Tech Crisis? Don't Cry, Call for Helpdesk

By Drew Robb | Posted October 21, 2008

With so many simultaneous demands and responsibilities, it's all too easy for a small business owner – even one fortunate enough to have an IT department – to let tech maintenance fall through the cracks. Maintaining hardware and software, implementing new applications and end user tech support is a big challenge. One or more of these categories often get neglected – typically the last one.

That’s why many SMBs look for help outside the company and, fortunately, the selection is better than ever. All the big computer/server companies offer a wide range of end-user support options tailored to small business needs. Similarly, there are national and regional organizations with enough resources to look after dozens or even hundreds of clients – most of them small businesses. And of course, there are local outfits. Some great, some awful – it’s a case of sifting through to find the right fit.

“Managed services are beginning to gain momentum in mature IT markets such as the U.S and Western Europe,” said Ryan Brock, vice president of channels at Access Markets International (AMI) Partners Inc.

He pointed out that several factors have contributed to making outsourced managed IT services a particularly good fit for smaller companies. They include: lower capital outlays, predictable costs, shorter deployment windows, reduced need for in-house IT staff, and the benefit of support from an established vendor or channel partner.

“These benefits, along with the investments of larger players such as Microsoft and Dell, have made managed services a viable option for many SMEs,” said Brock.

Take the case of GetLegal.com, a 70-employee company providing a web portal for legal resources. Its two-man IT team struggled to cope with its technology-intensive business model, as well as rapid expansion.

“We wanted an IT service provider that could take on some of the low-level administration duties,” said IT administrator Chris Jones.

The company chose Dell Managed Services by Dell Inc., which they use to monitor virtually everything with an IP address on the network and to send automated alerts. The service can also include other features such as remote resolution, patch management, vulnerability scans and monthly reporting.

The Dell service constantly monitors GetLegal's key servers, and Jones said they can take advantage of Dell on-site visits within four hours. On the other hand, Dell monitors the workstations and laptops remotely and then sends alerts if any serious problems arise. This enables GetLegal's IT team to focus on strategic projects. GetLegal estimates that remote services have saved the company nearly 1,000 hours of administrative time per year.

“No matter the size or nature of a small business, we can configure solutions that best meet specific needs and budgets,” said Marshall Hammond, small business services manager at Dell.

Dell offers three different service levels. The alert package starts at $9 a month per computer or other networked device and features remote monitoring of networks, systems and applications, performance and security alerts. This would work, for example, for a company that wants to self-maintain perhaps eight servers, eight switches and 100 desktops (it can be used for more devices). As well as remote monitoring, it sends alerts automatically when a component of an environment is not within specifications.

“We can fix the issue using our remote tools about 80 percent of the time,” said Hammond. “Hardware failure is the primary cause of an in-person visit, and those calls are not too common. Most of the issues we get calls about are software questions, network settings, and so on.”

The resolution package, which starts at $39 a month per device, includes all of the alert level services as well as 24x7 remote resolution, on-site service and an escalation service desk to receive higher-level help for serious issues.

At $59 a month per device, the third package features all the resolution level services as well as 24x7 help desk with end-user support, vulnerability scanning, patch management, asset tracking, quarterly assessments and Microsoft Exchange/SQL management.

Plenty of Alternatives

Dell is far from the only provider of such services. Most of the big computer manufacturers have similar offerings. HP's IT Professional Helpdesk, for instance, addresses end-user support in small businesses. This is best suited to businesses that have some kind of end-user helpdesk function but often need additional assistance.

Say you have an IT guy who can deal with routine issues, but either doesn’t have the skill or doesn’t want to get bogged down in more complex situations. Your in-house IT staffer can have HP Helpdesk technicians manage problems with Microsoft operating systems, applications running on end-user devices, servers and wired or mobile network components, as well as resolving hardware difficulties. The company also offers on-site local support via its partner network.

Microsoft's IT Help Desk Knowledge Base, a self-service helpdesk portal, offers articles that explain how to resolve problems, along with diagnostic tools. This might be a good way to go if you have an inexperienced IT person who needs a lot of assistance.

Finally, it is always worth looking for local resources. Lucky small business owners may be able to find one-man IT army who can handle anything while also keeping costs down. While such a person is sometimes hard to locate (and you may have to go through several to find someone truly competent), he or she is like gold when you find one. The best can take care of any hardware, software, virus or other troubles at a moment’s notice.

“I’m always available and they can reach me at any time even when I’m out of town, the state or the country,” says Hamid Azar of AzarPC, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based business that provides IT services for local schools and businesses. “I always answer my phone when a client calls, which is the reason they like to work with me. I do networking, repairs, upgrades, emergency response and anything else that will help them get back in business.”

More for Small than Mid

Chip Nickolett, a consultant with Comprehensive Consulting Solutions Inc. of Brookfield, WI, believes that such local services are probably more suited to smaller companies. Mid-sized companies have often already established their own internal helpdesks and have experts available that become competent diagnosticians and jacks-of-all-trades.

“A smaller company that is growing to [the point where it needs] a help desk would probably be a much better fit,” said Nickolett. “Its operations are probably ad hoc and lacking dedicated resources, so the structure and availability provided by an outside service could be welcomed.”

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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