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Ever since the introduction of the first personal computers into the workplace there has been an ongoing dichotomy between the end-user's technology skill set and the need for dedicated professionals to assist them with the use of that technology. Whether it was how to define tab stops in a Word v2 document or connect their Windows Phone to Exchange, there has always been, and will always be, a need for knowledgeable people to solve problems presented by end-users.

 

In a recent TechRepublic CIO Insights article, Nick Heath challenges those who think the I.T. Help Desk is a thing of the past. I'm in absolute agreement with Nick.

 

Many of the requests made by end-users are quite mundane, and sometimes inane, such as the classic plant-on-the-monitor problem. Maybe even some of them can be made available via self-help (e.g. password resets), but it still begs the question of whether they should be available via self-help. Convenience is but one aspect of the question; security must also be kept in mind. However, none of those scenarios are the real reason for having a Help Desk. The Help Desk provides dedicated, trained resources, for solving that occasional problem that arises that actually keeps people, sometimes many people, from doing real work that results in revenue for the business.

 

Anybody who has studied business management has learned about the idea of "core competency". Businesses do what they are good at, and they find others to help with what they are not. But this principle doesn't just apply to the external face of the business, it also applies internally. The "core competency" of the I.T. Help Desk is to quickly and efficiently respond to the needs of an end-user with a technology-related issue, so that those end-users can continue doing what they do best, rather than losing a half-day of work trying to get email working on their new smartphone.

 

The I.T. Help Desk does need to evolve, however, and ensure their skill sets and operational practices embrace those that involve the extended range of new devices. Implementing help desk software that supports access from mobile interfaces to get work-requests, and being able to administer the network via mobile devices when possible, can have a significant impact on improving the impact of BYOD on the organization.

When I started my IT career as the lone technical support person in a governmental agency of 200+ people my toolset consisted of the telephone, my feet, and my eyes. The phone would ring, my feet would walk me to the caller's desk, and I would observe over their shoulder the particular issue they were having. Not optimal, but practical given that only a few dozen of those 200+ people actually had PCs (the rest had Unix terminals), and the building was only a few thousand square feet.

 

Today the challenges with user support are radically different.

Users don't just work from the office on a desktop computer. Not only are the workers remote and/or mobile, but so are the support technicians.  Now they can be anywhere - at home, in a hotel, in the local coffee shop, or even at the beach.  (We'll leave the implications of sand, salt water, and notebook computers for another day.)

 

The remote workforce is a rapidly growing share of the total workforce.

A 2011 report from Forrester reported that almost two-thirds of information workers in North America and Europe work remotely. Working remotely is advantageous to organizations for many reasons, including positive impacts to the environment and significant reductions in cost related to real estate and office equipment. In a word, the remote/mobile workforce is here to stay; supporting these remote/mobile workers to the same level they’ve been accustomed to when in the office is the new challenge.

 

Walking down the hallway and looking over a user’s shoulder isn’t practical if they’re across the country in a hotel or at home at sunrise working on a project due at 8am.  In addition the ratio of end-users to support technicians has significantly increased, from the few dozen that I supported way-back-when, to several dozen per technician today. The only effective way to provide the necessary level of support at these ratios is through the use of remote connectivity. Remote desktop sharing software that connects the support technician's environment to the end-user's environment is required to make on-demand connections and resolve issues as they are encountered.

 

A necessary solution.

Desktop sharing software is a critical component of any strategy for managing remote and mobile users. Some key features to consider when evaluating a desktop sharing solution is:

  • initiating connections to attended or unattended machines
  • initiating connections to attended machines only with active consent of logged-on user
  • initiating connections to powered-down machines
  • sharing of keyboard/mouse so both end-user and support technician can see/control activity
  • support multi-platform connectivity (Windows, Mac, Linux)
  • support multi-factor authentication
  • screen capture utilities
  • real-time chat tools

 

Sometimes, of course, it’s only necessary to be able to view/change configurations, manage services, get status information, or manipulate files – this is where remote administration tools provide a more effective solution. It doesn’t impact the user currently working on the system, and eliminates the overhead of replicating the desktop environment across the network, particularly if the connection is not on a high-speed LAN.

This is the first in a series of interviews with SolarWinds MVPs and MSPs and partners who use SolarWinds technology.


Yesterday I had a very interesting phone chat with one of our MSP customers, Byron Anderson of EasyStreet.  EasyStreet uses a variety of SolarWinds products from Network Performance Monitor, Engineers Toolset, NCM & IPAM to Server & Application Monitor and now Log & Event Manager.


EasyStreet has three primary service areas where SolarWinds tools are leveraged:


Co-Location Service where customers can place their servers and EasyStreet provides facilities services like cooling and power.
Cloud Services to include a multi-tenant private cloud and assistance/consultation for customers who are moving to a private cloud.
Integrated Services includes integrated monitoring services across public and private cloud environments.  Connectivity between remote offices is also provided with this service.


