Head of Insight AccountingWEB
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IRIS builds new Elements platform

Before an invited audience of customers and commentators in London on Thursday, IRIS revealed the first public edition of its IRIS Elements integration platform.

19th Sep 2019
Head of Insight AccountingWEB
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IRIS unveils new Elements practice integration platform
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IRIS unveils new Elements practice integration platform

For the best part of two years, IRIS programmers have been working on Project Darwin, an initiative to connect the functions of its desktop IRIS Accountancy Suite to cloud bookkeeping, tax and practice applications.

In time, IRIS Elements will make it possible to connect Taxfiler users to the core IRIS application family or bring in practice management functions from the recent Practice Engine acquisition. The application programming interfaces (APIs) used to blend these ingredients will also make it possible to link in other data and functions from third party programs.

IRIS Elements is part of an industry-wide trend for established desktop tax and practice software developers to build hybrid environments that allow desktop software users to move onto online applications as and when they choose, while still accessing their existing tools.

In its first public outing, however, IRIS Elements emerged as a more ambitious project – a complete architectural overhaul that will see all the different IRIS product families migrating to shared “microservices” in the cloud.

Speaking at the launch event, new CEO Elona Mortimer-Zhika told IRIS customers that as an adaptive platform Elements would work for firms whether they are in the cloud or not, and would help redefine the software house's offering over the next years.

A change of direction

Some of the ambition behind the Elements product stems from the company’s new chief product officer JF Sullivan. Since he joined IRIS in February, Sullivan has been pushing IRIS to shift from a sales-led model to being a product-led organisation.

“IRIS was a company rooted on the desktop and dependant on software updates tied to the twice-a-year legislative cycle. Innovation was tied to squeezing in as many features as possible in that timeframe,” Sullivan told AccountingWEB.

“With so much accounting technology no longer on the desktop, that is no longer a viable direction.”

To negotiate that strategic shift, Sullivan has changed the way IRIS interacts with customers to drive product development.

“Customers are now involved from the beginning, analysing problems and trends, validating our findings and feeding back on our work. As we approach IRIS Elements, we think of it as a continuous interaction. We don’t set the agenda. The customers determine the order of what is delivered.”

IRIS Elements explained

The product on show this week is the first step in a much longer-term product evolution, Sullivan explained. The best way to think about IRIS Elements was as a collection of microservices that interact with each other via defined APIs in the platform.

Some interface elements are still housed on the desktop, but most of the data processing and calculation will be “abstracted” to services operating in the cloud.

That abstraction is handled by different programming layers within IRIS Elements: starting from the underlying Amazon Web Services platform and taking an application integration layer linking to common ingredients that can be most efficiently operated within the online platform.

The system is structured so that things such as email services, user authentication and shared client data are held on the platform. With GDPR hovering in the background, “The customer database should not reside on the desktop. It should be on the back-end server, locked down and secure,” Sullivan said.

First release ingredients

In agile terms, the first edition of Elements is the “minimum viable product”. On release, the key ingredients include:

  • A simple management console that presents a holistic view of the practice. This screen is made up of customisable widgets that each user will be able to add and adjust to show the things they want to see.
  • A 'know-your-client' service for anti-money laundering compliance – an obvious choice for proving the platform concept because of high level of customer demand. “Now you can keep working on other jobs while the AML check happens online. It’s a much better user experience,” Sullivan commented.
  • A simplified reporting menu that will ultimately house all the necessary statutory accounts and reports.

In the true spirit of agile development, the basic reporting menu will “go through an exponential revolution versus what you can do now”, according to Sullivan.

Practice management, too, will start to migrate to the shared IRIS Elements environment over time.

For example, Sullivan said there were components that could be shared between Practice Engine and other IRIS products: “One of the great benefits of the Practice Engine acquisition is how well their architecture dovetails into IRIS Elements, so even PTP customers can take advantage of that functionality,” he said.

But don’t expect them to appear in the platform overnight. Instead, Sullivan and his team will “cherry-pick” items from existing desktop products that work well in the cloud.

Benefits for IRIS users

While Sullivan's technology-focused vision is undoubtedly ambitious, the 17,000 practices around the UK that rely on IRIS to help serve their client base will ask what tangible improvements they will see from the project.
 
“There's stuff in IRIS Elements that just works better because it’s no longer anchored to your desktop," said Sullivan. "Being able to do an AML check and then issue a proposal to the client turns out to be rather difficult within the IRIS Suite. But from now on the platform will take care of common tasks like that, and the different product families – IRIS, Keytime, PTP and Taxfiler - will plug into them.
 
"We’re in a position to provide exactly what the customers need, which is an actual framework - not a storefront - where information is distributed across those services in a seamless way," he said.
 
"As an open framework, you can put in the components you want and the platform ensures the consistency of the journey, as well as maintaining the best of breed functionality users want.

“In three years, there will be multiple solutions you can choose from and we’ll just pop them into IRIS Elements. That’s the best way to ensure that as practices grow and take on customers, vendors won’t have to dictate which stores they buy from. This is the correct approach.”

The all-important pricing question

To build IRIS Elements, a dedicated team of programmers had to overhaul the authorisation mechanisms that give users access to the different application modules. This will feed through to how IRIS will price its software in the new environment.

“IRIS Elements gives full visibility both for you as customer and us as provider. We’ll structure the pricing around the components, so if you don’t need everything, you won’t pay for it," Sullivan continued.

As customers move onto the new platform, they won’t pay any more for the existing functionality and Sullivan promised “many incentives” to encourage customers to start using it.

“The more people who go onto the platform, the better the journey for the remainder. We’ll build a consumption-based pricing model that really is paying for what you use,” he said.

“This will allow IRIS to justify what we sell. Only the people who use it will have to pay, which will make a lot of other customers happy and we’ll be able to invest in the right places for technology. Everybody wins.”

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