Hold on! Help is on the way

Latest help-desk packages offer agencies a better way to tackle computing woes

It has never been easy for system administrators to keep their agencies'

PC networks running smoothly, and it just keeps getting harder.

Information technology problem- solving is more demanding than even

a few years ago. Equipment is increasingly complex and takes longer to fix,

yet agencies now often demand that IT staffs satisfy requests within a set

time frame. And with many agencies taking a fee-for-services approach to

systems management, the IT department must track costs so they can bill

customers for the services.

Take heart. Installing a good help-desk application could keep the staff

on top of promises and out of hot water.

The latest generation of help-desk software not only makes it easy to

track and prioritize help requests, but includes sophisticated time-tracking

tools to make sure no request falls through the cracks. What's more, asset-tracking

and change-management modules can help get a handle on workgroup- or department-level

changes that would otherwise wreak havoc on a help desk that's focused only

on reports of problems. Just imagine having to deal with 412 separate trouble

tickets, all related to moving a server or a batch of bad memory.

There are a wide variety of help-desk applications on the market from

which to choose. FCW decided to test the three programs that showed up most

often on the short lists of federal organizations responding to a recent

FCW survey: FrontRange Solutions Heat 6.0, Remedy Help Desk and Peregrine

ServiceCenter 3.

In testing, we examined each product's performance in several areas

that are important to a complete solution. First, we checked to see that

each program allows the user to quickly collect the necessary trouble-ticket

information while talking to a caller. The key to speedy resolution is gathering

complete and accurate information the first time.

Next, we looked at how the products aided in the goal of the call: problem

resolution. Were the proper tools in place for the call handler to solve

the problem? The keys here are the solutions database and the knowledge

tree.

A knowledge tree (which is essentially a decision tree) is the same

in principle as the directory tree you see in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows

Explorer. It's simply a logical branching that narrows you in on your answer.

A first-level heading might be "operating system," while the second level

drills down to "installation problems," the third level down to "setup doesn't

complete" and so on.

If the solution could be identified, could the ticket be assigned to

the best person for the job? The key here is workflow tools.

Configuration and customization are also important. No mass-produced

product will mimic an organization's structure, but it makes it easier on

the support staff if the application can be tailored for unique requirements.

So we checked to see how well the application performed out of the box and

how easy it was to create a customized solution.

We were impressed with all of the solutions we tested. Peregrine ServiceCenter

earned the top score in the end, thanks primarily to its superior problem-solving

tools, its ability to integrate with network management systems and its

scalability. At the same time, each of the other products is very capable.

Which solution is most suitable for your department or agency will depend

upon the specific needs of your organization.

FrontRange Solutions Heat 6.0

Heat 6.0 is the core application in what FrontRange Solutions Inc. (formerly

GoldMine Software Corp.) calls HEATsos — a suite of applications designed

to provide everything needed to build a help desk.

Although none of the applications could be called intuitive, Heat's

relatively straightforward and simple design promises to ease the workload

of your help-desk personnel, providing easy navigation through screens and

quick and efficient data entry.

Furthermore, although the semi- customized installation gets users up and

running quickly, the application is very configurable, allowing each department

to create a fully customized solution. In fact, Heat is far and away the

easiest to install and configure of the three programs we tested.

Heat is not as scalable or feature-rich as the competition, but sometimes

more is not better. Heat 6.0 concentrates on gathering information and solving

problems more efficiently than the other products we evaluated.

The first step in configuring Heat for your department is to create

users, teams and roles that match your support staff so that you can be

sure the right people gets the trouble tickets to do their job at the proper

time.

Logging calls is what Heat is all about. Heat has the most efficient

graphical user interface of the bunch, although it is not intuitive. Much

of its efficiency can be attributed to the straightforward concepts upon

which it is based. For example, call tickets are taken by first-level support

people who can either solve the ticket using a knowledge tree or pass it

off to second-level support people who will take it from there.

The first-level people can access most of the information they need

through a call-logging interface that is displayed upon log-in. The top

half of the screen shows the caller's information, while the bottom half

provides links to pertinent information via four tabs: Call Log, Details,

Assignment and Journal.

The left quarter of the screen displays either a bulletin board (called

HeatBoard) for global messages or a breakdown of the current ticket, depending

on which tab is selected. All other tasks can be executed from the toolbar

and menus at the top of the screen.

And if another call comes in before the first one can be solved or assigned,

Heat allows the frontline technician to put the current call on "hold,"

neither saving nor deleting the record while another is started or edited.

The HeatBoard also enables support people to post tickets systemwide

relating to common problems such as "file serve 12 down" or "all e-mail

is delayed." Then when a related call comes in, the technician is not only

ready for it, but can link the call to that problem. From that point, tickets

are handled en masse and closed when the problem is solved, eliminating

wasteful redundancies.

