Open source accounting sees new symbol

Long-awaited Australian payroll and tax application now freely available

Lack of a business-grade accounting system tailored for Australia's onerous taxation system has long kept even the most die-hard Linux fans tied to Windows, but all that is set to change with the open source SYMBOL Accounting.

The brainchild of Perth accountant Edward Metcalfe, Surf Your Money Books Online, or SYMBOL, is a Web-based accounting and payroll system developed on the Linux, Apache, PostgreSQL, and Perl (LAPP) platform.

Metcalfe first looked at another open source accounting application called SQL-Ledger but deemed it unsatisfactory for local businesses.

"As good as it is, SQL-Ledger is not written with the Australian taxation system in mind," Metcalfe told Computerworld, adding the last thing any accountant wants to do is to trawl through individual transactions for compliance reporting to the Australian Taxation Office.

"When I was working with Bega Garnbirringu Health Services [Western Australia] I had developed another accounting system using Filemaker Pro 4. It was then that I realized the huge benefit of customizing an accounting system to my own needs."

Three years later SYMBOL, developed from scratch, is now freely available under the FreeBSD licence.

While not a developer by trade, Metcalfe introduced himself to Perl while looking for a way to do comprehensive loan calculations, and PostgreSQL was chosen for its reliability.

"Most apps can tolerate some data loss; for example you probably don't need last month's entries in your calendar; however, if you lose last month's entries in your accounting system you have to go back and enter them all in again," he said.

In comparing the functionality of SYMBOL with the popular Windows-only applications like MYOB and Quicken, Metcalfe says all the usual reports such as trial balance, profit and loss, balance sheet, aged debtors, and aged creditors are there, along with various payroll reports.

Metcalfe is confident SYMBOL is ready for production use and claims at least five small businesses are already using it to do their books. And with PostgreSQL behind it, Metcalfe said there is no reason why SYMBOL won't scale to organizations with thousands of employees.

In addition to the standard features, SYMBOL allows each user to define the ageing of debtors and creditors independently and its multi-dimensional querying has been designed from the ground up.

"For example in MYOB you have the chart of account, job and categories, which represent three dimensions. Within SYMBOL you can have as many dimensions as you like. This greatly increases SYMBOL's reporting capabilities," he said.

Other features include vlookup friendly reports across any one selected dimension to produce special purpose financial reporting, account header totals based on a custom query, and the ability to query whole transactions.

"Suppose you want a summary of all transactions that went through bank account number one," Metcalfe said. "You query for bank account number one and then you apply the Whole Transactions function and SYMBOL will find the other side of those transactions. You can then run a profit and loss statement based on all those transactions."

SYMBOL can also produce reports in values either excluding or including GST.

"This may be trivial to many but if you're an organization relying on funding bodies and some want you to report using ex-GST figures and others want you to report with inc-GST figures then SYMBOL can take this in its stride," Metcalfe said.

When asked if SYMBOL can be modified to suit international markets, Metcalfe said it is best to keep it for Australia only.

"SAP is internationalized, but to achieve that they chose not to have a payroll system in it," he said. "Also BAS [Business Activity Statement] information is captured by SYMBOL and in a country with no BAS you have all this redundancy in the reports, not to mention the fact that SYMBOL would not be able to handle the overseas tax regime."

Metcalfe has not yet explored to possibility of integrating SYMBOL into another open source accounting or CRM system but said it does have the ability to provide a hyperlink from its transactions, which could feed into other Web-enabled databases.

For now, Metcalfe is SYMBOL's only developer and is hosting the project online at

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