FootPrints extends reach of your help desk via TCP/IP

FootPrints, a problem-tracking and help desk
package, has promise as a dark-horse entry in the crowded help desk field.


UniPress Software Inc.'s FootPrints uses TCP/IP to follow the World Wide Web metaphor
and do the same basic things LAN help desks do. With a Web-style help desk, technicians
can economically support users on an intranet or anywhere around the globe via the
Internet.


Support staff can enter trouble tickets, assign priorities, search a database for
answers and close out reports.


Administrators can assign priorities to tickets, track them, dele-gate problems, view
and print reports from a browser, or save tickets to a text file.


Best of all, users can hunt for answers with the FootPrints search engine by checking
boxes for key words, assignees, priorities and project fields.


The program, based on problem-tracking server software from Software Foundry Inc. of
Chatham, N.J., arrives in a zipped file that has a read-me document. You cannot read the
help file until after you run the setup program, which is like locking the horse in the
barn until the race is over.


I had to run the installation a couple of times because the package didn't map the
directories properly for Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Information Server. I got it working
with help from the UniPress support team.


After installing FootPrints, I was pleasantly surprised to find a well-designed online
tutorial. I wasn't so happy to find no help file. Tutorials should supplement help
documents, not replace them.


The first FootPrints task is to set up and customize a project-a collection of data,
people and events. Only the system administrator, identified during installation, can
create or modify projects.


System options and administration tasks are set in the Project Options page through a
graphical interface accessed through a Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator
browser.


FootPrints comes preconfigured with project fields such as date of submission, date of
most recent edit, user name, status, priority and description. The administrator can
create up to 30 custom project fields. Information collected in these fields passes via a
Perl script to the FootPrints database.


Fields may be internal or public. Those with internal permissions are invisible to
external visitors. The fields, via e-mail, Web site and File Transfer Protocol hypertext
addresses, link the customer support pages to departmental Web pages, software patches and
other files. No Hypertext Markup Language coding or scripting is necessary.


You can restrict access to network users or make the information public over the
Internet. Because all data and controls are accessible through Web browsers, support is
available equally to users whether they are running Microsoft Windows 95, Windows NT, Unix
or Apple's Macintosh operating system.


UniPress sells individual and group licenses. The group licenses give access to public
information in the FootPrints solutions database. You can assign a group read/submit or
read-only privileges. Read/submit lets users submit and track requests as well as view the
database. Read-only lets them view the database but not make requests.


Individual licenses grant permissions to certain individuals. You can assign them
standard, project administration or system administration privileges. A user with standard
privileges can view and edit data. One with project administration privileges can
configure projects. System administrators get both.


UniPress claims the data stored in FootPrints is secured by three levels of protection.
But if we've learned anything about the Internet, Windows NT and Web browsers over the
last few months, it's that nothing on the Net is 100 percent secure.


The first level of protection is project-level access. Users can reach project data
only if they are properly registered project members. The administrator can include or
exclude users and data from different projects.


The second level of protection is valid user names and passwords. The administrator can
require password validation to make changes to the database.


The third level of protection comes from the Web server. Some servers can restrict
requests to specified IP addresses, but this depends on the Web server software and has
nothing to do with FootPrints. I would say Footprints offers two levels of access control.


Web-style business applications are inherently passive-users and support
representatives alike must log in to read or modify the database.


FootPrints makes its system proactive by using e-mail to track and control tickets. It
notifies representatives of new tickets or changes to the database. You can configure it
to e-mail the project administrator whenever a new request is submitted, and users who
have read/submit licenses will receive e-mail as work progresses on their requests.


UniPress gives unlimited toll-free customer support at no charge. You can get support
over the Web, too. I called the help line three times and was answered promptly after
waits shorter than a minute.


The program isn't bug-free. I ran into a couple of problems accessing it over the
Internet, and it didn't always respond to mouse clicks through Explorer. FootPrints
returned internal error messages about a half-dozen times.


These errors didn't disturb me as much as UniPress' responses, which tended to assign
the blame to the browser or Web server or user.


For example, according to entry 2l on the UniPress support site for the IBM Corp. AIX
4.x operating system, users running FootPrints on IBM Web servers had reported problems
executing Perl processes correctly.


UniPress's response: "Using the Apache or NCSA Web server cures the problem."


Telling a customer to switch server software is not an appropriate answer to a help
desk question. Tracking and fixing the problem with a patch is.


If a company designs TCP/IP software, users expect it to work with the browser and
server software prevalent in the market. If a product doesn't work with a particular
configuration, the developer should fix it or acknowledge the incompatibility.


FootPrints is clever and can be a cost-effective help desk application. The program
isn't yet completely stable and sometimes performs slowly. But if you have users at
different offices, and they all have Internet access and recent versions of Explorer or
Netscape, FootPrints is worth a peek.


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