As with previous versions of Heat, the primary problem-solving tool

in Version 6.0 is First Level Support, a decision-tree database of solutions.

The knowledge bases can either be built or purchased.

Heat offers a strong set of reporting tools, including 250 predefined

reports and the bundled Seagate Technology Inc.'s Crystal Reports application.

And busy help-desk managers will appreciate the Manager's Console, which

makes it possible to view information such as All Open Calls in an analog-type

speedometer gauge. Or they can set their own thresholds for green, yellow

and red, and tell it to e-mail all managers when the threshold hits red,

for example.

Heat 6.0 comes with several modules that complete the modern concept

of a help-desk application. Optional modules include iHeat, which enables

support technicians and managers to access the core functionality of the

application through a Web browser; Heat Self Service, which enables your

customers not only to open their own tickets, but to access the knowledge

trees and possibly solve their problems without calling your staff; and

Heat AssetSolution, which keeps track of all your IT assets and includes

the ability to scan your network and automatically populate the database.

One factor that holds down Heat's overall score is its limited scalability.

The program is flexible in that it can work with a wide range of databases,

from the low-end Microsoft Access to Oracle Corp.'s Oracle8. Unfortunately,

Heat does not offer the ability to set up multiple servers for redundancy

and load balancing.

Although scalability issues limit Heat's effectiveness at the enterprise

level, the solution is a strong choice for large workgroups or departments.

Remedy Help Desk

Remedy Corp.'s Help Desk is by far the most sophisticated offering of

the three help-desk products we tested, offering a flexible solution that

can accommodate a workgroup as well as an entire agency.

The power of Remedy comes from its Action Request System — a sort of

middleware server upon which many corporate applications are based. Essentially,

the AR System dynamically creates database logic, workflow business rules

and form layout without programming. One of the most popular applications

for the AR System has become the Help Desk product. And because Help Desk

is based on the AR System, this solution provides power and scalability

the others can't offer.

In addition to scalability, the AR System also ensures that the ball

cannot be dropped by providing powerful workflow operations that automatically

handle the assignment of the ticket to the right technician.

Remedy Help Desk earns high marks for its ability to be customized.

At the same time, the product's high level of sophistication and detailed

configurability cuts into its ease of use for end users and adds to the

difficulty administrators will have setting up the program. We did, for

example, run into some trouble installing Remedy Help Desk, most of which

could be traced to not understanding the complexity of the offering. And

fully configuring the program — including entering user and asset information — can take several days.

Remedy Help Desk has a fairly steep learning curve for end users as

well. In the main application, called Remedy Help Desk Support, the screens

are not as neatly informative as those found in Heat.

Also, entering data could be a lot simpler. Automatically filling in

information for the caller, for example, is not as easy as it should be.

The only way to have the system complete all the information about a caller

is to supply the person's Remedy Help Desk log-in name, and users dealing

with problems may not have that at hand. Nor does the program offer drop-down

lists or other tools to make it easier to find the appropriate log-in.

The top of the main screen shows information about the problem, while five

tabs display details ranging from caller information to activity on the

ticket to service-level agreements (SLAs).

One of the tabs, called Related Information, enables the person taking

the call to quickly search for related items and link this to a slew of

others if a systemic problem is the root. Also helpful is the ability to

see other tickets that the current caller (or the current caller's machine)

has in the system.

Problem solving is Remedy Help Desk's strongest suit. From the time

the call ticket is saved, the AR System goes into action, automatically

forwarding the ticket to the right group or individual who is designated

to handle such problems. For example, all word processor problems might

be automatically assigned to the productivity application group or the software

group.

Similarly, Remedy monitors SLAs for each ticket, ensuring that no call

gets lost in the cracks. For example, if the assigned technician has not

opened the ticket in, say, four hours, you could configure it to send an

alert to that person's manager or peer before the SLA is broken.

Finding solutions to common problems is relatively easy: Click on the

solutions tab then List Possible Solutions, and a list of possible solutions

will appear. The support person can quickly browse through the options,

and if one works, click Use Solution to automatically update the call ticket

with all the pertinent information.

Alas, there are no knowledge trees for this, only a simple database.

Worse still, Remedy Help Desk doesn't ship any data, so all your solutions

will have to be created in house.

Apart from a problem-solving database, however, Remedy ships with nearly

everything under the sun and provides extensions and third-party options

for just about anything you'd want to do. Because it is based on a modular,

scalable server design, you can make this system just as big and bad as

any IT infrastructure.

