What's Up at the Help Desk

Best practices and a big new player are shaping the market

Executive Summary:
Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) best practices are influencing the market for Help desk software solutions. Help desk software is increasingly service oriented with self-service options and knowledge management features. Microsoft is entering the Help desk software market with System Center Service Manager.

For better or for worse, how users view the Help desk is how they view your IT department: It's the first point of contact for end users and customers interacting with IT. Maybe your organization realizes this and is making the Help desk more service oriented. Or maybe your organization is still at the stage of "let's give the tech's cell phones and a spreadsheet and call it good." Or, as one Help desk software solution manager put it, maybe you're still at "the sticky note stage." Whatever stage your organization is at, you might be affected by what's happening in the Help desk solution industry, especially with Microsoft entering the market. Forces such as the move to standardize best practices are influencing not only what Microsoft has planned but also what many other Help desk software vendors are offering.

With the help of industry insiders working at various Help desk solution companies, I was able to take the pulse of the Help desk industry today, glimpse the growing movement toward incorporating best practices in service desk management, and scout possible future changes. I also got a sense of what it means for Microsoft to be entering the picture. You might also be interested in some advice I heard about how to approach purchasing Help desk software and what features your fellow IT pros are asking for.

This Isn't Your Father's Help Desk
Help desks began as a group of the most knowledgeable people in the IT department working phones and taking user questions. The goal was to close out a ticket as fast as possible, and the work was largely reactive. Now Help desks have scattered worldwide, gone offshore, and moved to the Web. Operating within tight budgets and stringent staffing levels, Help desks still manage to deal with a huge number of user problems. According to a study released by SupportSoft, a provider of automated solutions to technology problems, the top five user issues are forgotten passwords (now that's a surprise!), and problems with systems, enterprise software, connectivity, and email. Additional issues include user complaints about slow computers, printer problems, and the problems raised when businesses deploy new software, such as Windows Vista.

So what's an organization to do? Most turn to a software provider for a solution. As Ryan Terrell of GWI Software put it, Help desk software "is not a fun thing to buy. It's not one of those neat new technologies. "Numara Software's David Weiss added, "It's not an impulse buy—usually it's a result of someone concluding ‘I've dealt with the chaos long enough—I need a way to deal with problems.'" Help desk software providers have found ways to free Help desk personnel from the endless round of reactive work answering calls and resolving tickets, to approach Help desk issues more proactively. This move toward proactive resolution has in part been prompted by a set of standardized best practices formulated in the UK, known as Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

Why Should I Care About ITIL?
As long as your Help desk functions properly, you might not know or care about international standards for Help desk best practices, but these standards are influencing Help desk software features and the terminology that describes them. Set forth in multiple volumes, ITIL standards are affecting how organizations deal with Help desk problems, how they choose Help desk software, and what features software providers are offering.

ITIL is a framework of best practices, not a step-by-step how-to of Help desk methods. ITIL standardizes the terminology and best practices of services a "service desk" delivers to its end users or "customers" using these main categories:

  • Incident management—how you respond to and communicate with customers.
  • Problem management—how you find root causes of problems and create and document solutions.
  • Change management—how you decide which problems should be fixed, in what order, and by whom.
  • Configuration management—how you manage all the parts and relationships in your IT infrastructure.
  • Release management—how you roll out new software and hardware.

Kevin Auger of LANDesk said ITIL influenced LANDesk's Service Desk offering: "ITIL has defined some very good concepts that can improve a business from an efficiency and governance standpoint." LANDesk's strategy is to promote ITIL in a practical way, he said.

BMC Software's Gerry Roy said, "We've been hearing about ITIL for a long time, especially over in Europe. It's taken a while for awareness to grow in the States. It's not so much that a product is ITIL-verified or ITILcompliant—what's important is that a product will help you implement ITIL."

Numara's Weiss said, "Whether it's ingrained behavior or a written spec, the idea of ITIL is good. The spec is leading the process, but the behavior will change ultimately." He added that ITIL helps foster a service mindset.

One offshoot of this service mindset is the concept of self-service. ITIL emphasizes giving people the ability to help themselves. Most Help desk software solutions now offer a knowledge base to end users. Instead of waiting for a ticket to be resolved, users can search for known solutions to their problems and learn how to implement them.

