The Changing World of Software

Markus Hecker Comments
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Over the last few years, many operators upgraded from DOS to Windows programs. New technology brought better electronic billing options; stores became more retail-oriented; users started to systematically collect marketing data; and most operators have Internet access and a “storefront” on the web. Technology is serving a more competitive and sophisticated storage environment, and it keeps changing to better integrate operational and money-making features.

Your World on the Web

Internet-based programs aim to integrate all areas of your storage operations, allowing different users to share data more easily and providing an interface with your website. With this accessibility, potential customers can check unit pricing and availability; existing clients can review their rental histories, check their accounts and make payments. Web-based systems receive move-ins and payments from your website in real time.

Web systems have other office-related benefits. For example, if you use call centers to answer phones when your office is closed or managers are busy, the center may access data via the web, look up clients, take payments or rent units. Web-based systems also integrate with kiosks or automated attendants similar to those used at airport check-in. All transactions, no matter where they are made, update your web-based system in real time.

The flexibility of this system allows owners, accountants and managers to stay abreast of all operations anytime, anywhere. They can monitor financials and occupancy, or change parameters—such as unit pricing—for maximizing rental revenue. The process of enabling software to adjust rental rates for vacant units based on demand or occupancy is a proven method in the airline and hotel industry. Maybe it’s time to use this practice in self-storage as well.

Web-based systems also provide consolidated reporting systems. Users can collect reports from individual stores, combine them into summary documents, and have the ability to better analyze trends at multiple facilities. Accountants can easily tie one or multiple stores’ transactions into accounting systems from anywhere. This is a huge advantage.

Design Concepts

A variety of Internet-based programs are available and, while they all offer remote access, they all have differences in design. Common software concepts using the web are either thin-client, terminal-services or smart-client programs.

With a thin-client program, a facility’s computer no longer holds data, but the entire database is stored on a central server. Websites and remote users can tie into a database in real time, and it’s possible for authorized users to view up-to-date reports and transactions from anywhere.

At the site level, users have to constantly download every document, screen or report from the central server to view, print and work with data. Users no longer have a Windows-style interface but use a web browser, which doesn’t always support Windows-typical functions such as drag and drop, undo and redo, copy and paste, or on-screen help.

When considering thin-client programs, pay special attention to the amount of data passed back and forth between the self-storage site and the central server. Checking balances or browsing through lists of charges, units or customers’ histories involves huge amounts of data. Sending information from the server to the self-storage office is often slower than recalling it from a Windows program. Even with broadband Internet access, operators may notice the system slows as the database grows.

Printing leases and receipts, and generating hundreds of invoices that must be sent from the server to the self-storage office may take longer than it used to with your previous software program. This is a definite drawback for businesses that input mountains of data and access records constantly. Further, if Internet connections are temporarily out of service, accessing the central database comes to a halt.

Terminal Services

Terminal services access records on a central server much like a thin-client system. They often rely on SQL databases, which are safe and less expensive than Oracle databases. Managers don’t have to connect to the server via a web browser. Instead, terminal services give users an interface similar to Windows-programs and typical tools such as on-screen help.

Like a thin-client program, terminal services rely on the Internet connection to access data and, because files are downloaded from the server, it can be a slow process. Additionally, terminal-services architecture offers software developers limited scalability, resulting in potential problems of speed and data integration. On the upside, it can deploy websites for online payment and account management while running the application at multiple sites. This gives call centers real-time access and reporting to larger numbers of off-site users.

An important point before moving on: Thin clients or terminal services require a sizable investment in expensive servers because servers handle all transactions. None of the workload is pushed to computers at the self-storage facility.

Smart Client

Another approach to designing web-based systems is Microsoft’s .NET concept, a language and standard for tying applications together via the web using Microsoft’s user-friendly design. Programs written in .NET eliminate sluggish speeds and continue to operate even when Internet connections are down.

At the site level, .NET is considered a smart client because an identical copy of the database resides on the central server and the facility’s office computer, giving managers instant accessibility to all operational functions. They can review tenant records and unit availability or print any number of documents quickly—without enduring long download times.

With .NET, programs run as fast as Windows systems and require fewer server resources than thin clients or terminal services applications. Changes such as move-ins or payments are saved to the central office and on-site computers immediately. Changes to rental rates or other adjustments at the central office translate to facilities in real time. When Internet service is down, central office and storage computers have access to all data and continue operating, syncing up when the Internet connection returns.

Microsoft’s .NET provides reliable, cost-effective SQL Server databases, meaning self-storage operators who prefer to control their own data no longer have to rely on software companies to host them.

Round-up

Internet-based systems use cost-effective technology and give self-storage operators control over their extensive information. Off-site operators have better, faster access to facilities’ data. New programs using the web can tie together operational components such as websites and accounting programs, and provide better access to timely reports.

While technology has changed since the DOS days, the need for outstanding customer service and support has not. If you decide to migrate to a web-based system, make sure you find a provider who has designed an efficient program and operates a quality customer-support center that answers calls immediately. Your self-storage business deserves no less. 

Markus Hecker is marketing director for SMD Software, maker of SiteLink and SiteLink Web Edition for self-storage and mobile-storage operations. For more information, call 919.865.0781; visit www.smdsoftware.com

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