Out of the box you get the server, three clients, Intel Corp.'s LANDesk

Management Suite, Symantec Corp.'s Norton Antivirus, Norton HelpDesk Assistant,

paging software to alert technicians, Remedy Link for Palm Computing Platform

(to run miniversions of the application on Palms in the field) and even

a Palm IIIx. Network management integrations are available for Hewlett-Packard

Co.'s Openview, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solstice Site Manager/Domain Manager

and IBM Corp.'s Netview.

An extensive list of other modules is also available, including tools

for detailed asset management and change management, as well as a Distributed

Server Option for synchronizing multiple help desks. Although the Distributed

Server Option costs $15,000 per additional server, Remedy Help Desk is the

only solution of the three examined that provides nearly infinite scalability.

The server can be run on Unix and Windows NT, and clients are available

for Unix, Windows NT, DOS and Macintosh. All the major databases are supported,

including products from Informix Corp., Microsoft, Oracle and Sybase Inc.

In short, Remedy Help Desk is clearly the most robust and scalable help-desk

solution we have seen. This product is the best choice for large and/or

distributed organizations that want to maintain a single help desk.

Peregrine ServiceCenter 3

Of the packages we tested, Peregrine ServiceCenter 3 offers the strongest

combination of ease of use, ease of management and scalability, which earned

the product a slightly higher overall score than the others. This well-

designed product is fairly intuitive and is well suited to a wide range

of environments.

As with Heat, Service-Center's main screen is well designed and easy

to get working. And like Remedy Help Desk, ServiceCenter is based on a robust

architecture that is scalable and uncomplicated. The underlying client/server

architecture offers great flexibility. ServiceCenter supports the widest

array of servers, databases and clients of any of the packages and is very

configurable, making it a good choice for virtually any organization.

Call management is effortless with ServiceCenter. An intuitive and customized

screen greets each support staff member as they log in, with the specific

interface customized for that user's support role. A click on the Take New

Calls button brings up the call-management screen, where the support person

can enter the caller's name or pick from a list. Not only does clicking

on the person's name from the table fully populate all the caller fields,

but the asset fields are populated as well. Within seconds of answering

the phone, the support person is ready to tackle the problem.

After opening a call, the support staff person can click on Find Solution

to scour the included KnowledgePak database for a possible answer and, if

one is found, click on Use Resolution or, if not, create a New Problem.

When the solution is determined, the resolution can be entered into

the system to facilitate faster problem-solving for future similar calls.

We found that the process was very efficient in both the flow and the time

spent on each call.

Like Heat, ServiceCenter relies on Seagate Crystal Reports to create

reports. A simple application called ReportCenter uses the Crystal Reports

engine to generate any of about 100 pre-designed reports. Each use a good

mix of charts, tables and text, displaying just about any combination of

information one might hope to cull.

ServiceCenter also comes with a module called Work Management, which

offers detailed information on exactly what is happening within the help-desk

organization. Graphs of open tickets, operator utilization and total downtime

in days and hours are displayed for easy absorption.

The ability to run on some pretty serious hardware, such as Sun Enterprise

10000 servers, should more than make up for the fact that there is no redundancy

or load balancing built into the software. ServiceCenter's support for databases,

servers and clients is simply outstanding. Clients supported include Windows,

Windows NT, Macintosh and OS/2, while servers include MVS mainframes and

multiple versions of Unix and Windows NT. Its database support includes

IBM's DB2, as well as products from Informix, Oracle, Sybase and Microsoft.

Very few applications can run on the breadth of system combinations that

ServiceCenter can.

Jefferson is a freelance analyst and writer based in Honolulu. He has been

covering technology for seven years.

REPORT CARD

FrontRange Solutions Heat 6.0

Score: B-

FrontRange Solutions Inc.

(800) 776-7889

www.frontrange.com

Price and availability: Heat 6.0 starts at $3,495 for a single user/file server. FrontRange Solutions offers volume discounts.

Remarks: Heat 6.0 is a well-designed, relatively simple help-desk application. Perfect for workgroup and departmental uses, it falls a little short of the scalability offered by other products.

REPORT CARD

Remedy

Score: B-

Remedy Corp.

(650) 903 5200

www.remedy.com

Price and availability:Remedy Help Desk costs $12,000 for a server and three seats, and $5,000 for a five-seat license.

Remarks:Remedy is the most sophisticated application in the group. The power comes at a price, however, in that the product has a steeper learning curve than the others we tested.

REPORT CARD

ServiceCenter 3

Score: B+

Peregrine Systems Inc. (800) 638-5231 www.peregrine.com

Price and availability: ServiceCenter costs $15,000 for 10 users.

Remarks:ServiceCenter provides a good mix of sophistication and ease of use,

offering the best of the other products without carrying many of the weaknesses.

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