Tag Archives: PSA

Google Apps versus Exchange

Google Apps versus Exchange ServerAn IT business, like any other business these days, depends very much on communication over the internet. Customers need to be able to email you for support, potential customers need to be able to reach your sales staff, employees need to be able to reach each other whether they are in the office or on the road and everyone needs to know when, where and with who things are happening. All this communicating also depends on other systems such as knowledge management, calendars, contacts and collaborative business tools of one kind or another.

A long time staple for handing all (or much of) this in businesses everywhere is Microsoft Exchange. But we’re in a new age now and the buzz is all about “Cloud” and “SaaS” and so now we have Google Business Apps seeming to provide a viable alternative to Exchange – but is it up to the task or is Exchange still king of the hill in the Google Apps versus Exchange showdown?

What does Google Apps bring to the table?

Google Apps is of course all hosted entirely on Google servers and so that means (in theory) that it will be fast and always available from anywhere… except when it’s not! Of course it is rare for Google to have an outage but it does happen now and then and when your business depends entirely on Google you could be out of luck at the worst possible time. There’s not much you can do when that happens except sit back and wait for Google to send their crack team of PhD wielding engineers to turn it off and on again, or whatever it takes to fix it. As an IT service provider, your lack of access and control over something so important may not look good to the customers who pay you to manage all their IT and blaming Google may seem like passing the buck.

However, while downtime of your cloud hosted critical business apps is annoying, it should also be noted that by their nature it means they handle all the tricky technical stuff to keep it online and fix it when it’s not online and to update it with new features, bug fixes and security patches. You don’t need to worry about that, you have your business to run and you’d rather not be spending precious time fixing in-house mail servers when they crash (which they likely will eventually) at customer premises or even your own.

Another potential worry when using Google Apps (or any Cloud based service) is the lack of control over the data, as opposed to the systems. Everything you have, all your or your customers critical business data, is on servers owned and managed by someone else. What happens if they lose it? Or get hacked? Or decide to shutdown that particular service you rely on? What if you or you customer want to leave, can you get that data out and will they delete it fully afterwards? These are important issues and Google is of course well aware of it. In theory they will delete your data eventually, in theory they wont get hacked or lose your data through system failure (or human error), in theory you can trust them. In practice – that’s just something you will have to consider and decide for yourself if you can accept and if your customers can too.

Being web based and Google in particular, you can at least expect it to be relatively simple to get setup with their Business Apps and managing it is fairly straightforward – you just configure your preferences and users through simple point & click forms and off you go – your clients may wonder why they are even paying you at all! No more hassles with managing the hardware or software backend. Of course there is a price for all this convenience – even though it’s Google you still have to pay for it, currently $5 per user per month, which is not really that bad, all things considered.

Additionally there is a plugin for Outlook which lets you integrate it with your Google Apps data so you get the best of both worlds.

If you go with the Exchange Server option you have perhaps more functionality (although you may not need it all) and of course full control over all the data as it all resides on your own hardware wherever that may be. You can back it up, you can move it around, you can shut it down, whatever you need to do you can do as nobody else has access (in theory!). All this also means you have to pay a lot more, in terms of hardware and other resources to properly utilize such features as clustering and high availability, to get the redundancy which comes as standard with cloud services, at least when the cloud services actually deliver what they promise.

The downside is that it may “shutdown” on its own or in other words it might crash and bring an entire business to a standstill. When that happens there will be no Google Ninjas swinging into action to save the day – it’s all on your own head and you’ll have to figure out what went wrong and somehow get it working again all the while everyone in the company is complaining and the pressure will be piling up, but that’s the price you pay (on top of the actual price you pay for the software) when you decide not to rely on the cloud. You have to deal with sourcing suitable hardware, installation, configuration, administration, upgrading, fixing, administration, upgrading, etc etc. For an IT business this of course shouldn’t present too much of a problem as it is what you do and naturally results in more billable hours which is generally a good thing – but you also have to consider what is best for your customers at the end of the day since they are not just paying you for fun.

On the upside, your customers may be more familiar with the Microsoft offerings and there’s a lot to be said for that as it can save a lot of time and effort with retraining and supporting users. Additionally pretty much every serious business application out there will integrate with Exchange, one way or another, if there is any possible use to do so. However it will cost more to buy and run an Exchange Server, along with all the “optional” add-ons which you may have to buy from Microsoft or a 3rd party, and chances are it will still be down more than Google Apps.

