Punching the Clock with GNU/Linux

Posted by dcparris on Apr 3, 2007 6:27 AM EDT
LXer - Linux News; By D.C. Parris (Charlotte, USA)
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LXer Feature: 3-Apr-2007

Despite Novell's much-touted poll showing Adobe Photoshop to be the Most-requested application, accounting remains the weak spot for business users wanting to deploy GNU/Linux. Imagine your small business outsources payroll to one of the giants of the outsource payroll industry. Now imagine your timeclock plugs into your computer and a small utility program lets you transmit your timecard data directly to your vendor's web-based payroll system. Now imagine that you want to migrate to GNU/Linux. Don Parris helps you navigate the sometimes tricky terrain of outsourced payroll in the GNU/Linux world.

A Brief Case Study

A small business in Charlotte, North Carolina is contemplating a move from Windows to GNU/Linux. The business is in excellent position to take advantage of the opportunity. They have only a handful of computers. Their only data consists of forms in Microsoft Word format. Their Windows-based accounting software is barely used. The money they save over the long haul, in licensing fees, malware defense, and unplanned downtime, will more than make up for the costs of a migration. There is only one hitch. They need to make sure their timeclock can plug into the manager's computer - the same one that let's her create documents and connect to ADP's hosted payroll application service.

Although ADP's local technical services partner has explained that they do not support GNU/Linux, and it does not appear that the SaveTime 2000 series timeclock from Control Module, Inc.will work with GNU/Linux systems, there are a couple of options. One is to test the utility program under WINE, or install WindowsXP as a VM on the GNU/Linux host. Another is to exchange the timeclock hardware for hardware that supports GNU/Linux. Finally, the manager could manually enter the payroll data into a web-based application, something this particular manager prefers to avoid.

Surveying the GNU/Linux Payroll Landscape

If you want to manage payroll with GNU/Linux, you'll need to use either GnuCash (expenses only), SQL Ledger, or software distributed by the likes of Treshna Paymaster (for N.Z., U.S.). PayThyme is available for U.K. businesses. TimeTrex offers "Time and Attendance" which works with GNU/Linux. Then there's the fairly obscure PayrollBash that needs only enough RAM for Bash to run, and can integrate with OpenOffice.org 2.1 and even Apache. Finally, there is the patented Journyx TimeSheet software, which users can install locally or use as a hosted service.

Among the complete accounting solutions are Fitrix and MyBooks. Since the non-libre Fitrix starts at $6500 for 5 users, smaller businesses will appreciate outsource vendors like SurePayroll and PayCycle. Appgen's MyBooks is comparable to QuickBooks, but is multi-platform and offers the sourcecode for a separate fee. MyBooks is used fairly extensively in retail environments. Before you can decide which of these to use, you'll need to understand how each works with any timeclock hardware you've deployed. The test business is using a SaveTime 2000 series timeclock with a serial-to-USB dongle attached to a Windows PC, from which the time punches are sent to ADP's web-based payroll management service.

LXer contacted timeclock manufacturers and outsource payroll vendors alike to find out just how Linux-friendly they are. Of the timeclock manufacturers, Kronos was unable to participate, and Control Module, Inc. actually expressed an interest in releasing their Unix source code under a FOSS license. We also contacted outsource payroll vendors, ADP, Paychex, PayCycle and SurePayroll. Automatic Data Processing, Inc. and Paychex both declined to answer whether they would be willing to work with hardware vendors and the Linux community to ensure Linux users - and those looking to migrate - could easily use their systems. PayCycle and SurePayroll are web-based payroll services that do not currently offer timeclock integration, but can be easily used by Linux users. It is likely that GNU/Linux users can also use the web-based services offered by ADP and Paychex, at least if they enter payroll data manually. Timeclock functionality may be available as well, but is entirely dependent on the hardware.

Kronos offers a timeclock system compatible with Unix and Oracle and, according to some users, GNU/Linux as well. Control Module, Inc. offers the Genus line of timeclocks based on GNU/Linux. According to the company's website, the Genus PC even allows employees to schedule time off right from the timeclock. The timeclock functionality is in place. Using GNU/Linux-based and compatible timeclocks with outsourced payroll vendors' systems is where things get tricky. It's possible, but not guaranteed.

Some Vendors Willing to Work With the FOSS Community

The single most repeated response to LXer was to the effect that vendors don't get but one or two phone calls about GNU/Linux support. Even so,SurePayroll's Product Manager, Steve Kania, expressed an interest in making sure their hosted services work with GNU/Linux-based accounting software, but is not sure about what software exists or how to proceed. PayCycle is another outsource payroll vendor that offers an OS-agnostic, web-based payroll system. Paycycle Spokesperson, Julie McHenry, explained that their system works with any web browser. If these vendors were to combine efforts with hardware vendors like CMI, it would be a simple matter to provide Free/open Source Software integration with commonly-used timeclock hardware.

One of the major barriers to GNU/Linux adoption among businesses is accounting software, despite the Novell poll touting Photoshop. That poll is not indicative of business users, especially given that business managers and accountants, who were likely under-represented in the poll, tend not to use photoshop to manage their businesses. According to one expert in the industry, even Novell seems to lean toward hosted Quickbooks solutions, such as that offered by e-Accounting, despite working with vendors such as Appgen. Thus, offering GNU/Linux-based timeclock drivers and accounting applications is a great first step for timeclock manufacturers.

In a phone conversation with LXer, Jimmy Bianco, Vice-President of Sales and Marketing for Control Module, Inc., Bianco expressed an interest in releasing the Unix-based source code for the SaveTime 2000 clock to the GNU/Linux community under a Free/Open Source Software license so that the community of FOSS developers can write drivers and utility software for GNU/Linux. Bianco said he would have his developer team begin work on releasing the source code in Mid-April. He openly expressed an interest in making the code availabe via Sourceforge. CMI's Genus line of timeclocks are Linux-based. Other Windows-based timeclocks were not discussed. However, CMI customers who express an interest in connecting other timeclocks to their existing or planned Linux systems may find CMI responsive.

Simply releasing drivers and launching community-based projects, however, is simply not enough. Timeclock manufacturers need to make sure they work with outsource payroll vendors, accounting software vendors and customers to raise awareness of the GNU/Linux functionality. Businesses will not know that they can choose GNU/Linux unless the vendors make them aware of all their options. Ultimately, knowing what the options are helps businesses make better decisions. Additionally, Control Module, Inc. will need to work with business parnters to ensure they can communicate effectively with their customers the benefits of FOSS licensing and GNU/Linux functionality.

At the bottom line, accounting and payroll solutions for GNU/Linux do exist. In cases where native solutions are not suitable, GNU/Linux users can still use hosted webservices to manage payroll. Since around 60% of the SMB relies on outsource payroll vendors, the key to helping these customers migrate to GNU/Linux will be for hardware manufactures and outsource payroll vendors to work together to make the software available and, beyond that, to promote it as another option for their customers. Meanwhile, businesses using or migrating to GNU/Linux will be best served working through webhosted services. Additionally, businesses also need to communicate with their accounting and payroll vendors that they expect GNU/Linux support.

LXer is interested in hearing from GNU/Linux users how they handle payroll, and what challenges they have had had to overcome.


» Read more about: Story Type: LXer Features, News Story; Groups: Community, GNU, Linux, Novell, OpenOffice.org, Oracle

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How Does Your Business Manage Payroll? dcparris 14 4,608 Apr 4, 2007 6:52 PM

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