|Posted by:||Joey deVilla on Wednesday, October 4, 2006 at 02:25 PM EDT|
|Filed under:||Joey deVilla, Podcasts, Platypus, Business Technology|
Tucows Podcasts - Platypus 6.mp3 (10.6MB)
Platypus is Tucows' billing system for web hosting and internet access providers, offering invoicing and billing, customer management and service provisioning. Version 6 is coming out soon, and on this Tucows Blog podcast, I chat about it with Bill Ford, Tucows' Director of Billing Services, who came from the Starkville office last week to visit us up here in Toronto.
The podcast is an MP3 file 10.7 MB in size and is 17 minutes, 16 seconds in length. Click here to play it (or right-click and choose "Save as") to save it to your hard drive.
Also in this entry:
What Platypus Can Do For You
- Easily create statements and invoices: Use Platypus to send paper and email statements, charge credit cards and perform direct bank debits.
- Manage your hosting services: Integration with cPanel, Plesk, H-Sphere and Ensim let Platypus communicate with these control panels seamlessly.
- Integrate with Tucows services: Domain name orders can be launched and managed directly from Platypus. Billing for Blogware orders can also be managed directly from Platypus.
- Drive sales from the web: Platypus and Tucows' Client Code Suite technology provide a direct sign-up process via the web.
- Charge customers based on any measurable piece of data: Platypus measures virtually any type of usage data to create clear, concise invoices.
- Communicate with your customers: Need to email only the shared hosting clients who exceeded their monthly transfer limit? The Platypus Message Wizard creates mailings based on any customer characteristic.
- Automatically provision services: When a service is added to a customer account, Platypus can communicate with the external system (such as a mail server) to enable it.
- Manage multiple companies: Platypus can handle all of a firm's subsidiary company data, and brand customer statements as needed.
- Protect sensitive data: Platypus lets you create security groups and assign access according to group, limiting employee access to data if desired.
Platypus 6 Features
- Integration with leading web hosting control panels: Platypus 6.0 features two-way communication with cPanel, Plesk, H-Sphere and Ensim.
- Multiple billing frequencies for a rate group: Individual rate groups can be set to bill at different intervals, providing more flexibility when billing customers.
- Ability to archive old rate groups and transfer rate groups: Rate groups can now be archived, reducing clutter within the Platypus interface, and can also be moved between customers.
- Nested services: Platypus 6.0 lets you tie multiple services to one product out of the box, with no custom configuration required.
- Logic-driven provisioning: Platypus' provisioning integration system now supports VB scripting, giving you the ability to develop logic-driven provisioning rules without complicated external coding.
- Hidden services: Services can be marked as hidden, allowing you to hide services that need to be provisioned but do not need to be displayed to customers.
- Simple service structure: Platypus 6.0's domain-centric focus allows hosting companies to tie multiple services to one domain name.
- Service contracts: Enforce contract terms with early cancellation penalties. Contract penalties can be fixed or scaled.
- "One click" invoice email feature: Platypus 6.0 includes an invoicing process that will take care of determining the format, exporting and emailing an invoice in a single mouse click.
- Server pooling: Use Platypus 6.0 to perform load balanced provisioning of end user control panels on web hosting servers.
For More Details
Visit the Platypus site at platypus.tucows.com.
Platypus Free Trial
If you're already a Platypus customer with a valid support contract, you can upgrade to Platypus 6 for free once it comes out
If you're not a Platypus customer and you'd like to try it out the current version (version 5) free for 30 days, you can download an evaluation copy here.
Transcript of the Interview
Joey deVilla: Hello, and welcome to the Tucows Blog Podcast. I'm Joey deVilla, technical evangelist for Tucows.
You may be aware of Tucows' head office, located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. That is where I am based.
But you may not be aware of our other office, located in Starkville, Mississippi, and that is where the Billing Solutions team is based.
I'm going to be talking with Bill Ford, Director of Billing Solutions for Tucows, about our premier billing solution system, called Platypus Version 6.
I'm talking with Bill Ford, Tucows Director of Billing Solutions, who is up here from the Starkville office. Hey, Bill, welcome to Toronto.
Bill Ford: Hi, Joey. Thanks.
