Adding business smarts to service desk savvy

When John Bandy decided to replace Foremost Farms' homegrown, document-based help desk software with new, more automated features in Hewlett-Packard 's (HP) OpenView Service Desk software, he got a pleasant surprise: a US$60,000 savings in network uptime.

For Bandy, the IS technical manager for the dairy cooperative in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the new software would reduce the four days it usually took to resolve one trouble ticket to a little more than a day and a half. Also, and possibly more important to corporate management, the service desk helped Bandy avoid network outages, which would have cost the company between $50,000 and $60,000. He estimates that an hour of downtime costs Foremost Farms $1,200, and with no outages in the first year of using the software, he proved to management the software investment paid for itself.

"We can now prove that we have fewer errors and show the importance of implementing good processes to business managers and prove our worth as a department," Bandy says. "We wanted to re-engineer our processes and add more accountability, follow-up and business processes into our service desk."

Larger trend

Bandy's moves are part of a larger trend toward automating mundane network management tasks such as trouble ticketing. A slew of vendors, including Computer Associates International , HP, Peregrine Systems and Remedy (now owned by BMC Software Inc.), is powering the typical trouble-ticketing tools with more automation, business process mapping and integrated management features.

Service desk software, which streamlines the process of tracking service problems and following them through to resolution, isn't just about kicking off trouble tickets and logging calls to the help desk anymore.

"People aren't really talking about tracking tickets. Instead they want to use [service desk software] to operate IT better as an organization," says Jasmine Noel, principal analyst at JNoel Associates. "Putting that grease in the gears between IT departments and business units can result in big operational efficiencies, which turn into big cost savings."

An average help desk could receive a mix of automatically generated trouble tickets (which are triggered by a network or application failure), manually documented problems input by IT staff and a variety of end-user support calls ranging from complaints about a slow application to logon and password resets. But today's help desk offerings try to go further to speed problem resolution and response to end-user calls.

Automation features in the software can detect potential problems earlier, before users are affected. Self-service management portals provide end users with a simple answer to their more basic help desk questions. Consolidating tools such as systems and asset management software with service desk products also can give network managers a more complete view of the network they serve. And new integration capabilities and documentation features make it easier for network managers to incorporate business processes into the IT strategy.

Service desk software can be more about processes than product. Bandy signed on with HP because the company committed to following the Information Technology Infrastructure Library's standards, a set of best practices for operating and implementing IT in companies. With good processes in place, software tools can automate tasks and improve operational efficiencies. But without the processes, the software won't give results, Bandy says.

Vendor offerings vary, but corporations use the help desk software to define who owns which problems across business units, and then an administrator is responsible to log the actions taken to resolve problems.

Following a distributed model, centralised server software houses the rules and policies established and communicates with managed devices via network protocols or collects data from software agents installed across the network. Products can track assets, changes and frequency or patterns of recurring problems to help IT staff fix the infrastructure and avoid future failures that could cause network downtime.

Remedy has addressed such a need with its recent release of IT Service Management Version 5.5, which includes more features in its Asset Management, Service Level Agreement, Help Desk and Change Management products. Plus, Remedy is adding workflow among these applications. The company can take advantage of service modeling technology acquired by parent BMC, which purchased IT Masters earlier this year and incorporated its MasterCell modeling technology across product lines.

"We can provide one field now that says, 'This is the business service being affected,'" says Rick Fitz, director of product marketing and management for IT service management at Remedy. "That visibility helps to eliminate some of the noise when poring through alerts and tickets."

Help for the help desk

The help desk team at Schaller Anderson , a national healthcare management and consulting company in Phoenix, put Remedy service management software into production in April. Terry Newman, director of IT, says the approximately 1,300 users would generate about 60 trouble tickets per day. On average, it took the help desk about eight hours to resolve problems, and Newman reports his staff cut that time in half on about 70 % of the tickets. He credits understanding Schaller Anderson's business units and ultimately the company's end users for the software implementation's speedy results.

"We met with managers of critical areas because it's our job to understand enough about the business needs to prioritize them in the software," Newman says. "Every problem is the most important problem to end users."

Ken Hooky, director of IT for the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, didn't have much of a choice when his organisation first started working with Peregrine and its service desk offerings. The bank, formerly a customer of IBM Tivoli, migrated to Peregrine when Tivoli sold its Service Desk suite to Peregrine. But he says the software now helps his team manage about 2,000 problem tickets and 1,500 call tickets per day. The secret, Hooky says, is to track processes.

"We deal with every business unit differently, and we don't necessarily track the entire infrastructure," Hooky says. "They define their processes to us, and we map them into the software."

While he'd like to see Peregrine make the product more user-friendly with a better front-end user interface, Hooky says the basics are there.

"The key is to provide flexibility in the software because service at different companies will vary," Hooky says.

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