Software for running helpdesks is becoming more accessible by any type of user and can be installed on laptops and mobile devices to help remote workers
It used to be called the helpdesk; now it is IT service management, or ITSM. Well, refuse collectors used to be called binmen, but the lorry and the uniform still look pretty similar. And so it is with ITSM. Or it has been.
In what was an area of networking software largely stuck in the mainframe era, hints of a change first appeared last year, with two traditional UK software houses - Richmond Systems and Sunrise - introducing ITSM products with at least a hint of internet awareness about them and an admission that not every helpdesk staff member is a computer guru.
Richmond Systems' Supportdesk offers a choice between a Windows-based or browser interface. In either format, it is a comprehensive helpdesk product that gets out of techie mode and into something meaningful for any level of user.
You can create any number of users with different levels of capability, using its "skills matrix". After that, calls are colour coded (green and red) against the user to show whether or not they are qualified to take a particular call. E-mails and SMS messages can be used to notify a fault. Problem resolution can also be set against a service level agreement target.
With these features, you can define precisely how a problem is escalated. On opening requests - creating a "trouble ticket" - to resolve a problem, a number of other variable parameters can be set, such as category, status and priority, as well as who logged the call, so everything is traceable - vital for problem resolution.
Supportdesk integrates with other Richmond products, notably the Deltalert change management module, with which it has a direct link, so you can see at any point whether or not a network device in the Supportdesk database is alive, courtesy of a colour-coded status alert. Switching to Deltalert can then provide you with more details about the problem.
A step in the right direction, then. But it was Sunrise's Sostenuto ITSM that really announced the arrival of a new breed of helpdesk product: a pure, browser-based application. Revised in v2.0, Sunrise has made the product web services-based, so elements such as integrated e-mail have now fully embraced the internet. This, in turn, creates a far more flexible range of deployment options, as well as a single interface for all users and no overhead on the users' PCs.
Until now, helpdesk systems tended to be rigid in format, so the business had to apply itself to the software rather than the other way round. With Sostenuto, companies can configure the software to fit their business, such as controlling screen navigation via the workflows within the company, creating rules that react to real events and programmed schedules and lifecycles that model the services within an organisation.
An integrated business rules engine enables Sostenuto to react to events and programme schedules so field updates, operations and notifications can be performed automatically.
This flexibility means users can go beyond traditional helpdesk routines and integrate their ITSM firmly within their businesses.
One Sostenuto user, Aftab Hussain of the Schools ICT Unit (Sict) for Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council, which supplies IT support to all 130 local schools, highlighted how the product goes beyond the standard remit of helpdesk systems. Sict has been able to create modules that manage non-ITSM functions including contracts, quotations, ordering and purchasing.
"We want to make it easy for the schools, the local education authority or our own support staff to get their hands on the right information quickly and in any location," he says.
Using its Chameleon interface, Sostenuto is PDA/Pocket PC-friendly, so Sict now has mobile support staff logging on and updating incidents while on the move or from home.
The centralised, multi-function approach to IT services pioneered by Sict has already caught the eye of others. The technical teams based at each school are looking closely at Sostenuto's impact, as are Rochdale and Lancashire education authorities, keen to replicate the cost savings and efficiency improvements already realised in Bolton.
This revolution in helpdesk technology can perform as an enabler, allowing users to work from home and call on support as if they were in the office. Better still, some self-help is available as a first line of support.
Noel Bruton is an independent consultant who advises companies about improving their helpdesk and IT user support services. He says the time taken to resolve a call is from about four minutes for 60% of all incoming requests for help, but can increase to an average of 37 minutes of actual effort if there is no immediate resolution.
That time may be spread across days of an open helpdesk call, so a single call could cost a company £20. Multiply that by several thousand users and the costs look alarming.
With this in mind, UK start-up NewNetTechnology.co.uk has introduced Remote Angel, an automated helpdesk assistant aimed at eliminating many of those calls and their costs.
Remote Angel checks the PC's configuration and monitors any changes that might affect the system performance. This extends to networked peripherals such as an ADSL router, so if a user experiences problems establishing or maintaining contact with the internet, Remote Angel can identify the problem and inform them in plain English, via a pop-up window bearing simple, non-technical advice. Beneath the surface, detailed management information is being collected in case the helpdesk has to get involved, but this would be a last resort.
Phil Snell, chief technical officer of NewNetTechnology.co.uk, says: "The problem to date has been too many phone calls from home workers into the helpdesk whenever the slightest problem arises. So we have designed Remote Angel to provide on-site, first-level support, in a fully automated form, on the user's PC or laptop."
Any tools that realistically enable homeworking will be hailed as good news by people seeking to improve their work-life balance, and employers that take a responsible attitude to managing their remote workers' IT. Putting ITSM onto a mobile platform means the traditional fixed helpdesk may become a thing of the past, along with the fixed costs attached to running it. The technology is now in place. It just requires a leap of faith by the user community, which could be the hard part.
Steve Broadhead runs Broadband-Testing Labs, a spin-off from independent test organisation the NSS Group.
Author of DSL and Metro Ethernet reports, Broadhead is now involved in several projects in the broadband, mobile, network management and wireless Lan areas, from product testing to service design and implementation.