Joey: Before we get into the meat of this podcast, let's start with a couple of easy ones. First of all, can you tell us a little about yourself, and the Starkville office, and what you do there?
Bill: Sure. For the last ten years, the guys and girls at the Starkville office have been delivering back-office solutions aimed at providers. So we have got a real kernel of expertise there, when it comes to things like billing, subscriber management, trouble ticketing, and that is what we, hopefully, have brought to Tucows.
Joey: All right. So how many people are in the Starkville office?
Bill: We've got about ten people down there, mostly developers; and the developers are led by Grant Spradling, a man without whom we would not be able to do any of these things.
We have a real low turnover in our office. We have all got, carved out, our own niche areas in the back offices, from a development point of view.
Joey: All right. Well, we might as well get to the meat of it, and that is: what is it you develop in the Starkville office? Tell us about it.
Bill: Sure. So, Platypus, as I mentioned, was released about ten years ago. Back then, the main focus of Platypus, obviously, was access providers, and so we wanted to develop a niche billing system that encompassed everything in the back office that an access provider would need.
So you have got your obvious things like invoicing and customer management; and then you have got provisioning.
Whenever a customer selects a certain product that they want to buy from the access provider, the billing system notes that, it bills the customer, and then it communicates with the external provisioning system, to make sure those services are delivered.
Joey: So what kind of customers do you get these days? Who, basically, makes use of Platypus?
Bill: These days, actually, over the past few years, our customer base has become more of the web hosting variety. While there is a lot of overlap in the billing and provisioning needs of web hosting companies, it is all about a niche product when you want to be really effective.
So there are a lot of real specific "host-y things" that we are adapting the software to address, while not leaving behind any of our access provider customers, we want to make sure we give the same level of attention to our web hosting customers.
Joey: Let's say I am a web host, and I'm running into the problem that a lot of web hosting companies actually run into, which is the billing, they're sending out bills late.
I'd say that at least half the people in this company have had problems where they haven't been billed for months by a web hosting service that they are making use of, and then all of a sudden they get hit with this giant bill at the end, because somebody at the company finally decided, "Oh, we don't have any money in the bank. We had better actually go bill." So I see it is a common problem.
So let's say I'm a web hosting company. How would I go about getting my hands on Platypus, and integrating it with my business flow?
Bill: Well, what we really want to accomplish, as a provider of a solution, is a system that actually drives those processes.
So you mentioned billing, or collections. That is an obvious, specific need that any web hosting company would have.
So Platypus is an application that is installed at your site, and once it is installed, for all the uses that it has--billing and collections, or managing trouble ticketing, or the other reasons that you have these back office systems--we want to do more than just store this information. We want to actually drive the process to completion.
So in your example of getting your bill, that's the beginning. Obviously the system would want to send the bill, it would want to charge the credit card, if that was the way the customer was paying, or if they are not paying by credit card, if they are paying by check, we want to make sure we send a late notice when it is appropriate, and charge late fees when appropriate.
So again, we're kind of driving, we're making these things happen. We are not just sort of passively assuming that they are going to happen.
Same for trouble ticketing. When the customer sends in a complaint, you want the system to turn that into a trouble ticket, assign it to the appropriate person, escalate the ticket if it hasn't been solved in the amount of time, and then give the customer a chance to provide feedback, in case the problem was handled either really well or poorly, in which case it needs to be, again, brought back to somebody's attention.
So Platypus is an application that is easily installed at the provider's site; and then there's an effort involved in integrating the system with their external system, such as their provisioning systems, or their QuickBooks program.
So that is just the technical exercise after a purchase.
Joey: All right. So I understand that there is a new, Version six Platypus, coming out shortly. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
Bill: Why sure. We really wanted to make sure we were giving the same level of niche attention to our web hosting companies that we do to our providers.
So we have two main areas of improvement for 6.0. Every one of our dot zero releases has hundreds of changes in functionality, and this one is no exception, but it really fits into two main things.
One of them is, we have updated our service model, to better match the way hosting companies sell their services.
Specifically, we have added the concept of nested services to Platypus, and if you are familiar with Platypus, you know that you can define a bundle, or a "rate group," as we call it, and then you specify what services are provided by that bundle; and that's the way it worked, and it worked pretty well.
