Every month we ask Merlin’s chief architect, Mike Pnematicatos, some of the most frequently asked questions about Merlin Software and technology in general. Here are his most recent answers.
If you have any questions for Mike, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does Merlin offer accounting functionality?
Merlin has at its core a fully integrated, multi company, multi currency, double entry accounting package. This means that every action in Merlin that has a financial implication generates transactions that get written into the accounting module.
What if I use a separate accounting package?
If you continue to use your stand alone accounting package then Merlin serves the purpose of managing the detailed transactions for sales, mortgages, commissions and management fee invoicing. All you need to do is post the monthly movement of these items to control accounts in your stand alone package.
Can I print statements for my members?
Yes you can. These statements can also be sent by email automatically by Merlin.
How much is automated?
There is a huge amount if automation in all the above. This means that your users do not have to be bookkeepers or accountants to use Merlin. They simply perform what it is they do and based on the system configuration, Merlin will automatically write the correct transactions to the back office accounting module.
How do I get payments and receipts from the bank into Merlin?
You can upload your bank statements to Merlin using the simple to use upload template provided by Merlin. There is new functionality recently released that allows you to use payment and receipt clearing accounts from where you can then easily map these uploaded transactions to the correct supplier or customer accounts. Ask Merlin support to assist you with this new feature which is normally only found in large expensive accounting packages.
What is Merlin’s interactive functionality?
This functionality allows your owners to interact with you online.
Merlin’s interactive functionality is more advanced than any other vacation ownership software available. It allows your members to interact with you directly online, giving them access to the same live data that your staff can see, 24 hours a day.
It really does allow them to service themselves through your website with pages provided by Merlin and styled in line with your own website.
Your members are able to make reservations, check their accounts, see their ownerships, pay maintenance fees and levies, order additional services – and even tell you when they are due to arrive at your resort.
And you can choose exactly what your members do online so if there are any particular aspects you want to limit, that is up to you. Just change them in the setups.
With more owners wanting to interact online with their resorts, what can Merlin offer?
Merlin provides a suite of custom interactive pages that together comprise a mini web site that can be served with your resort web site. These interactive pages give owners access to their information stored on Merlin. This information includes details of ownership, reservations and account balance as well as the ability to make payment online and make their own reservations.
How does this work?
Owners are provided with a user name and password that allows them to access their profile and live data in real time on your site on Merlin. The mini web site and interactive pages can be hosted on a cloud server provided by Merlin or on your own web server.
Many resorts like to offer pre-bookable services, can Merlin offer this facility?
Yes. You can allow owners to manage their reservations online and to order services online.
What is the new iPhone OPC app that is being developed?
This is a really neat innovation. It allows OPC’s and surveyors to capture leads on their smart phone directly into Merlin. This means guests who are on their way to the sales deck will already have a profile set up in merlin and can be pre qualified before they even arrive on the sales deck.
What is the future for this form of functionality – what does Merlin have planned?
The opportunities are endless. More and more our clients will take aspects of Merlin onto tablets and smart phones in order to perform specific processes.
We are supporting this move in two ways: 1) We are building single page applications that our clients can use for specific processes. 2) We also provide web services that expose Merlin functionality to our clients allowing them to create their own custom front ends to Merlin.
How does Merlin handle multi-lingual contracts and documentation?
Clients are able to create contract templates in multiple languages and upload these to the server. When printing contracts they are able to select the language that they want.
Can Merlin handle instalment payments?
Yes. Merlin handles instalments in three different methods:
• No interest
• With interest and with capital and interest portions pre-created
• With interest but with capital and Interest calculated based on when payments are received
Will Merlin calculate commissions linked to sales contracts?
Yes. Merlin manages commissions based on:
In addition most of these cater for straight and production/volume based commissions. Merlin’s commission capabilities are extensive
Does the sales module track changes of ownership?
At its heart Merlin’s sales module is a contract and ownership tracking system. Every change of ownership from the original sale by the developer to each re-sale is tracked in Merlin and a full audit history of owners is maintained.