Muddying the waters somewhat is Office 365 which is basically Microsoft’s cloud based answer to Google Apps (and other cloud offerings) which gives you the familiarity and functionality of the good old self-hosted Exchange Server with the go faster stripes and coolness of the cloud and for a price which is in fact cheaper than Google Apps at just $4 per user per month.

Ultimately it is up to you and your clients which path to take, whether it be Google Apps or Exchange Server or even Office 365, and the decision may well be influenced heavily by what other applications the business depends on anyway. There are pros and cons to both options so carefully weigh them up for based on the specific requirements before taking the plunge one way or the other.

Asset Discovery Tools

automated network asset discoveryKnowing what hardware is connected to your (or your clients) office network is obviously good to know, for one thing if you’re charging clients by the number of assets managed you’ll obviously make more money with more assets! Another reason is security – you don’t want stray systems sitting around unsecured/unpatched waiting to be hacked.

Knowledge is power and so proper documentation for every asset is essential to ensure they are maintained properly. Manually keeping track of all the company IT assets might be ok in a very small office with just a few machines which can all be seen from one place but for anything larger, with many machines which can change frequently and new ones arriving all the time, automation is the name of the game.

Fortunately there are a number of tools which make the job of asset discovery or network discovery very simple and which provide data which can then be imported or integrated with asset management or PSA applications.

If you have 100k assets to manage (and your pockets are very deep) then you may need something ‘enterprisey’ such as IBM Tivoli or the HP Configuration Management System, or so their sales people will tell you anyway. For the rest of us there are slightly more down to earth and affordable alternatives, including ones for free.

Open-AudIT is a network auditing application which works with Windows and Linux machines and will find out exactly what is on your network. Data is stored in MySQL and can be exported to PDF, CSV and other formats and reports can also be generated if needed. The word “open” in the name is a clue – it’s all open source (and free!) so you can see what is going on in the code if you feel the urge to look inside.

OCS Inventory NG is another free application which will scan your network and produce a detailed inventory of every device found which can then be imported into other applications as required.

Long a favorite of script kiddies and hackers everywhere but also of course a very useful admin tool is Nmap. It comes with command line and GUI options and can quickly scan entire networks then output the results in XML format (or even a special script kiddy format!) so it can easily be parsed and imported elsewhere.

Automated asset discovery of one kind or another is also commonly included in network monitoring systems such as OpenNMS as well as various RMM services and these can be particularly useful if they also integrate with your PSA application.

Using the tools mentioned above makes it easy to keep on top of your IT assets and ensure the smooth running of the networks and hardware your clients hire you to manage.

CommitCRM Review

CommitCRM PSA Review

is a type of business application known as a PSA, which for the uninitiated means Professional Services Automation. If you are in the business of providing professional services then a PSA is what you need to basically run the whole show. CommitCRM is a PSA focused on the IT services industry which is of course right up our alley, this being a blog about tools for IT services! This article ended up a bit longer than planned, mainly because it’s about something which I use and depend on so much. If you’re in a hurry, here’s the tl;dr version:

It’s good, it’s affordable, it does the job well and I recommend it.

There are a few other PSA tools around but CommitCRM is well worth a look at and in fact they offer a fully functional free download so you can “try before you buy” which is certainly a good thing, taking into account the rather significant costs typically associated with PSA (and other business) software. Having said that, this particular PSA is considerably more affordable than the others I’ve looked at and has served me well for a few years now.

Download & Installation

Installation is a painless process and can be done on a standalone PC (running Windows – this is not a here today/gone tomorrow cloud service) or on a server which can then be accessed by clients on other PC’s (the client installation in this case is just a shortcut to the server). It is free to download and use for a month at least (quick tip: officially the site says “30 day free trial” but after you login to your app and go to the help menu you can actually extend the trial for a while longer).  For testing the trial you can do a standalone installation on a laptop even. All you have to do is run the installer and select a folder… pretty simple really. When using it for real of course you would want to run it on a proper server or PC in the office. Upgrading too is always a very simple process.

Accounts

The accounts section is one of the key parts and is where I keep track of all my customers, employees, subcontractors, partners, suppliers etc etc.  basically anyone and everyone I want to stay in contact with (or avoid)! From here I have instant access to things like creating a new ticket for the account, adding an asset, making an appointment on the calendar, sending a message to one of the contacts, exporting data to Excel. I can also quickly create an invoice in QuickBooks and sync my contacts, tasks and appointments with Outlook. Pretty much everything you could ever need to do is all right there within a click or two which saves loads of time and is a massive productivity and efficiency booster. The whole thing is effectively the nerve center for my business.