"Incident volume is going up on a daily basis, but you can't increase staff. The solution is self-service and automation of processes. You create a catalog \[of tasks\] at the front end; a catalog curtails what users can do—we're conditioned to order what's on the menu. Then you automate the back end to do it. Customers definitely want both, because they can't increase their budget or their staff. We're trying to put as much at the end users' fingertips as possible," said BMC's Roy.

LANDesk's Auger said, "We license a knowledge base engine where customers can put their own content, and it aggregates problems and information, too. A good knowledge base expands and grows and lets customers have input."

"People know the core components, but they're not educated on every book of ITIL," said Terrell of GWI Software. "People are looking for the components they understand, such as incident management. For the midmarket, \[when you mention\] configuration management, you get a glossed-over gaze. And change management is often seen as a process for requesting change, as opposed to documenting and making changes."

Incident management is important to IssueTrak's customers, whether they're trying to be ITIL-compliant or just run an efficient Help desk, said Hank Luhring. "The better you can handle incident management, the better you can be proactive; it sets up a self-supporting cycle."

"We are trying to tune what we do to the sophistication of the market," said Numara's Weiss. He said that large, complex organizations will build an ITIL-compliant environment to the letter, discovering assets, then cataloging them, which can take several months. "Is a small business going to do that? No." In less complex environments, Change and Configuration Management (CCM) might not be as important, so those organizations might want a "lite" version of a configuration management database (CMDB).

No matter what they think of ITIL, most industry insiders would agree with Terrell of GWI Software: "Interest \[in ITIL\] comes in waves. But this last wave has been so sustained, I think it's here to stay. The features and idea of ITIL make sense."

Some Major Players in the Market
By now you might have guessed that many of the major players in the Help desk software market are companies whose managers, CEOs, and product gurus are mentioned above. Although there is a niche in the middle of the market where you'll find freeware and software put out by small companies, such products tend to focus mainly on tracking and issue discovery. For our purposes, we're looking at the market segment where you'll find more sophisticated solutions, such as Help desk software from BMC (BMC Remedy Service Management), FrontRange Solutions (HEAT), GWI Software (c.Support), IssueTrak (IT Help Desk), Kemma Software (BridgeTrak for Windows), LANDesk (Service Desk), Numara (Track-It! and FootPrints), Touchpaper (Touchpaper Customer ServiceDesk), and TOPdesk (TOPdesk Professional). These solutions tend to be Web-based and offer incident management and CCM as well as issue tracking, and they include self-service options for end users, usually with a knowledge base or knowledge management feature.

BMC's Remedy Service Management application helps organizations understand, model, respond to, and track IT system problems and business services failures. It includes BMC IT Service Support for the Midsized Business (formerly Magic) and BMC Discovery—along with other tools that work together to help businesses run ITIL-oriented service desks. Its solutions are aimed at organizations with "mature" service desk needs, be they enterprise organizations or smaller businesses.

GWI Software's c.Support lets organizations coordinate, manage, and track everyday support activities as well as complex workflows that involve several people or departments and interdependent tasks. GWI Software uses an all-inclusive pricing model (i.e., all features are included) and aims its solution at organizations wanting an out-of-the-box solution that's easy to use and quick to configure.

IssueTrak IT Help Desk helps organizations track, resolve, and report on the issues that affect a business, such as problems related to systems management, bugs, and facilities and operations management, and to manage projects and related problem resolution. IssueTrak's customers range from small, mom-and-pop businesses to enterprise-level businesses. The company also provides a hosting model of software as a service.

LANDesk Service Desk offers process-driven incident management, role-based privilege sets, automatic actions, assignment, service levels, and escalation. It targets midmarket organizations that want ease of use and configurability, as well as those looking for an effective way to introduce and use ITIL best practices.

Numara Track-It! is an integrated Help desk and asset management solution that's preconfigured for the most commonly used Help desk tasks. Numara FootPrints is a Web-based platform that's customizable and ITIL-compatible, offering advanced workflows and the capability to handle multiple projects. Numara targets customers who are looking for a cost-effective solution that's easy to use.