Can Merlin handle multiple products?
Merlin’s ability to handle products is extensive. There is probably no product that cannot be managed currently or that cannot be managed with some minor enhancements.
What happens when a resort signs up for Merlin Software?
We have a well-documented process that we follow with regard to new client implementations. This is updated after each new implementation with any lessons learned. Essentially the process is as follows:
• Create a live and test site for the new client
• Configure both live and test sites according to the product and business requirements of the new client
• Perform all business processes on the test site to confirm that Merlin can support he client’s business.
• Complete all enhancement required by the client
• Upload history data to the test site
• Conduct proof of concept on the test site
• Conduct user acceptance testing on the test site
• Make final adjustments to enhancements and set ups
• Train user on test site
• Upload data to live site
• Go live
• Hand hold post go live
What is a business process analysis (BPA)?
During a BPA we find out everything we can about the new client’s products, rules and business processes. We produce a document detailing all of this for sign off by the Client. We also produce a Business Operations Manual that details each business process. This is exactly what each Client does in the their business.
SaaS typically requires minimum installation – what is Merlin’s view of this?
Well that is a leading question! If only every business in the timeshare industry operated in the same way I guess that we could have a typical set up and switch on and go. Sadly there is no consistent standard across this industry and every client does things differently. This requires a lot of configuring the system in order to make it work for each client according to how they want it to work.
For established businesses, how is the transfer of data handled?
We have upload templates for the most common data. These templates are detailed but simple to populate, once we have explained all the fields and mapped these to the data fields in the client’s current system. We work with clients to get their data into Merlin.
How is training provided?
We provide training online and on site. We have a documented training plan that we follow and this is supported by the Business Operations Manual that we produce that tells us what the Client does. We train according to this.
What on-going support is offered?
We have an integrated Support Log System that allows user to log support requests from every page within Merlin, This give us details of where they are and in many cases the URL to get to what they were trying to do. We do need a little more than this in the form of details from the User. Every Merlin Support User gets an email as soon as a Support Log is submitted and the Log displays on their Support Dash Board. Users get email updates as the log is dealt with.
Will there be an account manager in my area?
We have account/project managers that cover the Asian, Australian and New Zealand regions as well as the European, African and Middle East Regions. We recently employed a new project manager to cover North and South America. We can effectively cover the entire globe and we will soon be running a 24 hour operation, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We do try to take it easy over weekends and public holidays but staff are always on standby to assist in an emergency.
How often do you back up data – and where is it stored?
We back up hourly to an internal storage device and daily we have a full back up done by Rackspace in terms of a service agreement with them. They do these backups to internationally accepted standards and store them off site.
We have redundant hard drives which means if a drive goes down we do not lose any data nor is there service interruption. The failed drive is hot-swopped with a new drive which will automatically re-build the data without interrupting the Merlin Service.
Do you have a detailed data backup plan in place?
Yes. A major disaster such as total hardware failure would result in a temporary interruption of service while hardware is replaced and software plus data re-installed. We have a documented plan for this eventuality and we regularly restore the database to check the integrity of the back ups.
Is the data fully exportable in a format that a resort can easily re-use?
You are able to export your data from Merlin from every page where data is displayed. This is returned to you in an Excel Spreadsheet. For some clients we provide a MS SQL back up which contains their most important data.
Are our web server and database scalable to quickly meet a sudden increase in subscribers?
Absolutely. We monitor server loads and upgrade our server farm on a regular basis. There is no significant interruption of service when we do this.
Something that clients may be interested in is that besides our production servers, we also have our development server in the cloud.
When we take the database from the production server to install it on the development server we denude it of all personally identifiable information. This offers another layer of security as far as client data is concerned. The development server has the same level of physical security as our production server.
Before we release any enhancements to the production server we test these on the development server using the denuded data. Some of our clients even use the development server environment as a training and testing ground.