Managing accounts is fairly self explanatory – click Accounts in the left column and it opens the accounts window. Here you can click New to add a new account, you can see in the list all your existing accounts and they can be sorted/filtered in various ways. Click on an account in the list and you will see a load of tabs for the different types of data you may add for the account such as preview, general/address, contacts, history, relations and more. You can customize the field names and even add your own custom tabs if you feel the need so that it really fits your specific business.Accounts

 

From the accounts window you can use the ‘more actions’ menu to quickly create new tasks, tickets, assets, history notes, charges and more which are then linked to the account currently selected.

Tickets

The tickets window shows all my tickets, as you’d expect, it also offers a ‘more actions’ menu similar to that available in the accounts window, which allows me to create various entries related to the ticket selected.

When a ticket is created by one of my users (or me/an employee) it ends up here in the tickets window. The ticket itself could have been created by the customer sending in an email or through the web site or by an employee directly in the desktop client if for example a customer phones in. So there are various ways it can happen and there is a series of steps, a workflow if you like, which a ticket usually goes through from here until resolution.

In the tickets window I can browse them all and update them, set or change due dates (which can be automatically calculated based on a Service Level Agreement, aka SLA), mark for dispatch to a technician, change priorities or whatever else and eventually mark it as complete.  I can also do things like create a quote based on the ticket and send off to the customer – no more rummaging around the office for a quotation form and faxing it off to a customer (or posting snail mail!), just click click click from a ticket to the quote and off it goes by email. The customer can even accept the quote online through the web portal! *ka-ching*

Also in the tickets window is the labels menu where I create and manage all my coloured labels used for assigning to tickets.  Once a label is created it appears in the list in the left column where I just drag & drop tickets to quickly label (or re-label) them to suit my preferences.

Tickets

A useful feature is the ability to define default labels so as I said before, when tickets are coming in from various places, email/web/rmm/etc, I can have them automatically labelled so I can see at a glance where they came from which really helps make the interface appear less cluttered and become even easier to work with.

There’s also an alerts server which handles the job of keeping everyone informed. In other words it notifies staff of new or updated tickets, and notifies customers about opened or closed tickets.  It can for example send an alert if the ticket priority is changed which ensures that my staff know immediately when a ticket has been updated to high priority. Exactly who gets what in what circumstances is all configurable as well so it’s not like everyone gets alerts for every ticket or every account, only the right people and only if they actually want to be alerted!

Dispatcher

Technicians can be easily dispatched to handle ticket related tasks with the integrated dispatcher and calendar which I find it to be an almost effortless process. To do so I only have to go to the dispatcher window and then drag any ticket from the list and drop it in the appropriate column for the employee I want to schedule at whatever time slot I want and that’s it, job done. The alerts server will even notify relevant staff of the new appointment. Setting the amount of time needed for the appointment can be changed by clicking and dragging the edge of any appointment. Moving it to another time slot or another employee only requires a click, drag and drop. There are tabs for daily and weekly dispatcher which show the columns for each staff member, as mentioned above, but there are also tabs for daily and weekly calender views and others for appointments and tasks so you can see where things stand at any point, what needs to be done, who is doing it, when it will happen etc.

Dispatcher

Using this dispatcher interface makes the whole process of scheduling appointments for all employees and managing their time, ensuring that tickets are taken care of and labor is charged for and much more, dead simple.

 

Assets

Like probably any IT service business I have to keep track of an ever increasing array of assets (and sub-assets) for my clients. This is where I store stuff about clients server configuration, routers, firewalls, printers, as well as tracking the different software they use such as Exchange, Office and QuickBooks and other such things which have all sorts of different data and configurations associated with them. CommitCRM provides a comprehensive asset management system so I can keep track of all that stuff, including things like warranty expiration dates and detailed configuration notes (basically a way to define and store custom data for assets), which is just as well because assets have a habit of piling up and being neglected if you’re not careful! Also the assets system keeps a service history of all past issues and resolutions related to the asset so you can always see what has been done with it before. From the assets window I am often generating tickets, tasks, quotes and various other things directly from the assets which makes it a hell of a lot easier to effectively manage all the routine maintenance tasks that I have to deal with for my growing list of clients.