JK: What kinds of customers are using your cloud services?
BA: We have seen all sorts of industries moving to the cloud.  We have seen a lot of healthcare customers with HIPPA compliance requirements recently.  We had to build those in a very unique way.


JK: What kind of monitoring do you provide with your cloud services?
BA: With our private cloud hosting services, if we manage a system for a customer, we monitor the server performance and provide customers the same level of visibility we see so they understand how those systems are performing.


Since our services are so personalized to each customer, we sometimes provide unique monitoring for customers who need that level of service – like for custom applications.


As part of our cloud readiness service - for customers moving from a physical environment to a virtual environment – we attach our monitoring system to their physical environment for a month to look at performance trends, like where their high I/O is, so we can determine how to best configure those applications in a virtual environment.  We can really personalize the migration, specific to the customer’s unique application.  This is better than building something generic, and hope that it works.


We have had customers move from physical environments to virtual environments and have seen some performance issues.  Because the monitoring tools (SAM and NPM) are so comprehensive, we can understand performance trends over time, and tune the application, and the virtual environment to improve the performance.  If we don’t have the expertise in a particular application, we bring in a performance expert – like a database expert or a VMware expert.


JK: How does the SolarWinds tool set help you customize visibility for each customer?
BA: We can provide a single pane of glass for our customers whether it is just for the servers we are managing, or for their remote offices, private cloud, public cloud – we can connect anything into the SolarWinds monitoring tool.  What this provides is a level of personalized visibility, across the customer’s environment, regardless of location and who is managing it.  Giving customers the facts – they get the up-close to understanding of the level of service you are providing and how their infrastructure is performing.


For example, I have been working with a client on a series of dashboards, like a mini-NOC, using all the data we collect anyway, just presenting the data in a view that they want.  We can work with our customers in that sort of way to build that personalization.


JK: How long does it take to customize these dashboards and reports for your customers?
BA: It depends on the complexity of the customer.  Generally just a couple of hours worth of work.  To add even more customization for our clients, we are rolling out a premium service with a specific instance of SolarWinds Orion.


JK: What are the most used reports that you provide to your customers?
BA: Uptime is always of big interest, basic utilization (cpu, memory, disk, interface utilization because of bandwidth) and then application performance.  We have many customers who have custom applications that they have created.  Like the customer I mentioned previously, they had custom applications and wanted to see all the applications, and the databases supporting these applications – to get a quick view of how the service is performing as a whole.


JK: Do you provide Facilities Monitoring for your co-location service?
BA: Our new data center is newer and more cutting edge when it comes to energy efficiency.  One of the things we have done is use the scripting capabilities in Server & Application Monitor to obtain data for monitoring our datacenter.  We have connected Orion to our building environmental systems.  We can pull temperature, on a per cabinet level to see if the exhaust temperature is exceeding thresholds.  We can monitor humidity for alerting so our enterprise operations center can see if there is an issue.  And now we can see power consumption – especially important because we can  see if they are nearing capacity and we can provision more power.  If they use too much, they can start popping circuits in their cabinet.


JK: Do you monitor temperature of servers themselves?
BA: Yes, we also monitor server temperature, which is provided by the product (SAM) out-of-the box.  Before it was available in the product, we used scripting in Server & Application Monitor to monitor server temperature.
If we start seeing temperatures rise, we can see what area of the datacenter to start focusing our resources.  If it is a group of servers, you know it is an environmental issue; if just one cabinet, then there is likely an issue with one customer’s system.


JK: Is remote monitoring important?
BA: Our staff is local to our datacenter and the other building is just across the street.  However, we do remote monitoring for one large customer who has a statewide network made up of many service providers.  We provide monitoring (like an independent assessment) to point out when there are issues with link quality, so the customer can avoid finger-pointing with the different carriers.


To find out how to customize your Server & Application environment, watch the Secrets of SAM webcast replay.

I was recently talking to a colleague at another company, and they were impressed that SolarWinds invests so heaviliy in user experience testing and user interface design. At his company, it's consider a "nice to have" that is often (usually) chopped from the "in" list when release planning takes place. This never happens at SolarWinds. Here, UI improvements are part of every release, and UX testing informs our product development on a daily basis.

 

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To learn more about the User Experience Testing program at SolarWinds and how you can get involved - read this post.

To see how UX testing made real world improvements in both Log and Event Manager and Server & Application Manager - click here. 

And lastly, to see how the DNSstuff thwack community chimed in and helped up greatly improve the DNSstuff site via the forum - read the most recent post in the series, here.

 

We often say that our users are the most important part of SolarWinds success, and our UX program is yet another important datapoint in that saying. In each product cycle, UX plays an important hand. It's a cycle of continuous improvement, and a project that is never done. If you've ever participated in a UX session, we'd love to hear from you in the comments. Did you enjoy the process? And thanks to all of you who have.

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