Feedback from our clients show how more timeshare and fractional owners want and expect to interact online with their resorts. What can Merlin offer to make this possible for our clients?
Merlin offers total interactivity. Our best example of this is a new client that went from zero to fully up and running WITH an online interactive website for owners AND online credit card payment facility and this was done in three months.
A recent Forrester and Microsoft report found that many cloud projects coming out of business are not driven by the IT function. The report described the people driving these projects as ‘change agents’ who are finding value for their company independently of IT, in the cloud. Is this your experience when dealing with resorts and service companies?
You have me on thin ice here. Without wishing to malign my IT colleagues, they are not the only ones who have innovative technology ideas. I would say it is a 50/50 mix. Half the time it is the IT department that drives innovation and the adoption of new technologies. The other half of this drive comes from outside IT. In the end it becomes a collaboration between various drivers of innovation within the business.
Why do you think so many developers have chosen the SaaS model offered by Merlin Software?
In my view developers have chosen Merlin as their preferred software solution for a number of reasons and the SaaS model has been just one of the criteria they used to make the choice. While it is an important criteria I think Merlin’s reputation has grown and developers have realised that not only do we understand their business but we and our software are adaptable enough to cater for their new product ideas.
Why did you decide to include a complete double entry accounting package – and is this available to all clients?
The first version of Merlin we built was for our own business in the timeshare industry. The accountants in the company wanted an integrated general ledger/accounting package in the software. So when we re-designed the current version of Merlin we incorporated a fully integrated double entry accounting module. This feature is totally integrated into the software and is available to all clients. Some of our clients still use standalone accounting packages and use Merlin’s accounting module to manage sales and debtor ledgers. All they do each month is journal the movements in Merlin to control accounts in the standalone accounting packages.
What are the key features of this module?
The accounting module has every feature that you will find in normal accounting packages. The benefit of using Merlin’s integrated accounting module is that all sale, commission, guest account and maintenance fee transactions are automatically entered into the correct accounts and ledgers in Merlin. And there are many advanced accounting features that even some accounting packages do not have. Like suspense and income accrual accounting with automated release from balance sheet to income statement based on a variety of triggers.
What additional features have you included that are specific to the vacation ownership industry?
Thus far every accounting requirement of our clients has been accommodated from complex Spanish chart of accounts through VAT accounting rules to reservation stock cost and booking revenue. This last feature is required by many vacation clubs which tracks the cost of rented in accommodation and compares this to the revenue generated by each and every booking.
Does the module integrate with all the other Merlin modules – and other third party accounting packages?
The accounting module integrates seamlessly into the software. In fact front desk staff have no idea when transacting on guest accounts that they are actually entering transactions into the accounting module. We are able to export all transactions in export batches for importing to stand alone accounting packages. These export batches ensure that transactions are not repeatedly exported.
Other software providers include accounting functionality – what sets Merlin’s accounting module apart?
Do they really?
How often does Merlin back up data?
Merlin data is backed up daily to external data storage devices. In addition we have redundant hard drives in the servers which means that if one hard drive goes down there is no interruption to service and no loss of data. But it does not end there. The data is also backed up to internal hard drives every hour. Talk about belt and braces!
How does Merlin keep everyone’s data separate?
Merlin uses a single database and segments each client’s data by giving the data a specific “Site” reference. This is why you have to provide a Site name when logging on to Merlin.
Merlin is constantly being improved and updated. Are these upgrades included in the contract?
Have our servers ever gone down in the past and how quickly was access resumed?
We have never had a server malfunction that has caused the Merlin service to be interrupted without warning. Sometimes there are situations that require us to restart the servers or restart some services on the servers. There are various reasons for this. One is when a process on the servers is consuming too many resources and we need to kill the process. Another is when there is an important software fix or enhancement that we want to put live ahead of the weekly software update.
These and other circumstances may require us to restart the servers or services on the servers. When this happens we provide on screen warnings to all users that this is going to happen and normally this restart takes a minute or two and everyone is back working. But as I said, this does not happen often.
