Intuit Master Builder

Being a construction company, we use Intuit Master Builder pretty extensively at work. It’s basically an all-in-one accounting/construction management package and while it does the job reasonably well—for the average user—I thought I’d relay some of the problems with it from an IT/computer programming standpoint. (Kind of an anti-review.) Which is sure to be amusing (or frightening) for other people in my position.

First of all, it’s a database-driven application, which is fine, but the underlying database format is Visual FoxPro—and not a new version of FoxPro. I’m not even positive it is FoxPro for that matter: the tables are all in DBF format, and the indexes are CDX files. That’s one problem—I mean, it’s 2005, and we’re still having to deal with DBF files? Even worse: each table name and field name inside the tables is constrained to exactly six characters long. No exceptions. So you either have ridiculously-abbreviated field names (like “invttl” for “Invoice total” or “lstupd” for “Last updated”) or short names that are padded out with underscores (“state_”). Uhm, hello? DOS called, and it wants its lame database back.

Second, the relational qualities of such a database are a joke. Sure, there are key fields that build relationships to other tables (foreign keys), but there’s no consistency between them—primary key field names are duplicated, fields in different tables linking to the same foreign key field are named differently, etc. But—and here’s the dealbreaker—you can only have one “company” per database; in other words, if you have multiple companies (or projects), then each one requires its own database in a separate directory. And there’s no inherent way to combine these separate databases to share data among them (like a master list of vendors or cost codes) or to build consolidated reports of any kind. This is probably the single biggest flaw in Master Builder.

So one of my tasks is to build/maintain consolidated reports and software to manage the data among the databases. This, of course, is a huge pain, but I have a variety of tools that I use to do this (which illustrate how hackish this all really is):

  • Crystal Reports. Great application, it’ll hook into just about any data source and build just about any report you can think up, so I’ve built a number of consolidated reports in Crystal. Here’s the problem: I’m stuck using CR version 8 because that was the last version which allowed you to compile the reports into standalone executable files that people can run without needing Crystal Reports installed on their computers. I have to do this because at least half the PCs here are still running Windows 98 and we don’t have a server capable of publishing Crystal’s distributed reports.
  • Microsoft Access. This is like, the hacked method of managing the databases. I connect to a Master Builder database via ODBC, and I can directly access (no pun intended) the data. The drawback is because of ODBC, I can’t connect to more than one database at a time—if I want to copy-and-paste data from the Master Company (the source) to any of the others, I have to close Access completely after each database to sever and then renew the ODBC connection.
  • PHP. Yep, PHP. I’ve built some web form interfaces to the databases (running on the server intranet in-house), one of which is a utility to copy vendors out of the Master Company and paste the new or updated data into each subsequent database. I’ve also done a bunch of consolidated reports via PHP, accessible through a browser—I find it’s much quicker and easier to write the reports in PHP than in Crystal Reports. The drawback? You have to have a web server and PHP running on the intranet. And, have ODBC connections set up for each database on the server as well. And, you have to know PHP.

What really sucks is when a new company/project is added, and I need to go through the existing consolidated reports and update them to include the new database. In the PHP reports, this is pretty much a cinch. In the Crystal reports, though, the pain level ranges from moderate to severe, depending on which report I’m modifying. All of them make extensive use of formulas, so I always have to weed through and update all of those. The worst report is one that uses subreports to break down data from each company, and global variables and formulas to consolidate all this data into the master report; each subreport has to be formatted exactly the same (which is anal retentive beyond words) and I’ve got this daisy chained house of cards of formulas in various sections of the master report relying on an EvaluateAfter cascade to properly calculate certain values… the anxiety levels creep higher and higher just thinking about that damn thing…

The end result is I’ve got a lot of scripts, reports and techniques for handling Master Builder that are only known to me, and would be very hard to explain to someone else. Some might say this is “job security,” but I was talking with someone about this today and we decided it’s much more of a “lock-in” (and not in a good way).

Now, compared to much of the competition out there, Master Builder is a good program. It does accounting voodoo that is a total mystery to me, and seems to do it well. It’s got a low barrier-to-entry user interface that makes it easy to learn and use for non techie types. It’s an open system to the extent that the database schema is available and there’s an API that allows the development of independent software that ties into it (a lot of third party developers have developed PDA modules for it, for instance).

But good god, I pity the poor fool who has to administer the system…

8 Replies to “Intuit Master Builder”

  1. This sounds like my experience trying to customize Peachtree Complete Accounting for a client. It uses nasty Btrieve "database" files for storing data. A 3rd-party company reverse-engineered those data files and provided access through a COM object, but it was very low-level and super easy to break things.

    It all turned out well, but I wouldn’t want to do it again!

  2. Gotta love old legacy DOS databases. Our mission-critical application here is our reservations software, and it’s an old Turbo C/dBase setup, 16-bit, running from DOS. It’s ridiculous how stupid the thing is. I can’t get an ODBC call to work with the files, so I can’t create my own reports or automate anything here. We also have the same problem that all companies are stored in seperate DBs, making managing stuff a pain.

    And of course the company has a more modern version, but what does it run? Java from MSIE and it won’t work in Firefox as it uses Microsoft’s Java extensions. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’re working on a new version of their modern software, and it’s going to run off the MS.Net foundation. So it’s going to require massive server and client resources and upgrades, which we don’t have the money for.

    What I wouldn’t give for somebody to write a great property management/rentals app that I could run on a spare-parts server with open-source software. Ugh… .

  3. FoxPro & PeachTree – YUCK
    Crystal Reports – have also had wonderful experiences with, really a great business app.

    and PHP,
    Of course you would write some web interfaces 😉

    As for the fool who will eventually admin the system – HECK YA – Pity him cuz he won’t be nearly as adept as you

  4. We use Master Builder too. I just mapped the tables over to a SQL Server 2000 using DTS. Scheduled out the execution for every night and Voila!

    We also have some in-house programs that we use with SQL2K backend and I can link all the data together.

    Now I use Crystal Reports, ASP.NET to get my reporting done (in office and web). With SQL2K I get my queries and views in a flash!

  5. We use Master Builder as well. We have a database in Nevada with three companies and one in California with about 20 companies. We are using the Enterprise version and have just upgraded to 11.1. For starters 11.1 is very slow logging in. I have been told that this is across the board and they don’t have a fix for it. We also have a problem with our Lancaster, CA location trying to access our Riverside, CA server through a T1. Master Builder does not utilize the full bandwidth of the T1 so it is as slow as using a dial-up to access the database in another physical location. Please let me know if anyone has experienced the lag time with the across the T1 with two different locations and how they fixed it. I have also created an Access database that I was able to combine all the companies together, but it has its flaws and sometimes is very slow.

  6. Does anyone have any vb or source code examples on how to parse through the xml from the api? I like the idea of setting up a dts package to map the tables to SQL2K.

  7. I am working with a builder that is looking at master builder, is there anything else out there that will handle multiple large projects without all these backend tricks?

    Anything you recommend?

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