Get the lowdown on help desk helpers

The help desk software market is expected to grow 25% this year, becoming a billion dollar market in 2001,according to Boston, MA-based Aberdeen Group. Poised to take advantage of this growth are market-leading veteran help desk software vendors, FrontRange Solutions and Magic Solutions. Niche players, such as Blue Ocean Software, and newcomers like Altiris, are also vying for a share of this healthy market. This story gives IT managers an overview of leading help desk product's features, as well as users' and analysts' product evaluations.

Even when their IT budgets are shrinking, most IT managers won't scratch help desk software off their spreadsheets. They figure they gain more in the long run, saving cash and avoiding headaches, by automating communication processes that help keep systems running smoothly. That's why sales are on the upswing in the help desk software market even in a down economy.

The help desk software market is expected to grow 25% this year, becoming a billion dollar market in 2001, according to Boston, MA-based Aberdeen Group. Poised to take advantage of this growth are market-leading veteran help desk software vendors, FrontRange Solutions and Magic Solutions. Niche players, such as Blue Ocean Software, and newcomers like Altiris, are also vying for a share of this healthy market. This story gives IT managers an overview of leading help desk product's features, as well as users' and analysts' product evaluations.

FrontRange Solutions' HEAT and Magic Solutions' Magic Service Desk each tout advanced usability features. Both have built-in applications, such as searchable knowledge trees, asset management and service-level agreement (SLA) management.

HEAT has been on the market for 11 years and is used by 4,700 global customers, according to Kim Byrne, director of business and product strategies at the Colorado Springs, CO-based company. "HEAT's business process automation allows companies to define their business rules and manage them," said Byrne.

Now in version 6.03, HEAT allows users to log requests quickly via a Web-based application called Quick Calls. It also has an external, Web-based call center, called HEAT Self Service, that allows customers to check the status of a request. Root-cause analysis, asset management, SLA management, customization and knowledge base capabilities are other useful features.

Bettie Maslek, an IT services coordinator at the loan organization Alliance Funding, uses HEAT's Quick Calls feature to enable her users from 10 remote offices to reset their passwords quickly without Maslek's assistance. Not getting phone calls for that very common and simply remedied request lets Maslek work on more pressing matters. During the six years Orangeburg, NY-based Alliance has used HEAT, Maslek has chalked up an overall 30% time savings in help desk processing.

HEAT's Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) compliancy gives it a leg up on competitors, according to Kris Brittain, research director at Stamford, CT-based Gartner Group. ITIL is a set of best practices standards for IT service management created by the United Kingdom's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA). The standards help businesses "achieve quality service and overcome difficulties associated with the growth of IT systems," according to whatis.com. FrontRange specifically changed HEAT recently to be in line with those standards, Brittain said.

Magic Solutions' Magic Service Desk is also a browser-based product. This feature keeps deployment time down and upgrading capabilities easy because companies can just access a URL to complete either of those processes, said Shari Martinez, Magic senior product manager. Santa Clara, CA-based Magic Solutions is a division of 12-year-old IT services provider Network Associates.

Among Magic's features are an asset management application, a searchable knowledge base, and the ability for users to check the status of help requests. Also, Magic offers 30 business rules, and technicians can turn on the ones that meet their organization's needs.

Magic's searchable knowledge base makes it easier to troubleshoot, said Pete Cole, help desk manager for 1,100 studio-strong Olan Mills Portrait Studios, based in Chattanooga, TN. Upon implementation of Magic, he was able to take three years worth of business and product data, previously stored on a Web page, and transfer it to Magic. "So, when I'm searching for a camera, I can troubleshoot without going out of Magic," he said. Magic has saved the company from hiring another help desk technician, said Cole, keeping the staff at 12 people.

Magic's customization capabilities, facilitated by a drag-and-drop interface, are easy to use, said Framingham, MA-based International Data Corp. senior research analyst Fred Broussard. Magic's ability to integrate with LDAP and Active Directory via customization sets it apart from other browser-based help desk tools, according to Broussard.

HEAT and Magic cater to enterprises with around 700-3,000 users. HEAT has two components available: HEAT PowerDesk, for companies just starting their help desk, is $795 per user; HEAT Service and Support is $3,250 per user with volume discounts available. Magic Service Desk comes in at $3,056 for one to five seats, with volume discounts also available.

Another experienced player in the help desk game is Tampa, FL-based Blue Ocean Software with its 11 year-old product Track-It! Track-It! however, is geared toward companies capping off with 500 users. Now in version 4.0, Track-it! has built-in asset management and customer history tracking. It was originally built to be an inventory tracking system, and that feature is still its greatest strength, said Gartner's Brittain. She noted that Track-It's inventory tracking has grown more comprehensive over the years.

Track-it! can cost as much as $100,000 for its largest customers and has about 25,000 customers, according Eric Frazier, Blue Ocean technical sales manager.

New to the help desk market is Linden, UT-based Altiris with Helpdesk Solution, which was first released in March. Similarly to HEAT and Magic, the console is entirely Web-based, according to Tyler Smith, Altiris vice president of marketing. Helpdesk Solution is geared toward around 1,900 user environments.

There are different components to the product including an integration with SMS called Helpdesk for SMS Suite. "I can do searches and queries based on who's submitting trouble tickets for what types of problems from within SMS. From the help desk, I can now view my SMS machine data from within our Helpdesk console," explained Smith. Helpdesk is priced at $12.30 per managed object.

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