end product.

One could literally spend hundreds of hours developing a report and have someone walk away with it. In other stickier environments, reports might be developed at a discount, but an integrator’s sunk costs could easily be recouped through a nearly guaranteed long-term maintenance agreement. Given concerns regarding portability, you should expect to pay a premium to have SSRS reports developed for your firm.

Firms making a significant investment to develop distinctive reports in APX now should be equally concerned with maintaining those reports in the future. Advent and third parties that create reporting solutions regularly make updates to address bugs and/or add functionality to reports. Though APX users may not realize it, this environment is still fairly sticky. Those unfamiliar with specific reports can easily perform the simplest modifications, but firms will do well to retain those that write their SSRS reports to address more complex modifications in the future.

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.

As a provider of technology solutions for financial services firms small and large nationwide, I frequently come in contact with investment firms of diverse dynamics and decision-making processes.  I am, of course, familiar with the process and discipline of getting

three separate quotes for goods and services, but even after decades of bidding on projects, it is still unclear to me what investment firms actually do with this information.

In some cases, it seems like the decision has already been made and prospects are just going through the motions to fulfill the expectation to follow a procedure and process established by their firm.  Gut decisions sometimes overrule common sense.

One of my clients actually adheres to this discipline for everything and, if the rumors are true, even gets three prices for paper clips.  In my own experience with them, they did, in fact, get three quotes for a single piece of computer equipment that cost about $75.  Considering current wage and consulting rates this arguably may not be a good use of time or money.  Perhaps it’s a more altruistic goal of keeping our economy competitive that drives their policy.

 

Opportunity                          

Recently, I was contacted by a firm looking for assistance with some Axys report modifications.  One of our competitors provided them with a quote for the work they needed.  The prospect felt that the price was too high and they solicited my opinion.  I never saw the quote from my competitor, but heard from the prospect that they wanted 3-4k up front and expected it would cost 7-8k.  In another conversation, I was told that there was also a local company bidding on the work.  That made sense to me – three bids.

I was provided with a detailed specification of what needed to be done and asked to provide them with a quote.  The firm was looking to make some modifications to the Axys report that generates Advent’s performance history data and stores it as Net of Fees (PRF) and Gross of Fees (PBF) data.  Though the requirements seemed complicated initially, it eventually became clear to me that the job simply required filtering of a couple REPLANG routines, and some minor additions.

I shared my impression with the prospect and ball-parked our bid at 3k (a 12 hour block of time) less than half of our known competitor’s bid.   I explained that the actual work was likely to take three to four hours, and rest of the time would be spent on testing, support and maintenance.  My expectation was that we would get the work done in a half day to a day at most and the remainder of our time could be used for any required maintenance or modification later in the year.

 

Follow-Up

After about a week, I called to follow up and found out that the firm was strongly considering having the work done by their local vendor, who told them it could be done for seven to ten days.  “Excuse me,” I said.  “Don’t you mean seven to ten hours?”

“No,” he replied.  He further explained that they really like using the local vendor and would probably use them for the job, which I fully understand.  I have, no doubt, benefited from this sentiment in Boston for years.  At that point in the call, I was thinking that it was more like seven to ten lines of code, but thankfully I didn’t start laughing.  I waited until the call ended.

 

No Risk, No Reward

In the end, your firm’s decision to select one bid over another is a personal one, similar in some respects to the one that dictates an investment adviser’s success attracting new clients and retaining them.  It’s about trust, performance, and the ability to continually communicate that you are worthy of one and capable of the other.  To succeed long-term in the financial services business, you need both.  Through good performance, we gain a measure of trust.  However, without a measure of initial trust or risk, there is no opportunity to perform.

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 or contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.

In 2005, Advent released the first version of Advent Portfolio Exchange (APX). This paved the way for enterprise users to take Advent more seriously, while reassuring rapidly growing firms that APX would service their future needs and provide support for legacy requirements. Initially, this change was fine with many of the Axys users that have historically comprised Advent’s established userbase, but after years of baseline Axys updates and Advent’s predominant emphasis on APX, the patience of some Axys users has worn thin.

Today Axys users likely fit into one of four camps:

  1. They are planning to move to APX in the near future.
  2. They understand their options well enough, but don’t think the benefits of moving to APX outweigh the costs.
  3. They simply don’t care about APX or competing products – just as long as Axys keeps doing what they need, everything is fine.
  4. They are frustrated by Advent’s perceived abandonment of their business segment and are either actively seeking a replacement to Axys or in the process of converting to a new system.

I have repeatedly been told that owning a self-hosted version of APX is 2-3 times more expensive than Axys, but don’t take my word for it.  Advent’s pricing changes regularly.  Call Advent and get a quote.   Early on, APX conversions were very expensive, and some firms were quoted six-figure conversion costs.  Although these costs have been reduced substantially, APX is still significantly more expensive than Axys.

In the past, conversions were much more complex and time-consuming.  The primary issue seemed to be the normalization of a wide variety of Axys data.  As APX has evolved, Advent and the conversion utility within APX have created efficiencies in the conversion process.  In a recent conversation with a client, who is now considering the move from Axys to APX, I learned that Advent took copies of their Axys files and was able to demo APX 4.x with representative data from their firm in about a week.

