Sunday, September 26, 2021

Machine Heal Thyself … Well, Almost

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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