HelpStar 8.1 Makes for Smooth Support

Help Desk Technology makes helpdesk support painless for both support staff and end users.

June 7, 2004

7 Min Read
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It took an hour to install and configure HelpStar after downloading MSDE from the Microsoft Web site to a fresh Windows 2000 server. I manually created support-rep accounts for 10 users and imported more than 100 end-user records from a CSV file in my Outlook Express address book. The only time I had to consult the documentation was to format my user text file for import.

Importing Users

HelpStar excels at importing flat-file text data, which lets you create advanced import formulas to deal with multiline records in addition to conventional columnar data. However, HelpStar doesn't offer XML support. Moreover, it's unable to schedule customer data imports, so integrating it into an existing CRM (customer relationship management) application must be done at the database level. Since HelpStar doesn't include database-level import tools or table-design documentation, you're on your own if you want to build scheduled customer-data import routines.

Still, I was able to schedule automatic creation of new internal users through HelpStar's Active Directory import tool. AD imports can be scheduled daily or weekly. You can further customize daily schedules to repeat at intervals throughout the day or between certain hours. Although the software lets you schedule imports only from a single domain, I found it easy to refine the criteria so members of specific AD groups were imported.

I had difficulty mapping fields from AD to my HelpStar user profiles. After extensive troubleshooting, I created an administrative user in AD and another in HelpStar, each with the same name and password. I then logged in to HelpStar and selected the "use logged-in user's credentials" for the AD import. Trying to specify another user name and password as AD credentials failed to work as expected.I was disappointed that HelpStar provides no method for new users to sign up for a helpdesk account. Since HelpStar doesn't support anonymous users, there's no way for new customers to submit requests through the Web, though anonymous users can search for articles in the public database.

Support Issues

AD integration issues aside, setting up a tiered support system by assigning support reps to rated queues couldn't have been easier. First, I created several support queues based on the skill sets and skill levels of a typical helpdesk. Next, I assigned each of my support reps to one or more queues and created a couple of queue-management users with dispatch privileges.

By default, all new requests end up in the dispatch queue waiting for a dispatcher to review them, select the correct predefined problem type and then assign the requests to a support queue. Users with both the dispatch privilege and the pass-direct privilege can put the request directly "in service" for a specific support rep, bypassing all the queues if the rep hasn't already reached his or her maximum number of open requests.

Unfortunately, end users can't assign a problem type to a request, and there's no way to create automated queue-assignment rules. So in an environment with several busy queues and multiple levels of support reps, dispatching can be a full-time job.Support reps are presented with a straightforward and intuitive dashboard when they log in to the application. Large Outlook-inspired navigation icons and tabs are aligned vertically on the left, and the main work area displays information for all requests relevant to the specific user. The ever-present status bar along the bottom lets reps know how many requests are alarming, overdue, in service or in dispatch, and how many are in any of the queues to which the user is assigned.

Setting up escalation schedules for requests is greatly simplified using HelpStar's graphical escalation table. I was able to create custom escalation schedules for each queue and for each support rep's in-service requests. I also created separate schedules based on whether the requests were active, scheduled or suspended. The only caveat with request escalations is that they can merely change the priority of a request--they can't move the request back into the dispatch queue if it's ignored or open for too long. So if a request is in service with a support rep, no one but the assigned rep will ever be notified that an escalation has occurred because the request has been unresolved for an extended period.

Good

• Easy to set up and configure• Short learning curve for helpdesk staffers• Excellent value

Bad

• No scheduling of reports or data imports/exports• Lacks new-user signup features• Can't link multiple trouble tickets

HELPSTAR 8.1, starts at $2,495. Available: June 14. Help Desk Technology International Corp., (800) 563-4357, (905) 823-9655. www.helpstar.com

HelpStar's time-sheet features tie in nicely with its reporting system, letting managers review time sheets and generate billing reports based on support-rep work. I could assign each support rep three hourly rates for billing, which were applied by the rep during an event, and I created billable reports for each customer and for each of my internal departments.

HelpStar comes with an abundance of predesigned reports, graphs and database queries, and the free customized Crystal Reports designer application lets you create any report you can imagine and designate it as private or public. But HelpStar provides no mechanism for automated scheduling or distribution of reports, so if you want to keep an eye on the performance of your helpdesk, you'll need to log in and run reports manually.

GUI

HelpStar 8.1 features two Web interfaces: .Net and legacy. The .Net interface is a faithful reproduction of the Windows client in both appearance and functionality-- perfect for an intranet or extranet. Regrettably, it's available only to end users. Support reps are stuck with the legacy interface, which is based on a set of IIS-executable CGIs. I found this older interface inferior to the Windows client, and painful to deal with if used more than intermittently.

Although HelpStar lacks development utilities and cannot automatically create requests based on alerts from third-party applications found in enterprise products, such as Remedy ARS, HelpStar should prove competitive in the small and midsize business market. When you consider its varied feature set, uncomplicated interface and short learning curve, it's no wonder that Introduction to Help Desk Concepts and Skills (McGraw-Hill Technology Education, 2003) chose to include HelpStar. Overall, HelpStar provides a solid feature set and an excellent value.Daniel Koffler is a freelance writer and IT consultant, and the author of several open-source projects. Write to him at [email protected].

HelpStar's asset-tracking features add depth and planning capabilities to its reporting module. I was able to define standard helpdesk products, such as software packages, printers and monitors. Each product could be associated with one manufacturer and multiple vendors, and I could keep track of different pricing from each vendor. I was then able to assign assets to individual end users or departments.

Asset administrators can create and track purchase orders through approval, receipt and assignment of new assets. However, while many reports exist to track the usage and support requests related to your assets, advanced asset-tracking features like depreciation are missing. Also lacking is the ability to import or export asset data in any form.

Tracking Log Time

Included with HelpStar 8.1 is a Windows workstation auditing tool that can be set to run in the login scripts of your domain users. Every time a user logs in to a workstation, the utility takes a snapshot of system information and uploads it to the HelpStar database. New workstations are added automatically as they are encountered, and detailed information on the system's hardware, device drivers, network configuration, memory and disk usage is recorded.The audit utility is also supposed to be able to provide a detailed list of installed software or, if you choose, specific executables. But in my tests on several Win2K and WinXP systems, it rarely found the executables I told it to look for, even when I specified a full path to the executable. Setting it to find *.exe returned a lot of useless info.

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