But hosting companies, they needed it to be organized a little more specifically. They may have a bundle that provides a service, and that service provides other services. So if a bundle provides a domain, that domain may have associated with it email services, and DNS services, and things like that.
So we are giving it a better organizational structure, which not only makes better sense from a billing standpoint, but allows you to do provisioning in a much simpler way.
Instead of having to build these real knowledgeable provisioning scripts, that have this cascading effect of provisioning based on one certain package, each individual piece now knows its portion of the provisioning. It is much simpler to create the provisioning scripts.
In the same vein, we have added the ability to completely override pricing on a per-customer basis.
Hosting customers, particularly dedicated hosting companies, really they don't give the same price twice to anybody. Every one of their dedicated machines, they spec it out, and they quote it in a different way.
The old version of Platypus, they would have to create a brand new bundle for every one of those servers, whereas in 6-0, you'll be able, once you assign a bundle to a customer, to go in and override pricing in any way, shape, or form that you want to, so that you don't have all the overhead associated with keeping up with all of those bundles that you are only going to use once or twice.
The second main thrust is integration with third-party control panels, like cPanel, Ensim, H-Sphere, and then Hostopia, it's a similar situation.
But that is key to winning over a web hosting company. It is already using a control panel to take care of its customers, and they want to have it integrated tightly with the billing system. So that, at great pains, has been added full support for all of those products to Platypus 6.
Joey: Just out of curiosity, how did a hosting company do it before, when they had a control panel like, say, cPanel, a really popular one - I use it for my provider?
Bill: Well, if they were go-getters, they were able to do the integration themselves. They were able to make the tie between Platypus and cPanel.
So one thing that we're trying to do is to make it where they do not have to have all that kind of domain experience, in-house, to do all of the set-up. We are just kind of doing some of that work for them.
And while they may have an integration, it may not be a complete integration.
They may have the ability to add, set-up a new customer and give them access to their cPanel control panel, but they don't have the ability to suspend that customer for non-payment, or to upgrade the services he is allowed to have in cPanel, based on him upgrading from the Gold Plan to the Platinum Plan.
So we are making it easier, and we are extending the level of functionality they have already had.
Joey: All right, Bill. Well, you talk about integrating with various control panels that a lot of hosting services use. What is involved with that? Is that a lot of work, to do it?
Bill: Well that is one of the main benefits of the new 6-0 release, is that we have engineered the integrations for the major control panels, so it is really as simple as installing a module for your particular control panel, or control panels--you may be using more than one of these at one time, which is fine.
Once you do that, it is as simple as going into Platypus, defining your server pools, because we support load balancing for these products, and you are off to the races.
Platypus will then provision on the appropriate servers, based on the load-balancing formula that you have chosen.
And that's control panels. You have got all your other products that you might want to integrate with.
Platypus has a strong provisioning manager built in that allows you to create your own schemes to interface with other systems, like your own email system, or your own FTP box, or whatever you need to provision to.
We support a variety of schemes. We have added a new Visual Basic scripting scheme, that we can store and execute Visual Basic scripts with that, defined as sort of a template, so the fields can actually get filled in with the pertinent information as they are executed.
That flexibility is important. However, out-of-the-box functionality, where we have already got these things engineered for you, is equally important, so that you don't have to recreate the wheel for every product that you need to integrate with.
Joey: So, in a lot of cases, the set-up is pretty simple, and it is a script that a sys-admin could run, rather than requiring you to haul in a programmer or professional services team, or something like that.
Bill: That's right. We feel like we have achieved an out-of-the-box integration. We have removed the need for you to develop your own middleware.
Joey: Sounds cool. OK, let's go a little bit back, for a moment, and talk about bundles. Maybe something our listeners are not quite familiar with. Can you explain why hosting services would offer bundles, and how they normally work, and how much easier they are using Plat 6?
Bill: These days, to be competitive, a hosting company--or any company, but in particular hosting companies--have to provide a rich package of services when they are trying to attract a customer. Nobody sells an email account, but email is typically included with a product that you purchase.
So you need the ability to quickly roll out a variety of different bundles, to meet your regional market needs; and you need to be able to tell your billing system, or your back office system, what services you want to offer, the pricing you want to have, and have it enforce and execute these plans.
