Service as software

In choosing help-desk software, be sure to pick a program that can conform to your processes, not the other way around

AthenaRMS Ticket Tracking Application




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Internet Software Sciences

Liberum HelpDesk

LogMeIn Rescue






Simple Help Desk


Good help is hard to find, which is why you often need to provide it yourself. Help-desk applications can assist you in supporting your users, but you'll need to supply the smarts. That starts with choosing the right help-desk application.

At its most basic, a help-desk application lets users create tickets that describe their problems. Technicians use this information to begin to diagnose the problem, fix it and close the ticket. Help-desk programs can reduce costs by solving problems that impede work, making better use of existing resources and eliminating delays.

Multiple communication channels are necessary. With most systems, users can create tickets via phone calls, e-mail messages or other means. If they are having trouble with one channel, they can use another. You can also define issues as narrowly or as broadly as you like ' purely computer-related problems, trouble with phones, building maintenance, human resources and software bugs are all legitimate possibilities.

Workflow tools that route tickets to the appropriate person for assignment, diagnosis, action, verification and closing are another feature of a robust help-desk application. The solution shouldn't impose a workflow on your organization but rather allow you to define one that reflects your process.

'Tracking is the heart of a help desk,' said Daryl Covey, hotline manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Nexrad Radar Operations Center in Norman, Okla. 'You don't want things to fall through the cracks.'

An optional user-accessible knowledge base can let users self-diagnose and remedy problems using validated procedures without needing technician assistance.

Another useful tool is remote access, which lets technicians log on to user machines to investigate and solve problems. For example, LogMeIn Rescue lets users give permission to technicians to run diagnostics, start and stop processes, reboot ' whatever is necessary to find and fix the problem.

The big picture

It's important to recognize that a help-desk solution is only part of an overall information technology strategy. Adding a configuration management capability lets you relate reported problems to system configuration. An asset management component, such as that supplied by Internet Software Science's Web+Center, can help inventory and manage agency resources. Change management options can assist with planning decisions.

All these options are important, but reporting is perhaps the most useful for management purposes. One type of report involves details of the help-desk process, such as how long it takes to respond to tickets and fix problems. However, other reports can be more useful for spotting trends or patterns in the big picture of effective systems management. For example, recognizing that certain problems are typical of a particular configuration allows agencies to avoid future difficulties with targeted, preventive responses.

'Use trend analysis to determine root causes and fix the underlying problem, not the symptoms,' Covey said. Reports also can aid in making planning decisions for acquisitions and deployment. Look for help-desk programs that provide many predefined reports but also allow for creating custom reports.

The most vital aspect of a successful helpdesk solution is ease of use. If users can't use it ' or technicians won't use it ' you've failed no matter how good the solution's capabilities. Does it have multiple channels for users to create tickets? Can technicians access tickets via BlackBerry? Technicians should be able to assign meaningful priorities, categories or status to tickets.

Helping hands

Before choosing a help-desk application, a thorough examination of agency business practices should be made. You want to be sure that what you're supporting ' and the support you're providing ' makes sense.

'Knowing your end goals for the help desk and how you want to support your users and sponsors will go far in choosing software to fit your needs,' said Ronald Meyers, program lead of the Joint Systems Support and Knowledge Center at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego. Also, help-desk applications are expensive, typically with price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars ' all the more reason to invest the time to be sure your process is correct.

Choosing from among all the possible features is not easy. A Web-based solution helps agencies deal with problems in geographically distributed offices but can also raise issues of security. Covey said some users also find help-desk sites too complex. 'You may need to refine your Web interface to build confidence and comfort, so people will use it more,' he said.

Pricing is also complex, partly because each agency situation is unique. Vendors could charge a monthly or yearly fee, or have a single payment for the duration of the system. Some vendors charge per user, and others have a flat fee for any number of users. Some vendors' products are intrinsically Web-oriented, and others charge for Web access. With some solutions, all options are part of the package with no extra fees; with others, you pay as you go for each option you select. Are technical support, maintenance and upgrades included, or do they involve extra charges?

'Remember to include the annual cost to maintain and support the software after implementation,' Meyers said, advising IT staff members to grill vendors about the expected costs of deployment.

Given how cost-conscious government agencies are, it makes sense to look at the free help-desk applications available, especially for small deployments and first deployments. The open-source Liberum HelpDesk offers a Web interface with built-in reports, configurable e-mail messages and customizable pages. Similarly, OneOrZero has capabilities for customizable ticket fields, tickets via e-mail, time tracking, project management, searches and reporting, and powerful security in multiple languages. Other free help-desk applications include Help Desk Software, Hesk, QuickIntranet and Simple Help Desk. Also, many vendors offer free trial versions of their software.

'An agencywide product allows more consistency throughout the agency by having one way to manage tickets and more consistent metric reports regardless of system or sponsor,' Meyers said.

Selecting a help-desk application that has a modular structure makes sense for many agencies ' especially those implementing a help desk for the first time ' because they can implement functions one at a time. 'Start with tracking, to ensure tickets are worked and closed out correctly,' Covey said.

A help-desk program usually requires its own resources of hardware and software. However, some vendors, such as Athena, also host the solution as a service. All the information resides on the vendor's servers and is accessible via the Internet. This saves the cost of acquiring and maintaining the hardware and software, although you would need to satisfy yourself on security measures.

Help-desk applications must be compatible with all the platforms your agency uses. Pay particular attention to different versions of operating systems: Windows Vista does not equal Windows XP, for example.

Finally, should you deploy the chosen application yourself or outsource it? There are arguments on both sides. However, a help-desk application is an individual choice, fitted to the needs and style of your agency. 'The help-desk staff should be able to self-manage the software to adapt to changing or emerging systems,' Meyers said. Be hesitant about entrusting this responsibility to outsiders.

Covey agreed, adding that 'flexibility in configuring your solution is important because your responsibilities will change.'


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