Machine Heal Thyself ... Well, Almost

While self-healing technologies are developing, there are some tools to use that report problems as they arise.
Posted April 22, 2005
By

Drew Robb

Drew Robb


Computers are getting better at replicating human activities, but they still haven't mastered the body's ability to heal itself.

The body continually evaluates its own health and replenishes its components using raw materials. It locates and eliminates new viruses, repairs damage done, and adjusts its systems to prevent new infections.

Life would be far more difficult if each one of us had to directly analyze and respond to all the problems that crop up with our bodies. The same is true with complex computer systems. It just isn't feasible to manually track the health of every device, system and application.

That's why companies like IBM are working on developing what is called ''autonomic'' or self-healing technology. Industry observers say it should help ease the support burden at some point down the road. In the meantime, systems are getting better at telling you when there is a problem that requires your attention, and then tracking that through to a resolution.

Most organizations have some sort of network and systems management software in place to send an alert when there is a problem. Larger devices, such as EMC Corporation storage arrays or IBM zSeries mainframes, report back to the manufacturer when there is a problem.

Self-reporting also is being extended out to peripherals, such as printers which can notify the help desk when they are jammed or out of paper. Recently, data center elements, such as UPSes and air conditioners, have joined the mix.

''The more systems have predictive maintenance features, which tell when they need service instead of doing preemptive service, the better off you are,'' says Rick Sawyer, director of Data Center Technology for American Power Conversion Corporation. ''That way the technicians are focused on what really needs fixing.''

But whether the device does the reporting, or a call comes in from the user, the help desk still must track that item through to its resolution.

According to META Group, Inc. of Stamford, Conn., companies spent $3 billion last year on IT service desk software to help them in this area. But there also have been recent releases that make the job easier.

One such option comes from Microsoft Corp., which last November released an Autoticketing Solution Accelerator (Autoticketing SA) for its Microsoft Operations Manager console (MOM). Autoticketing SA receives alerts from MOM, analyzes them and, when appropriate, automatically generates trouble tickets.

Microsoft spokespeople say this reduces labor costs since the tickets are automatically generated; reduces error through eliminating manual data input; decreases time to repair since the ticket is generated immediately, and increases availability since it catches a problem before it escalates.

Another alternative is to go with one of the major help desk vendors, such as Pleasanton, Calif.-based FrontRange Technology Solutions, Inc.'s Heat. Alternatively, BMC Corporation of Austin, Texas, has acquired two help desk packages in recent years: Magic for small and medium-sized businesses, and Remedy for larger enterprises.

What one needs to consider, however, is not just the features of that particular product, but how well it integrates with the existing IT infrastructure, workflows and skill sets.

Synergent Corporation of Portland, Me., a service company for 150 New England credit unions, already used Heat help desk software, but it didn't cover the entire workflow. Many of the customer requests necessitated custom development. This required doing paper-transfers back and forth between Heat and the change management system.

''We used to have two systems to manage our call tracking and change management,'' says Chet Emerson, credit union support manager of Synergent. ''We were able to retire both of them and the software maintenance involved with them.''

He eliminated the double-work and delays by switching to WebTTS (Web Trouble Ticket System) from Somix Technologies, Inc. of Sanford, Me. Emerson reports that since it's a browser-based product, company field service representatives can initiate a problem when they are at a credit union and have it registered right into the database. This has enabled Synergent to move to a paperless process, cut licensing costs, eliminate redundancies and speed customer service.

Somix offers customers a free single-user version and an unlimited-seat version for $4,995, including one year of support. Customers can set up a dedicated SQL database or establish a connection to pull information from the company's existing CRM or contact manager and use that data to populate the trouble tickets.

It also integrates with asset management software so machine specifics don't need to be discovered and manually entered. When support technicians have solved a problem, they can paste information from the ticket into the knowledge base for use when similar problems arise in the future. Managers can run reports to identify and address common problems and cut down on repeat calls.

Yet another option is a free open-source product called the Open Ticket Resource System (OTRS) from Germany-based OTRS Team. This software works on Windows, Linux and UNIX, but only supports the MySQL and PostGreSQL databases. It is essentially a very simple ticketing application for stand-alone use.

While none of these tools automate the repair process, they do at least make it quicker and easier to discover and correct problems that normally arise. To fix them, it still takes human intervention, judgment and skills -- at least for now.






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