Running an effective Service Desk – Part 1

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This post is 2 years old—a long time on the internet. Any content within is provided as-is and is not guaranteed to work on modern systems - your mileage may vary.

helpdesk_servicedeskWelcome to a multi-part series on running an effective Service Desk. This guide will help you build and maintain an effective (and efficient!) service desk for your organization. No matter if you have 5 employees or 50,000, this guide will lay out the framework to allow you to expand and grow as needed as well as make sure your users are getting the best service around. This guide has large-enterprise in mind, but if you are a small organization don’t fret! The same concepts apply.

A little background

Service Desks (formerly “Help Desks” if you wish to evolve the lingo), are a critical part of any organization. They’ve evolved over the years (which is why you see more “service” and less “help” terms) and now many departments share the same platforms as we move more into a service-oriented world. Everyone from facilities to HR to IT are using service desks with the latter being the most prominent. Does your organization have a service desk? If not, you need one. I have seen organizations become much more successful when they have one. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase of “having the right tools for the job”. You wouldn’t plant a tree with a toothbrush, so why would you run a service desk without a proper service desk tool? The tool can be in-house (through this is strongly discouraged and you’ll see why – unless you have the dev team to keep it running) or a third party. In this series, we will look at several different tools to get you started.

This guide has several parts and each one should be read carefully. I’ve seen service desk fail simply because they didn’t follow proper organization. This guide will help you get there.

Selecting Your Platform

There are literally thousands of service desk and help desk platforms out there. Just Google it and you’ll see what I mean. So how do you know what to select? Well, let’s run through a little checklist:

  • SaaS (Cloud) – Their servers; On-premise (self-hosted) – on your servers
  • Windows or *NIX based – Is your environment mostly Windows or Linux? Maybe you want Windows if you have Active Directory (Linux is capable as well) or you don’t have anyone on your team with Linux experience.
  • MSSQL, MySQL, NoSQL, etc – What kind of database environment do you have? Or are you comfortable running?
  • Open Source or Proprietary – This can factor into the cost but keep in mind there are plenty of proprietary systems that are free for use. Just keep in mind, some may have limits. We will discuss a few of these.
  • Where is your organization going in 1, 5, and 10 years? This is important because some systems can slow down or handle only so many users. If you think you’re going to be rapidly expanding, you don’t want a platform that’s going to get you stuck. You’ll find yourself in a mess.

So this is just a few items that will get you started when you’re looking for software to help you get started. So the one we are going to be looking at for the most part is ManageEngine Service Desk Plus (MESDP, SDP). This is the one that I’ve been using a while and while it does have some quirks, it’s one of my favourites and one of the easiest to use. It’s very cost effective and it’s one I recommend to those in the market.

SaaS or On-Premise

One of the major markets out there these days is the “as a Service” market otherwise known as “The Cloud”. It’s important to recognize that “The Cloud” isn’t some magical place of unlimited processing power and storage – it’s some one else’s server (or servers) and they’re just leasing it to you. Many executives fail to realize this and eventually wonder why things sometimes fall apart with “The Cloud”.

With SaaS, you may get software and licensing cheaper, but keep in mind you’ll have additional hurdles to jump through. Do you require any compliance? For example, if you’re a healthcare provider, you need to use a HIPAA-compliant provider. If they’re not, you can get into a lot of trouble. Some financial organizations may have to be SOX-compliant and likewise need to find a provider that can meet these requirements. And, in the end, you need to realized that your service desk will be outside your organization. That means if the provider is having issues, the service desk may be unavailable or if your office connection goes down, the service desk will also be unavailable. But one of the great things about going the SaaS route is that you don’t have to worry about any upgrades or server security. It’s all done by the provider and as I mentioned earlier, you generally get cheaper licensing.  The downside is that 99% of the time, SaaS options will have a price tag – either for the hosting or per technician – and it’s either billed monthly, annually, or the option of one or the other. You may have other limitations too like available file storage space (with upgrades available for additional cost) or other features being enabled.