Many, many more solutions exist and wading through them takes patience and a good dose of analysis and self-evaluation. I'll discuss how to shop for Help desk software in a moment. But first, let's look at a solution that hasn't yet entered the market but is already generating interest: Microsoft System Center Service Manager (formerly code-named Service Desk).

Enter Microsoft, Stage Left
Microsoft is building Service Manager with a server at the heart of the solution to execute automated workflows that follow management processes based on the best practices set out by ITIL. Which workflows are available depends on which solution packs (i.e., groups of things such as Web parts and forms) are installed; solution packs can be standard ones that support ITIL best practices or specialized ones, possibly created by third-party vendors. To interact with the workflows, users access a Web-based portal. IT staff can access the portal or use a console. Service Manager also includes a CMDB that stores information about IT assets, and a data warehouse, which stores historical information about tasks performed, for reporting and analysis.

Many industry insiders I spoke with believe Microsoft's entry into the Help desk arena was inevitable. Numara's Weiss believes Microsoft is entering the field because the company has a line of infrastructure products and there's a hole in that line where a Help desk product would be—so Microsoft is simply plugging the hole. He said there's still a lot of room for players such as Numara. "Customers will still buy our products when they have Microsoft tools." Most others felt the same way, saying that their company has an advantage over Microsoft in this market, whether from the experience of specializing in Help desk solutions or the nimbleness that comes from a willingness to listen to customers' requests in developing new features. Still, as one vendor said, "People will buy Microsoft because it's Microsoft, and people won't buy Microsoft because it's Microsoft." Many companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude but for now are curious about what pricing and delivery system Microsoft will use. Several found it significant that Microsoft is promoting ITIL's best practices; whether or not you care about ITIL, you'll be using ITIL best practices when you use Service Manager.

Looking for Help Desk Software
So what do you do if you're not in one of those organizations that's polarized for or against using Microsoft products? Well, you have a wealth of choices. As GWI Software's Terrell put it, "We all have similar features, but we all meet goals in different ways." Luhring of IssueTrak concurs: "There is no clear leader." What, then, is one to do? "Spend time uncovering what your needs are—then go out into the marketplace," Luhring said. Almost all of the insiders I spoke with agreed that some self-evaluation and analysis is necessary and that rushing out to buy a solution is a mistake. Their advice can be distilled into three tips:

  1. Start with a list of things you like about your current process.
  2. Identify three or four pain points or things you'd like to change.
  3. When you select a vendor, try the real product and test out the tech support.

Roy of BMC suggested you find a solution "that adheres to standard processes, that has a modular approach." It should be easy to use: "I shouldn't have to figure out the application itself. The tool should be seamless." LANDesk's Auger added, "Look for a solution that's intuitive, pragmatic, and that would introduce ITIL in a way that's not overbearing but simple." Luhring of IssueTrak said, "Call avoidance is important—doing what you can to avoid a call to your Help desk people. The end users can check on the issue themselves." He also stressed the importance of customer service: "We find we win business based on our people—the relationships we form and customer support. No one buys our product without a demo and extensive conversations with our engineers." Terrell of GWI Software advised watching out for hidden costs and add-ons and instead looking for "easy licensing, no surprises." And Numara's Weiss advocates finding a solution that's cost-effective and easy to use.

And what are customers telling Help desk software providers they want to see in a solution? Some of the same features you want in any solution, plus some features specific to Help desk software:

  • self-service
  • incidents automatically aggregated to a problem
  • integration of products
  • flexibility
  • ease of use
  • easy configuration
  • reports for decision makers
  • email support and alerting functions

The Future of Help Desk Software
As end users grow increasingly sophisticated and computer savvy, Weiss of Numara sees the continuing importance of offering self-service "to allow IT people to focus on the things that aren't known." BMC's Roy noted the trend of Help desks being increasingly scattered around the globe and predicts the rise of the virtual service desk in the future. Auger of LANDesk said processes will have to be improved to make life easier and simpler for customers: "The role of process and the role of a process management engine will be embedded in every application to help drive efficiency." Terrell of GWI Software sees an increasing need for automation of processes. He also sees opportunities for integration—for example, Help desk software that integrates with asset management packages and with Active Directory. Will Help desks integrate and virtualize and automate themselves out of existence? No, said Weiss. "As long as there's innovation, there are going to be problems," he said. "There'll always be a need for some form of Help desk."

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