In addition to the difference in the software cost, Advent recommends that APX users host the app in a traditional database server and application server configuration.  Some users may opt to host IIS on a separate server as well.  Currently, many small and medium businesses (SMBs) simply host Axys on their primary file server.

Why would a firm running Axys want to pay the premium for APX?

The answer is improved security, infrastructure, and functionality that meets the expectations of those with higher technological standards – historically enterprise users, not SMBs.  APX promised this from day one, but APX v1 was, well, version 1.  I sat in on a couple dog and pony shows for APX when it was first introduced.  In one, the presenter abruptly but politely disconnected a conference call with one of their early “testimonial” users when the conversation went in an unexpected direction.  At Advent’s conference in Orlando, more time than Advent would have liked was spent on the topic of APX latency, but these types of issues can be experienced with any v1 product covering as much ground as APX.

One of the most valuable benefits of Advent’s portfolio accounting systems is the maturity of their products.  This maturity is the primary reason why so many things in Axys and APX work the way they should.  Though much has changed at the core of Axys and APX, both of these systems can potentially run a report created on The Professional Portfolio (the precursor to Axys and APX) 25 years ago.  Due to the continuity of Advent’s portfolio management systems, users of The Professional Portfolio and Axys have been able to jump into APX without a lot of training.

Last year, when I attended the Advent conference in Boston, a panelist from the Advent Users Group touched upon the issue of APX owners using APX like Axys.  Her point was that you should use the newer features of APX v3, but as she mentioned it, I couldn’t help thinking how much the earlier versions of APX were like Axys.  Aside from the SQL backend and other related platform benefits, it felt like you were still using Axys, only it was more complicated and clunky.

Even now, we see that the heart of Axys continues to beat inside APX, playing a critical role with respect to backward compatibility and legacy reporting.  Over the course of its first five years, APX has matured significantly.  That initial awkward period is behind Advent APX.

In the past 18 months, Advent has made significant strides towards fulfilling the promise of APX, introducing additional SSRS reports in APX 3.x and the ability to create dashboards in APX 4.x.  I have finally heard mention of an API.  Yes, APX is more complex than Axys, but now that more of the infrastructure has been built out, you can feel better about it.  With these improvements, APX should make sense for a larger number of investment firms.

APX is a logical upgrade for Axys clients who:

  1. Want to minimize the need to retrain staff on a new portfolio accounting system.
  2. Understand that additional features, such as SSRS reporting and dashboards, come hand in hand with incremental complexity and the costs of an enterprise solution.

Those that don’t want to take on as much overhead may find solace in moving to APX on Demand (a SAAS offering), but in doing so they will have to sacrifice some of the flexibility and functionality available to self-hosted users of APX.

 

Final Score: APX 4, Axys 0

Looking at version releases of APX and Axys over the past seven years, it is easy to understand the focus of Advent’s primary resources.  Though four minor releases of Axys have been made since APX came out, there have been no major releases.  A major release implies a major change to the software, and at this point it doesn’t appear that a major Axys release is coming from Advent.

Last year’s acquisition of Black Diamond provides Axys users with another choice under the Advent umbrella, but I haven’t seen many users go from Axys to Black Diamond. While Axys improvements have stalled out, Advent’s full-throttle APX development has many of its Axys users feeling disenfranchised.  From my own perspective, Advent appears to be losing some valuable clients through a failure to more actively communicate with their SMB client base.

If Advent wants to keep Axys clients as Advent clients, they should connect with their users and reassure them that they want to work with them. Still, Advent should also understand that for some, it may make more sense to move on.

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 or contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.

Though an increasing number of firms pride themselves on their ability to fire out reports within the first week of the quarter, it seems that most firms still produce and mail out their statements in the second or third week.  Yes, I said “mail out.”  Even firms that have invested in the ability to post their reports to a web portal still mail most of their reports out due to low adoption rates by their clients.   Investment advisors that don’t get their reports out within the first three weeks of quarter end are operating outside of the norm.

There are 13 weeks in a quarter.  Given that most firms send quarter end reports during week two, operations folks aren’t thinking about doing an upgrade in week three.  They’re busy catching up on what they didn’t do in weeks one and two, while they were managing the client reporting process.  That leaves ten possible weeks for a system upgrade.  Weeks four through six are ideal, giving your firm adequate time to test your systems and apply fixes as necessary.

Weeks seven to 13 become increasingly unappealing; lucky number 13 is the worst possible time to perform a system upgrade.  Most people in the investment business know this.  With 25 years of experience installing Advent products, I consider the time approaching quarter end an obvious no-fly zone for in-place system upgrades, no matter how competent you are.  I was stunned yesterday when I received a call from a customer related to a system upgrade.

Apparently, someone working with Advent talked them into upgrading to Axys 3.8.5 last week, telling them they wouldn’t have any problems with the upgrade.  When you are unfamiliar with a client site, broad-sweeping statements like this are all too easy to make.  After the upgrade, their billing reports didn’t work.  The representative doing the upgrade was able to fix the standard billing report, but could not fix our compound billing report, which is used to generate client invoices.