Do you regularly test the system for security breaches – is there a disaster recovery plan in place?
We have a full disaster recovery plan as well as security policies in place. We have also recently undergone PCI Compliance Testing and are now fully PCI Compliant. PCI compliance relates to the storage and encryption of credit card details in the Merlin database. Should you have any questions regarding your own PCI Compliance please do not hesitate to contact us.
A recent Citrix survey showed that 51% of Americans thought cloud computing could be affected by the weather and 54% claimed never to use cloud computing when 95% of these were regular users. Why is cloud computing hard to understand?
Technology is advancing so fast and the information overload is so enormous that the average person does not have time to assimilate all the information that they receive. And because many technologies are seamless you end up using them without even knowing or understanding what you are using. The cloud is like that. You use it without even knowing that you are. That’s what makes cloud computing great. You don’t actually have to understand it. Unless of course you are the decision maker in your company, in which case you need to get up to speed.
Do you think a new computing model can revolutionise the vacation ownership industry?
Self service has to be the future. Owners helping themselves to make their own reservations, pay online, update reservations, order up services for their arrival etc. Some of this is already there for some resorts and their owners but not as much as there could be. The tools to do this are out there. All it takes is more visionaries to implement the future.
Is cloud computing and SaaS really more cost effective than traditional solutions?
Yes. Do the math. It’s simple arithmetic.
Is cloud computing secure computing?
Yes. Ask the banks. They use it for online banking.
What will tomorrow’s cloud look like?
Tough question. All I know is that as it morphs our challenge at Merlin Software will be to adapt to the new opportunities it offers. I think we are up to this challenge. After all we are still the only software supplier in this industry to be totally “In the cloud” with no LAN or “in house” component to our offering.
When a resort decides to adopt cloud computing, who drives that decision?
The decision is normally driven by Senior or Executive Management. The decision does not start off as a decision to adopt cloud computing but rather it is a decision to change software platforms and is driven by a need to improve business efficiencies, consolidate data into one database and to find software that provides functionality that their current platform does not provide. Once they discover Merlin and realise that Merlin runs in the cloud, only then do the benefits of cloud computing slowly filter through and drive the decision making process further.
How does the adoption of cloud computing change the IT functionality of a resort?
Probably the biggest change is in the IT department. No longer do they have servers to maintain, software patches and upgrades to install, data to back up. Because the change here is the greatest those in the IT department have the most adapting to do once the transition has been made. Those who make this transition find their lives filled with different things to do. They add value in to the enterprise is a different way. Those who don’t adapt find the transition very painful.
How do IT departments handle the migration from onsite systems to cloud based solutions?
Many of our clients do not have large or significant IT departments. Where there is an IT department the role they play in the transition is normally limited to data extraction from the old systems and assistance in importing this data to the new system. We have obviously worked with many clients (large and small) over the last few years migrating from old to new systems and without wishing downplay the role of the IT department, they are not the most important player in the transition process. There are two factors which seem to guarantee a successful transition and these are the involvement of a dedicated project manager and the hands on adoption of the transition process by the accounting department.
What’s the biggest driver for cloud adoption in the vacation ownership industry?
Sadly the biggest drivers are not what ends up being the biggest benefits. Those making the decisions seem not to be aware of the benefits of cloud computing. So the drivers are still the need to change from antiquated systems to a newer, better system. The benefits of cloud computing come as an unexpected benefit in most cases.
Do the cost savings and other benefits outweigh existing security and compliance concerns?
Security and compliance is now a major issue when it comes to data protection. On site servers are a serious risk to the enterprise and the requirements, many of them now legal place a requirement on companies, large and small, to comply with these regulations. Cloud based solutions in the main will comply with industry standards for data protection and will have state of the art systems and technologies in place to ensure that data is backed up and securely protected. Data in the cloud is probably more secure than data stored in on site servers.