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Automate the IT service desk workflow for maximum success

The automated help desk using ITSM software does for IT operations and support what the CI/CD toolchain has done for developers and DevOps engineers.

A service desk is the glue that binds together IT operations tasks, ranging from resource provisioning to problem and event management. And, as it does across so many facets in IT, automation increasingly plays a role in how the Ops team carries out service desk workflow-related tasks.

With a service desk as their portal, end users can request services, changes and support from IT, as well as report problems. Operations teams handle these requests with repeatable processes and various software tools -- most notably, ticketing systems that log requests, track issue resolution progress and prioritize and assign user requests to the most appropriate support personnel.

Teams can streamline, or entirely perform, many of these IT service desk workflows through automation.

An example of service desk workflow automation

Various tools, such as event management systems, self-service user portals and performance and capacity monitoring systems, can automatically trigger service desk workflows.

For example, monitoring software that tracks servers and storage arrays could detect when free space on a particular storage volume drops below a set threshold. In a traditional IT systems management setup, this event would cause the monitoring system to send an alert to an operations team's shared messaging system -- perhaps email or instant messaging -- or into a ticketing system, which would then initiate a manual process for a storage admin to resolve the capacity shortage. This process is partially automated: Software identifies the problem and then initiates a ticket, but human intervention is still required.

A more advanced process could send the low disk space alert to an automated remediation program that performs basic tasks, such as clearing temp file caches and deleting large nonsystem files that haven't been accessed in the last six months. If these steps successfully free up enough space to clear the monitoring threshold, the automated process would document its actions and close the ticket. If the storage issue remains, the automated process could escalate the issue to a storage admin, with a message describing the actions it already took.

While this is just one example, almost every other service desk workflow can benefit from similar levels of automation within and between IT monitoring and management tools.

Automation through service desk software

It's difficult to integrate multiple systems, especially ones from different vendors that weren't designed to work together. Ops teams can implement automated IT service toolchains via scripts, as well as hardware and software APIs -- but it's not easy. Most organizations instead use packaged IT service management (ITSM) or service desk automation tools.

There is a vibrant market of ITSM software, with tools suitable for both large and small organizations and those at varying stages of IT operations maturity. This software is available as either a locally installed application or a SaaS subscription. Options include:

  • BMC Helix Remedy Service Management Suite
  • BOSS Support Central
  • CA Service Management
  • Cherwell Software ITSM
  • EasyVista EV Service Manager
  • IBM Control Desk
  • Ivanti Service Manager
  • ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus
  • Micro Focus Service Management Automation
  • Samanage Service Platform
  • ServiceNow ITSM
  • SherpaDesk Helpdesk Ticketing

These products encompass a wide variety of features. For example, those from BMC and IBM are designed for large organizations with mature IT functions and processes. EasyVista, Ivanti, Samanage and SherpaDesk are suitable for smaller businesses or departments with less sophisticated ITSM governance structures.

path to IT maturity

Whichever one best suits an IT organization's specific criteria, all of these products automate basic service desk workflow tasks. They can open and update trouble tickets and assign those tickets to the relevant support personnel based on the service catalog entry, keywords or other metadata or service-level agreement priorities. They also trigger workflows, alerts and customer status updates in response to status changes. And service desk tools should create workflows such as the one given in the example about limited disk space.

The most sophisticated form of service desk automation chains together multiple process steps into a programmatically controlled workflow.

ITSM tools differ in their ability to integrate with external systems. The best products have comprehensive support for multiple communication protocols, APIs and data standards.

From procedures to workflows

The most sophisticated form of service desk automation chains together multiple process steps into a programmatically controlled workflow. DevOps-savvy and leading-edge IT admins see this level of automation in code deployment and other processes. It belongs in the service desk for IT support and management as well.

One way to achieve this is with machine learning technology, which can detect performance anomalies, resource constraints or unusual system events. AIOps tools analyze and interpret data from hardware and modern applications to improve IT efficiency, reliability and security. When these analytics systems integrate with automated service desk platforms, they can trigger automatic remediation of potential problems, before those problems become significant enough for users to notice.

Another benefit of service desk workflow automation is self-service. Studies show that IT users and technology buyers prefer to initiate services, fix problems and access support information themselves, without a human intermediary. Automated workflows enable these self-service operations. This will not only satisfy users, but eliminate IT overhead and free up support personnel to work on problems that require their expertise. The best starting point for self-service IT is common administrative tasks that eat up valuable service desk time, such as password resets, ticket initiation, infrastructure provisioning and knowledge base searches.

Automated service desks can eventually proceed to more complicated tasks that involve multiple systems and service providers. For example, a service desk could automatically request AWS Elastic Compute Cloud instances and a new Virtual Private Cloud that connects them to a private data center network. Another request might be an update to firewall rules that enables new applications to communicate with an external business partner, without IT manually executing these steps.

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