Help-desk automation grows up

Once a stand-alone internal support application for managing calls from users, help-desk automation tools have matured into products that can serve as central repositories of vital information for tracking information technology assets and managing network performance. Along the way, the software has grown richer in functionality and has become more integrated with other applications.

These tools have allowed agency help desks to operate more efficiently in a variety of ways. For example, users have been able to set up pager and e-mail notification capability to allow technicians at remote locations to respond to help-desk calls. And World Wide Web-enabled versions of products are beginning to appear, which makes deployment of help-desk applications easier.

"Help-desk automation solutions are moving from reactive to proactive support," said Chris Martin, an analyst with Aberdeen Group, Boston. "You are not just keeping record of the problem resolution now; you are also helping to resolve or even prevent problems from recurring."

Federal agencies have been quick to exploit the benefits of these advances. The Justice Department uses Bendata Inc.'s Heat products to track help-desk trouble calls from the moment they arrive to the moment they get resolved.

Heat includes a knowledge base with a tree structure, allowing users to click on icons that represent particular problems and receive information on how to resolve them, said Robert DeLoatch, help-desk service manager at DOJ's Office of Information Resource Management.

The basic version of Heat contains a report writer, called Answer Wizard, which contains a standard set of reports into which help-desk staff place the results of their queries. It reports and categorizes the calls that come in. "It tracks who calls in most about a problem, so we can get them trained and can know which products work and which don't," DeLoatch said.

Users can purchase additional Heat modules to enhance the functionality of the base product. DOJ is using the telephony module in a pilot program and is planning for full-scale implementation in May or June.

The Heat telephony module represents an example of how advances in help-desk automation have shifted users from reactive to proactive roles. The module functions like caller ID, with a pop-up screen displaying the caller's identification when the phone rings.

Users see the caller's history on-screen, letting them know in advance how to route the call, said Jim Kretchman, director of research and development at Bendata, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Help-desk Integration

Like other help-desk automation users, DOJ plans to expand its help desk's functionality, making it like a central repository of increasingly diverse information. After installing the telephony module, the agency plans to integrate Heat's asset management module.

"Some of these help-desk automation tools will be tied into network management or asset management solutions," Aberdeen's Martin said. "We think there's a lot of benefit to integrating these products. If problems arise on the help desk, you'd like to have them passed on to product managers and to training."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has tied Heat to Tivoli Systems Inc.'s systems management products. "We use Tivoli Framework and Remote Control in conjunction with Heat," said Larry Jurcich, deputy chief information officer at ATF. "The centralized management tools allow us, from our centralized help desk, to fix problems remotely."

ATF set up pager notification between Heat and the Tivoli products so that technicians could respond to help-desk problems remotely. And as the systems integrator in a desktop outsourcing contract with ATF, Unisys Corp. is expanding the integration of Heat with Tivoli's modules.

Unisys is inserting yet another level of integration between Tivoli, Heat and Remedy Corp. products through e-mail notification. Remedy Help Desk, another leading help-desk automation tool, is the standard help-desk product used internally by Unisys.

"We are now looking at integrating Remedy and Heat more closely through a shared database," said Terry Weipert, director of network and desktop practice at Unisys Federal Systems.

Kathryn Gaul, systems administrator at the Defense Supply Center, Richmond, Va., said the Defense Logistics Agency merged its internal help-desk functions with its external customer support service into a single SQL database but kept the two segregated within the database. Using Network Associates Inc.'s Magic help-desk products, DLA increased efficiency through e-mail and pager notification of problems to its technical support department.

The agency uses Magic's Escalation Server function, which prioritizes help-desk problems, and its Sir Server function, which provides help-desk management tools. "We went from two-day to four-hour turnaround time for customer support," Gaul said.

In addition, Magic's systems monitor capability redirects help-desk staff members who are not working on problems to assist those who are receiving all of the calls.