On-premise is a whole different story. One of the downsides to on-prem is that you do need to supply your own server to host the platform on including any licensing (important if you’re using a Windows-based platform). This also includes having to manage the database and performing software upgrades and security audits on your own. It’s not a daunting task, but it can be if you don’t have the proper knowledge. Licensing can be a lot more expensive, but one of the advantages is that it’s a one-time cost (usually) instead of a recurring monthly cost. Some organizations may like this as they’ll always know what they pay. For example, if you have 5 technicians and each technician license is $200 one-time, you know that you’re going to pay $1000. If a technician leaves your organization and you have 4 techs, you still have that extra license you bought so if a tech joins a couple months later, you don’t have to pay again for that tech. Also with on-prem, you get the advantage of as much disk space as you can throw at the solution. Images can quickly consume disk space in high-volume service desks, and sometimes users may attach files or other larger items to their requests which will also consume space.

On-premise also requires your own uplink to the internet if you don’t wish to make your portal intranet-only. It’s highly suggested that you make your portal Internet facing so users can check and submit requests from anywhere – especially if they’re travelling sales for example. If John’s VPN cuts out and he’s in France and he can’t connect to the service desk in the US, he will have some issues. This requires opening ports in server and boundary firewalls and ensuring that user accounts remain secure.

As you can see, there are plenty of pros and cons to each scenario. I personally prefer on-premise for larger organizations as you have control over the environment. If your organization is less than 100 employees and 1 or 2 technicians, a SaaS solution will work just fine.

If you’re re-evaluating your existing service desk, you might also look into if you want to move to SaaS or if you’re on SaaS to on-premise.

Windows or Linux or Other

I’ll preface this section saying that many solutions are cross-platform. This means that they run on Windows and they can also run on Linux just fine (or vice versa). However, you may come across some that are strictly for one platform. For example, an ASP.NET solution will not work on Linux unless it says that it is capable of running under Mono. However, many Linux versions of service desk platforms are capable of running on Windows. JSP (Java) runs on Apache TomCat server which has a Windows and Linux ports available, PHP is capable of being installed on IIS, etc. However, be careful because some software may be developed under Linux and is designed for Linux file systems and will not work under Windows/IIS. I’ve seen PHP software prefer Linux and had nothing but errors trying to get it run under IIS despite running the same MySQL and PHP versions.

If you’re a Windows environment, you may wish to stick with a Windows-based platform because it’s something that you’re already used to and many features may already be integrated like Single Sign On (SSO) with Active Directory. Keep in mind, though, Linux platforms are also capable of SSO with Active Directory but some Linux systems can be tricky without prior knowledge. If you are a Linux environment, you may wish to not have a Windows server for your service desk as you may not be used to Windows administration.

Select the right database

So this section may not even be needed or it may even cause you to re-select your original option. Do you need MSSQL, MySQL, NoSQL or one of the other many different databases? Many software will allow you to use your own database so if you have a dedicated database server, you may need to find one that allows you to use it. Some may bundle a database server with it. Keep your organization’s needs and wants in check. Sometimes it might be best to even keep the support database away from other production databases.

Open Source vs Proprietary

Just because something is closed-source/proprietary does not mean that it’s expensive or even has a price. For example, ManageEngine Service Desk Plus and the MSP version Standard Editions are free to use for any number of techs. The only limitations are some additional premium features are unavailable and you’d need to upgrade your free license to a paid license. However most organizations that don’t need additional features (or have these additional features through other platforms) will be able to get away with them just fine. On the same side, open source software solutions can be limited and not include some features that you may need or want. Open source solutions are great if you have some developer experience (or you are one) so you can fix bugs or even customize the platform on your own.  I’ve used an open source platform called OSTicket that is written in PHP. Since I know enough PHP to get by, I’ve been able to make modifications to the package to get it to fit perfectly in our environment. It all boils down to what you’re comfortable with.

Knowing where you’re going

Out of every thing, this is one of the most important. You don’t want to lock yourself into a solution if you’re going to outgrow it in a year. Some solutions can be very flexible supporting 10 users to 1 million users, others may cap out at 100. Also, you don’t want to get a solution designed for 10,000 employees when you only have 100. And then there are the solutions that are extremely flexible – they let you go from 10 users to 10,000 without any hassles. You’ll want to shop around and find a solution that meets your current needs and will match your needs in a few years. Believe me, nothing is more painful than trying to move a service desk. You lose a lot of information if it can’t transfer.

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