 

Billing

Billing is without a doubt one of the more important aspects of any business and of any PSA which claims to automate business processes. CommitCRM provides a good way to keep on top of billing of various kinds (for example charges/fees for labor, expenses or products you may sell) and the contracts, accounts and tickets they relate to. You can quickly add charges from anywhere you need to throughout the application, for example from an appointment or a ticket. You can also start a timer and then convert that time to a charge at the click of a button. You can even add charges which are defined as billable or not-billable depending on requirements at the time or the type of contract you are working with.

There is built in support for several types of contract such as ‘block of money’, ‘block of tickets’ and ‘block of time’. So if I have a ‘block of time’ contract with a client for say 20 hours labor in a month then any time I add a charge for labor that number of hours is deducted from the contracted block. The labor charge itself is marked as not-billable by default in the case of a block of time while any charges for expenses or parts would be billable.

If you’re anything like me you probably have to charge for all sorts of odd things from one off product purchases or service (fixing or installing something for example) to recurring maintenance or some other kind of service. Being flexible enough to to deal with such things without messing up is decidedly useful and this PSA provides a solution for this.  It can produce billing reports internally and it can also seamlessly integrate with QuickBooks to send all your charge data there for accounting and invoicing purposes. There’s also an 3rd party mod for Sage 50 and it is also easy to export data to Excel for importing into other accounting systems.

Sales Management

Before you need to worry about billing your clients, you need to actually have some clients! Fortunately CommitCRM also provides a number of useful features for managing the sales process by means of the opportunities module and the quotes module. Whenever needed I can create a new opportunity for an existing account or create a new account in the process and store all the pertinent data such as type of opportunity, relevant contacts, amount of money involved, important dates, status (open/won/lost) etc. Once an opp is opened I can create tickets, tasks, contracts and more right from the opportunities window.

There’s a built-in quotes system which can be used to easily create quotes for sending to potential customers and through the web interface they can even choose to accept/reject the quotes so the whole process can be managed online and remotely. Using the quotes module allows me to instantly convert a won quote into a ticket, contract or charges, in fact I can even convert it right into a quickbooks invoice! The opportunities module also integrates with QuoteWerks so creating a new quote in QuoteWerks instead is only a click or two away.

Remote Access

Since IT services often involves visiting customer premises to do installations or repairs it is really essential to have a way to remotely access your PSA system while on the road. If you are a “one man band” you could perhaps bring your laptop with you with your CommitCRM installed on that. However for various reasons it is more likely you would be accessing it on your server remotely instead and CommitCRM provides several easy ways to do that – first of all there is the web interface which comes in both customer and employee flavors and has a mobile interface which works nicely on my ipad. This is what I prefer to do as I’ve pretty much always got web access these days via WIFI or 3G wherever I am so it makes sense to access my PSA through the web. When on site I can quickly pull up the ticket details, do the job and produce a service form in PDF format which can be signed right on the tablet and printed or emailed to the client immediately.

If you use the CommitCRM back-end SQL engine you can also use RDP or terminal services for remote access. So in general, wherever you are you should have no problem accessing and working with your PSA data whenever required.

Reports

There is a built in report generation system which includes a bunch of pre-made report templates for all the different sections of the PSA, such as Ticket Details, Technician Service Form, Account Charges, Contract Details and much more. I certainly don’t use them all but it is nice to know they exist. In most cases I use a customized template for each type of report I need and the report designer does actually enable me to make reports with calculations, QR Codes, customizable layout etc. Having said that there is room for improvement with the available calculations which could do with being a little more advanced but when I need something like that I just export the data to Excel and crunch the numbers there instead.

Reports

Integration

Being able to integrate with other applications and systems used in your IT services business is a fairly important feature for any PSA and CommitCRM doesn’t disappoint here either. It offers direct integration with popular RMM (remote monitoring & management) systems such as Continuum and GFI MAX,  as well as QuoteWerks, QuickBooks, Sage 50 (via a 3rd party plugin) and of course Outlook. I’ve used Continuum since back in the old days when it was called Zenith and the level of integration now with CommitCRM is great but I’ve heard from others in the field that GFIMAX is also decent. Outlook sync is also pretty great and I have all my staff sync their appointments/calendar automatically so they are always up to date.

There is also a full access API so you can easily create custom integrations with anything you want. All it takes is a little coding and they provide comprehensive docs for the API so it shouldn’t be too hard for any decent coder (which excludes me, although I do dabble) to get up to speed quickly.