Billing Report (created via compound reporting macros and replang)

Due to this issue, our customer’s billing process was on hold this week until the issue was resolved.  We received their call yesterday afternoon, and called them back before close of business, but didn’t hear from them until today.  We promptly connected to their system, reviewed their issue and resolved it; however, this incident certainly had the potential to end in technical tragedy.

I recently blogged on the different versions of Axys 3.x we see in use working with Advent clients.  The blog indicated that Axys 3.8.5 is a solid product release and should be an easy upgrade for users, but also underscored the need for users with customizations to anticipate difficulties.

Advent typically shows good sense in planning.  For example, in Axys to APX conversions, systems are run in parallel for months.  I am disappointed to hear about this incident, which I can only hope is an oversight, not the modus operandi for Axys upgrades.

Some people feel the need to push ahead no matter how close they are to quarter end.  Perhaps they make a bit more progress in doing so. Still the question for me is what benefit this upgrade had last week versus a couple weeks from now when quarter end reports have been produced.  If there is a benefit that offsets the risk, I am all for it.  In this case, I just don’t see it – not for my client.

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 or contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.

If you saw $500 on the ground, would you pick it up?

In late 2008, most investment firms were focused on getting lean and surviving a heretofore unprecedented economic downturn. Because we specialize in working with these firms, we wanted to use our core expertise to help create efficiencies and save them money. We ran an ad in the Advent User Group (AUG) newsletter offering two free hours of consulting. It wasn’t a completely altruistic idea; we figured we would gain some long-term clients for the effort.

The ad was run, and I honestly thought we’d get some calls. Surely there were investment firms that would want FREE consulting, right?  We typically receive calls from investment professionals across the nation inquiring about our products and services, but not one person called to inquire about the two hours of free consulting.

It is possible that users were so busy that they weren’t reading the newsletter.  Perhaps the ad, which was kind of ugly, didn’t inspire firms to call us.  In all likelihood, this ad failed to generate interest because of its target market: investment advisors and their trusted professionals.

I have worked with these folks for over twenty years and understand who they are, so perhaps I should have known better. The typical investment advisor is a conservative skeptic who believes you get what you pay for. In their view, our offer of free consulting must have appeared hollow or even insincere. Investment firms are stereotypically risk-averse regarding their back office operations. For these reasons, many investment advisors are victims of a negative feedback loop. 

Software companies are able to continually increase fees without making dramatic technology improvements because, by and large, investment advisors are resistant to change and afraid to try anything else. This inertia obstructs new firms from competing with the established firms since the market share they need to capture is engaged in agreements that investment advisors may not think entirely reasonable, but acceptable for now.

Advent Software, for example, consistently raises the cost of Axys support and focuses on compatibility and bug fixes without implementing large-scale feature additions to further merit such sustained cost increases. Advent could change this with a little effort, but historically it hasn’t been part of their agenda. Nevertheless, I still believe that Axys is the most cost-efficient and feature-rich portfolio management system available to investment advisors today.

Axys users need to remember that the name of the company is Advent Software, not Axys Software. They are a for-profit business, and that is a good thing for their customers in the long-term. From my limited knowledge and perspective, it does seem like a grossly disproportionate amount of Advent’s research and development efforts go into things that are not related to Axys. For an Axys user paying annual maintenance fees which hypothetically go to support, research and development of their product, this is problematic – especially if they rarely call Advent for support.

Advent has invested significant resources in APX, an enterprise product offering which is a possible upgrade for Axys users. In reality, APX currently doesn’t make sense for the vast majority of non-enterprise Axys users. In May, Advent finalized a deal to buy Black Diamond for $73M. Three months later, just how or whether Black Diamond will be integrated into Advent’s other product offerings remains to be seen.

Advent is not alone. Earlier this year I had a call from a prospective customer that was frustrated by Satuit’s pricing plan. After paying roughly $2K per year to use Packman to package their reports and host statements on their portal, they were told that pricing would increase 300% over the next three years. If I made that announcement, I know what would happen to my clients.

To be fair to Satuit, they gave their client a year’s notice of the increase – enough time for them to find and implement a suitable alternative. We have experience selling competing products, and we feel that Satuit’s product, originally from Lync Consulting, had been underpriced at $2K per year.  Unfortunately, their client got used to paying $2K a year and didn’t feel like they could stomach more than $6K per year, even though the cost was scheduled to increase gradually.  Regardless, my advice to this prospective client was to stick with Satuit for now, because the cost of switching from their solution to our solution would outweigh any benefit in terms of cost over three years.

Rational product pricing takes competition, expectations, value, ongoing support and profitability into account, but don’t expect to make any sense of pricing in the industry where “greed is good.” Investment advisors that really want to change the status quo should follow Gandhi’s advice: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” In order to make it happen, they need to be willing to take on a certain level of risk. If the last twenty years is any indication of what we can expect, don’t hold your breath on this one.

Most investment advisors will continue to get what they pay for in the foreseeable future.

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 or contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail atkshea@isitc.com.