Keeping It Real

Markus Hecker Comments
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Self-storage software has been constantly changing with the maturation of the industry. Owners who offer automatic credit card billing have improved collections, increased lengths of stay and increased rents. Many stores now feature sophisticated security and access systems and integrate them with their management software.

Good management software makes many money-making features possible at the store level. One of the great technology milestones was when operators migrated from a manual or DOS system to windows-based software. The value added to a facility by a good Windows management program more than paid for the investment in hardware and software.

But changes in the storage industry are ongoing. Today’s self-storage software users look to integrate activities at one site with off-site activity. Operators turn to web-based management software to connect various users and platforms and add value.

Go Web

Creating and maintaining web-based management programs is a huge task for any company. For software developers, transitioning to a good web system is bigger than the switch from DOS to Windows platforms. But migrating to a web-based platform is a natural evolution for successful software vendors, who are fueled by better programming tools such as Microsoft’s .NET, Web Services and improved powerful databases such as Sequel.

Storage owners stand to reap huge benefits by switching to web-based systems. Installing them is the next logical step for many operators because they already have websites, send reports to other off-site users, post transactions to accounting systems, and access data remotely. However, the design of each management software is different; few if any systems use the web in the same way. Therefore, it’s important to shop before you buy and try demos.

First, let’s look at features you should expect. Then let’s go over the architecture of different web-based or -enabled systems and how you benefit from newer technology.
 
Full Scale

You do not have to have a large store or multiple facilities to reap huge benefits from web systems. The fundamental advantage of programs using or operating on the web is scalability. The web is about sharing and making data available to other users. New programs tie users together seamlessly. They can view and enter data from anywhere.

Single-store operators can be away from the office and operate from anywhere as long as they have a computer and Internet connection. Area managers can access reports and make adjustments to any facility. Being able to view and manipulate data from anywhere reduces driving time and makes your business more transparent as all eyeballs focus on critical activities more often, more easily.

No longer will you have to fax, mail or e-mail reports. Instead, authorized users can go online to view documents you authorize them to see. Owners can expect to see reports online—for any store or as combined, consolidated documents. 

Connectivity

Tying users together via a web application includes offering online account management to tenants. (This is particularly popular at stores that cater to students or members of the military.) Your software should let you add a module to your website through which tenants can log on, view open charges and payment histories and enter payments. Payment data should updated in your management software in real time, requiring no action by store managers.

In the past, it was difficult and costly to add account-management features to facility websites, but web systems offer more flexibility. If your data resides on a web server, it can be readily accessed in real time.

With some applications, you can customize the web module to meet your business policies. For example, you can require payment in full if tenants are past due or not allow payments at all if a tenant is in auction status. You can also authorize other users such as call centers or store managers to access and change data from another location.

For example, if the manager at one store is busy, managers from other stores can log on to that store’s data, answer questions for existing tenants, enter payments and even lease a unit. You can give call centers similar privileges, enabling them to work with tenants, take payments or rent units for you.
 
Hard Facts

Web systems can offer huge savings in hardware and maintenance. Upgrades should be available as automatic, live updates. You should no longer have to worry about distributing and loading CD ROMs on each machine. Instead, web-based systems should install updates just like Windows or Norton anti-virus software.

And if your data resides on a safe, secure web server in a quality data center or with a web-hosting company, you no longer have to worry about making backups. Data centers automatically back up data several times a day.

With web-based software, If you replace old computers or add new ones, all you need is a standard Internet connection to be up and running. Web systems make it easy to clone settings. They let you apply business rules, letters, tax rates, etc., from existing stores to new ones. They also let you add new users from anywhere. Such dash-board style controls mean you can make changes to rules, rates and privileges faster and from any computer.

While features to maximize revenue (sometimes called yield management or rent push) are not new, web applications help to streamline modifications to settings by store or region. Changes apply to all users instantly. If you have multiple facilities, you can pick the ones to which each change should apply.

With web software, management is also streamlined. You no longer have to manually create reports by adding up receipts, deposits or other activities for multiple sites. You can view reports by store and review consolidated documents. You can also create reports in different formats such as Excel, PDF or common text files such as MicroSoft Word.

Software design determines functionality, cost, reliability, speed and ease of deployment. Only programs with the most powerful, efficient design offer the most functions and require the lowest investment in hardware, so shop wisely.
 
Design

You can think of the new online management programs as a hub-and-spoke system. The hub represents the database on the web server while spokes are your store(s), website and other users. One approach to web-system design is to put your database on a server and let all users connect to your data using the web. Using terminal services, you run multiple instances of a PC program on a central server. Users in remote locations look at screen images of the server programs.

Terminal-service applications can look and feel like user-friendly Windows-based programs and don’t have to run through browsers like Internet Explorer. Browsers do not display large amounts of data well and lack many user-friendly tools that are part of Windows. In addition, programs based on terminal services do not scale as well as other solutions because it’s harder to include multiple users and applications such as online payments. If a facility’s Internet is temporarily out of service, managers won’t have access to data. Terminal services also burden users with buying and maintaining their own servers, a costly and time-consuming task.
 
Other web-based programs operate through browsers like Internet Explorer. Browser-based programs handle all processing on distant servers. Sending each and every piece of data from the site to servers and back is slow, particularly when running large reports or entering many payments and move-ins. When the Internet is out of service, browser-based programs stop functioning, and managers cannot enter or view data effectively. 

Browsers are designed to handle smaller amounts of data, such as that used when surfing the web or making online purchases. Contrast these small tasks with the needs of the storage industry. Managers work with account histories for hundreds or thousands of units at each store location. A browser is not as user-friendly, does not have the functions of a Windows-looking software, and cannot scroll though large lists of data tenants as easily as Windows systems can.
 
A Safety NET

To give users faster, uninterrupted access even when the Internet is down and to limit owners’ investment in hardware, Microsoft developed .NET technology. At the heart of the so-called smart client architecture is data running on your web server and site computer. Mundane tasks like lookup and printing are fast because you pull data from the computer at the store, not distant web servers.

If the Internet is out of service, managers keep operating by using the data on their local computer. When Internet service resumes, computers at the site synch with the database on the web server. With the smart client approach, more powerful Sequel databases—managed code using Visual Studio .NET and web services—mean transactions at a store, home office or your website automatically update all other users.

If your data sits on servers at secure data centers, a live update feature eliminates use of CD ROMs. Your information is safe and automatically backed up multiple times during the day. And you don't have to invest in and maintain expensive servers and backup systems at your own office. With smart clients, information-technology management just got a lot simpler and less expensive, and your enterprise keeps going even when the internet is not.

To make the right purchasing decision, try demos and see how seamlessly and fast web payments, offsite transactions and entries at the store level go together. While technology changes, fundamentals of customer satisfaction may not. Ease of use, deployment and customer service determine the success, strength and power of any software. Don’t take my word for it. Compare programs for yourself.
 
Markus Hecker is director of marketing for Raleigh, N.C.-based SMD Software Inc., which provides PC- and web-based SiteLink management software for the self-storage and mobile-storage industries. For more information, call 919.865.0789, ext. 1, or visit www.smdsoftware.com.

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