DLA plans to adopt Network Associates's Magic Total Service Desk, scheduled for release later this year. That product will include a base product called Event Orchestrator, a Web-enabled version of Magic and a network diagnostic tool called Sniffer, originally a Network General product. Network Associates was formed as the result of a merger between Network General and McAfee Associates Inc. and a series of acquisitions. "The acquisitions were pushing toward more of a consolidated IT help desk," said Arvind Narain, a product marketing representative with Network Associates. "But we are done acquiring for a while. We are focused on integration."

The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., has been using Remedy Help Desk tools since last year and is now integrating Remedy's asset management module to keep track of the life-cycle history of its assets. "We needed an asset management system that integrated with our help desk and was Y2K-compliant," said Dale Courtney, director of software application development at the school.

Alan Brooks, group product manager of Remedy's IT service management line, said the company's underlying Action Request System can be used as a platform for integrating Remedy Help Desk and Tivoli Framework or as a rapid development tool to build customized applications.

Customizing Databases

Some help-desk automation solutions are oriented more toward customizing a database of knowledge for disseminating information to a large volume of callers. The Education Department's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), which includes 10 regional Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) technical assistance centers, has installed such an application to help its staff handle about 10,000 calls for ADA information per month.

"The very simple calls we got eight years ago have become more complex," said Randy Dipner, president of Meeting the Challenge Inc., a consulting firm in Colorado Springs, Colo., that runs one of the 10 regional ADA centers. "There's more data about [the ADA] than ever before."

NIDRR asked Meeting the Challenge to develop a knowledge-based system to address the problem of increased call complexity. Dipner chose to use Knowledge Builder, an authoring environment from Servicesoft Technologies Inc., Needham, Mass. "I completed the prototype knowledge base in 40 hours," Dipner said. "It's entirely a drag-and-drop interface. If someone calls about a transportation issue, I click on the appropriate button, and it finds the information."

Jeffrey Whitney, vice president for corporate marketing at Servicesoft, said Knowledge Builder users do not need any programming experience to use the tool.

Unlike other solutions that handle only one method of organizing data, Knowledge Builder handles multiple methods, such as case-based reasoning, natural-language queries, decision trees and expert reasoning, Dipner said. He said the biggest challenge in using the product was to spend enough time up front to understand and represent his knowledge base in Servicesoft terminology. It understands issues in terms of four objects: the problem; the solution; the case; and the document, which is an explanation of the solution.

"You build the database using these four categories," he said. "Then, using drag and drop, you link the objects."

The Knowledge Builder system seems to have made the ADA centers' help-desk job easier. "From my observations of the system, it will significantly enhance our ability to deliver high-quality technical assistance to those who need to know about the ADA," said Katherine Seelman, NIDRR's director.

Web Spinning

The next help-desk automation innovation lies in the tools' ability to leverage the strengths of the Web. When Remedy releases Remedy Web in June, the Naval Postgraduate School will deploy it. The Remedy Java Web interface will make deployment and enhancement of applications more efficient. "With the client/server version, you have to do updates with every system," Courtney said. "With the Web version, you do only one update."

The Web-enabled version of help-desk tools also will provide increased support for caller self-service and remote problem management.

For example, the newest Web interface to Bendata's HeatWeb, released this month, contains separate interfaces for technicians and customers. Using Bendata's HeatBoard, help-desk technicians can post the status of problem resolution, and users can access the information from any Web-enabled PC.

The Web-based help-desk products will help callers and help-desk staff to deal with the myriad problems that confront them daily. "Help-desk managers are inundated by putting out fires everyday, so everything needs to be easy to install, use and manage," Bendata's Kretchman said.

Help-desk automation tools seem to do that more with every new release.

-- Gerber is a free-lance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

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AT A GLANCE

Status: Agencies are embracing innovations in help-desk management tools that enable them to integrate tools and to enable the help desk to serve as a centralized repository of information. Users report that these new products have enabled their operations to run more efficiently.

Issues:,Users should determine whether they can benefit from tying help-desk automation tools to other tools for network and asset management. They may also want to use the tools to customize databases for information dissemination.

Outlook: Excellent. World Wide Web-enabled versions of these tools have begun to appear on the market and hold the promise of greater convenience and efficiency.

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