And you do not want to have to have a lot of hands-on going on.Some examples: for the end user to be able to come to you as a new customer, choose a plan that meets his needs, and then go in and provision his services when he gets ready to define his fifth email address, and his sixth email address, or change the password on his hosting account, they need to be able to do that without contacting you.
Or if they want to upgrade to a more expensive plan, that provides more services, you need that to be a driven process as well; or have add-ons, where they may add on services that cost money--they're not included as part of the regular bundle.
All of those things, you want the system to not only support those things, but to actually drive those things, promote the up-sell of products to your customers, because that is a real added value to the billing system.
Joey: So, the idea is that it makes it easy so that, let's say I have got some kind of domain name registration bundle, and a couple of email addresses, and some web hosting, and I wanted to pick up a couple of extra services.
The system would allow a hosting provider to simply define it in a control panel, so I could just--even if I wanted to at 2:00 in the morning, when there's no customer support on the phone--could actually place the order and have the billing system updated for that.
Bill: That's right. It would all be real-time in that way. The system would make it clear to them what services they have paid for and haven't yet. It says, "You have paid for five emails. You've got three of them. You have two more to go. Click here to add one, or click on one of these existing email addresses to make changes to it."
So it really removes the need for them to interact with service personnel, but it still promotes the up-selling potential of your products.
Joey: That sounds great, and it sounds like it takes a lot of the pain out of the process of having to up-sell.
Bill: That's right.
Joey: Now, about branding. Tell us a little bit more about branding features.
Bill: So, Platypus allows you to define as many different brands--or what we call "virtual companies"--inside the system that you want to.
You may have more than one brand, for whatever reason. You may have a low-cost brand, and then a regular brand, that you use to keep your product lines separate. Or you might be providing billing services for one of your resellers of your products.
So Platypus gives you the ability to set these companies up inside of your system. And the neat thing about having those different companies inside of one system is that you can define your security model, and your product lines one time, if there is any crossover.
So if you have got staff members that have access to multiple companies, and you want to give them permissions to be able to do so, you can do that.
Or, if you have got staff at one virtual company that needs to have no access other than that one company, when they log in, to them, their company is the only one that exists in the system. They are not able to see any data that is not theirs, any customer that is not theirs, they are not able to access any products that are not theirs unless you want to expose those products across multiple companies.
Joey: All right; and what would I need to install Platypus? System-wise, that is.
Bill: Sure, well, Platypus runs on a sequel server database. The hardware requirements are fairly minimum. Any modern database server machine will be sufficient as the back end.
You can run the Platypus client, which is a Windows application, on practically any modern PC.
Or you can use, there is a web version that is supplied that has a subset of the functionality, that has most of the day-to-day functionality that would be pertinent to a CSR or a technician.
Or you could use the Platypus API, or your own. Companies, particularly bigger ones, have their own employee control panel that they have already deployed, and you couldn't pry that out of their hands on a bet.
So if they want to add functionality like "Add Customer" or "Add Package" or "Create Invoice," they could make calls to the Platypus API and never see our interface at all, and yet still use our billing engine and our provisioning engine to do all the functionality.
Joey: Well, that was great, Bill.
One more thing, and I guess I am going to see you next at ISPCon, Fall 2006. That is going to be at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, California.
Bill: That's right, and come by the booth. We will be happy to show you Platypus six in action.
Joey: Sounds good. Also, we'll be handing out squishy cows as well. All right, well, thanks very much Bill.
Bill: I appreciate it. We're headed back to Mississippi now.
Joey: All right. See you later. Have a good trip.
Bill: All right, bye.
Joey: That was an interview with Bill Ford, Tucows' Director of Billing Solutions, and we were talking about Platypus 6.
If you would like to find out more about Platypus, go to Platypus.Tucows.com. You will find all the information you need.
And if you would like to find out even more, maybe meet us up close and personal, your chance is coming up. It will be at ISPCon, at Santa Clara Convention Center, Santa Clara, California, November 7th through 9th. Drop by the booth, say hi, give Platypus a test run, and we would be even happy to hand you a couple of squishy cows.
Well, that's it for this podcast. I'm Joey deVilla, technical evangelist for Tucows. Thanks for listening.