Besides the above, CommitCRM also provides easy import/export functions for all the different sections so you can for example easily export ticket or charges data to excel where you can process it further or import into other applications.

Final Thoughts

CommitCRM has a new version released quite recently, one of many over the years so it is certainly actively being developed. It has been around for a good long time now, since long before I found it in fact and has matured into a comprehensive and stable system which my business now relies heavily on every day and I’m not sure how I would ever manage without it at this stage! They have always been responsive to my support requests and the buzz online seems to be overwhelmingly positive which is always a good sign.

In terms of pricing I find it very affordable and fair. I also like that all the pricing is up-front and transparent with no hidden surprises to worry about and I didn’t have to bother with (or be bothered by) talking with sales reps to get a quote.

While there’s always room for improvement (such as the aforementioned advanced calcs in reports), it is still a great app overall and one which gets better with every release and so gets the Tools for IT Services Seal of Approval! http://www.commitcrm.com/

Review of CommitCRM
Professional Services Automation (PSA) software for IT service providers.
Rating: 4.5 Stars

 

 

 

PSA Tools for IT Service Providers

Professional Services AutomationAmong the key software tools used by MSP’s and IT service providers is an application known as a PSA which means Professional Services Automation.

There are a number of PSA tools around such as PacketTrap from Dell. Some PSA’s are aimed at certain types of service providers and some are more generic in nature, while others such as CommitCRM are more focused specifically on the IT services market. PSA software can be desktop or server based or sometimes even in the so called ‘cloud’ and in either case a mobile front end is a popular feature these days.

But what exactly is a PSA? What does it do? The precise feature set does in fact vary somewhat between the different PSA applications out there but core features typically found will include the likes of customer accounts/contacts (CRM), support ticket management and email handling, employee time logging and calculating labor utilization, an alerts/notification system, calendar/scheduling, contracts, billing, reporting, project management, asset tracking and more.

Another important feature in a PSA is integration with external systems which are commonly used in the industry.  For example integration with accounting software (ie. QuickBooks), remote monitoring and management  systems, etc. Such integration is often done using an API on one or both sides. An API in the PSA application also allows users to build custom add-ons and tightly integrate the PSA with their existing or custom systems, providing even more value and efficiency in workflows and business processes for those that choose to go down that path.

Using a PSA allows a service provider to work more efficiently, automatically assigning tickets and tasks to technicians, responding to client support requests in a timely manner, keeping tracking of billing,  generating complex reports on all aspects of the business, while having all relevant information easily to hand,  which combines to produce more billable hours for the company and also happier customers who are getting a better level of service.

Once a PSA tool has been properly implemented in a business it quickly becomes the core application or hub around which all others are built and integrate with. Customers, vendors, employees and even sub-contractors all interact with it in symbiosis. In effect it is the nerve center of the service providers business without which the company simply isn’t able to function to anywhere near capacity.

 

Welcome to Tools for IT Services

Tools for IT ServicesWelcome to the Tools for IT Services blog where we will talk about and review many of the essential tools of the trade. Everything from software to hardware to services and online communities and resources which many in the industry find invaluable whether they be technicians for MSP’s or computer repair shops or running their own IT services business.

Needless to say, software for the busy IT shop or MSP includes the likes of professional services automation (PSA), accounting (such as the ubiquitous Quickbooks) and Outlook (or something of that ilk) amongst others and we will write about several.

Hardware used by IT people these days naturally includes smartphones and increasingly popular tablets of one kind or another combined with handy apps for testing, diagnosis, research and even PDF signing. But there’s more which can usually be found in a techs toolbox such as a multimeter, cable testers, screwdrivers and spanners and of course a few spare cables.

Web based services or “SaaS” to use the buzzword du jour, cloud based or otherwise, are all the rage these days and there are many which are used in this industry which offer such things as accounting, time tracking, monitoring/RMM and more. Which are the best? We’ll give you our opinions soon..

The web is all about communities and there are millions out there covering every imaginable interest from the narrowest niche for a specific app or component to the broadest general IT related community. Such communities can be based on forums or social network groups or even email lists and over time they become a vast treasure trove of knowledge from previous discussions and answers but also from existing active members who respond to requests for help or advice.

We will also cover industry news and events as well as discuss trends and changes in the IT services world.

Hopefully you will stick around or come back again to read our articles as we continue to update this site over time and if there’s anything you’d like us to cover – give us a shout!