Tag Archives: Tools

Essential Firefox Add-ons for IT Technicians

Firefox addons for IT techniciansFollowing my previous article about Chrome extensions for techs, here is one for the Firefox fans. Some of the plugins here are the same as those on the Chromium but not all. So if Firefox is your browser du jour, check these out:

Cliget – this is a super handy plugin which creates curl and wget commands automatically which you can use to download files from web links that would otherwise not work outside the browser (due to cookies, useragent and referrer). In other words you can use this to download files directly to a server instead of having to download to your PC first.

IPvFox – this addon will show you all the ip’s & hosts that content is loaded from on the page being viewed and will indicate if ipv4 or ipv6 is being used.

HttpFox – this one will monitor all the http traffic traveling between your browser and the server, so you can see things like cookies, http headers, query strings, POST params and the response body.

DNS Flusher – use this to reload the brower dns cache when changing the ip/host mapping to see the effect immediately.

Clippings – Saves and manages your frequently-entered text which you can then easily paste into web forms in Firefox or in Thunderbird messages.

FireShot – easily take screenshots of web pages with this addon. A bit like Snagit but only browser based.

SQLite Manager – a great addon which allows you to manage through your browser, any SQLite database you have on your computer.

PassIFox – use this to integrate your browser (Firefox and Chrome) with your KeePass password manager.

Not actually a Firefox addon, but still Mozilla, Enigmail adds PGP message encryption (using GnuPG) to your Thunderbird mail client.

If the above is not enough to power up your browser, there’s loads more to be found in this collection!

Hopefully you find these useful but if you have any suggestions for more handy browser plugins or addons for techies, let me know!

If you’re a Chrome fan then perhaps these extensions will be more to your liking.

My Favorite 5 LiveCD’s for System Rescue & Maintenance

LiveCD RescueRecovering a system which has crashed or otherwise fails to boot is a task which every technician will be very familiar with and it’s never a fun time for the owner of the uncooperative machine or the tech tasked with attempting to revive it. Fortunately there are a number of so called “Live CD’s” around which make recovery and other maintenance tasks relatively easy and needless to say, no IT technician should ever leave home without one (or several) along with something to actually run it on!

Commonly, LiveCD distros come with a range of useful technician tools such as diagnostics, forensics, benchmarking, antivirus, disk recovery, security tools and more to help the admin successfully complete whatever critical tasks need to be done to get the system running again or at least to safely recover the data stored there.

Linux is one of the more popular choices for LiveCD’s but there are others including for Mac, Windows, BSD and other Unix systems and even one for Amiga if you happen to have an old Amiga machine that needs some attention. These days, despite the legacy name “Live CD”, most such distros also work just as well on flash drives, dvd’s or hard disks and being able to install a fully bootable OS on a tiny USB stick is always useful!

Knoppix

One of the more popular LiveCD’s around is Knoppix and in fact there are many others around which are based on it, such as Hiren’s which is mentioned below. Knoppix is based on Debian and was first released way back in the year 2000 and has had frequent releases since then. It works well with a very wide array of hardware. It also has over 1000 tools included which should be enough to keep anyone busy and hopefully you will always be able to find the tool you need for the job at hand.

Hiren’s BootCD

Hiren’s is an extremely popular one and, as previously mentioned, it is based on Knoppix which in turn is based on Debian. It includes Mini Windows XP amongst countless other Windows & DOS utilities making it great for accessing and fixing troublesome systems running Windows.

Ultimate Boot CD

The Ultimate Boot CD is another popular choice and it works great for repairing Windows and Linux systems and is in fact based on Linux like so many others. It features a good selection of tools to cater to most technician tasks for system recovery.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu has been a popular choice as a desktop Linux OS for a good few years now and one of the reasons for that was their creation (and even shipping to your house) of a CD with which you can install the OS or even just run it directly from the CD itself. This LiveCD mode is actually the default and certainly helped encourage people to give it a try since they wouldn’t have to risk actually installing or ruining their existing system to do so. The Ubuntu LiveCD is still popular today and they also provide a helpful page explaining how to use it for various recovery tasks.

WinPE

For a purely Windows solution there is WinPE which stands for Windows Preinstallation Environment and is actually a slimmed down version of Windows itself which can be used for system recovery and deployment.

If the above list of Live CD’s does not satisfy you, there is a nice long list of alternatives here which covers just about all the important ones – of course there are probably countless others made by those who fancied having their own custom LiveCD and you could also roll your own as well, using tools like Live Linux or YUMI if you really feel the need.

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.

Essential Tools in an IT Technicians Tool Kit

Technicians Essential ToolsBesides the ever increasing assortment of software tools which every IT technician depends on such as desktop, server and mobile applications and utilities of one kind or another, there are of course the physical tools from the simplest screwdriver to the latest electronic gadgetry which we all need to get the job done. Here I will cover a selection of those in my technicians tool kit without which I never leave the office…

First of all the old faithful, manual tools, the most important and most frequently used of which is of course the ubiquitous Phillips screwdriver. Needless to say I have a wide selection of sizes for this and of course the plain old flat head screwdriver which still comes in useful frequently. Being inherently lazy and this being the 21st century, of course I have an electric screwdriver with a rechargeable battery but naturally the battery has a habit of going flat at the worst time and spares are heavy so the old manual tools are always needed in the toolkit.

Also with the manual tools are needle nose pliers in a few sizes, wire cutters, cable crimp/cut/strip tools and because I am always dropping screws into the bowels of expensive servers and racks, I also have a magnetic pickup tool and even a little mirror and handy torch so I can see what is going on down there in those dark corners. A few bags of spare screws in varying sizes and types is also always nearby since people tend to “lose” those things (or more likely pilfered to use somewhere else).

Dust is the enemy and so a can of compressed air is always close to hand along with alcohol wipes to clean off any gunk which finds its way into places it does not belong.

Cables, cables, you can never have too many cables! Spare network cables, power cables, USB cables, SATA cables etc etc. Nothing worse than being in a datacenter off in some distant location installing a load of new servers only to find you don’t have a network cable for one of them! Along with a bunch of spares I of course have a few for my own use so I can connect my netbook or other device to the network or whatever else needs connecting to something while I work.

Speaking of connecting things, I also never leave home without a few flash drives containing essential utilities for testing, recovery, security, and reinstalling the OS if ever needed, as well as loads of documentation for everything I’ve ever had to work on (and ever might!). I always also have a few OS disks with me at all times – some on CD/DVD (along with a USB DVD drive) and some on the flash drives.

With regard to testing, there’s a good few gadgets around for this – cable testers, multimeter and more which can save a lot of head scratching when things just aren’t working the way you know they should but there’s nothing that can be seen with the old Mark I Eyeball!

Despite carrying almost every tech document ever produced since the Jurassic age, there are still times when I need to google something or check a doc online, so of course I need internet access. Usually there is somewhere around to plugin a network cable or a wifi access point I can use but there are times when neither is available so for those rare occasions I carry a 3G USB stick modem which can be plugged into various devices as needed, as well as having built-in 3G already on some devices such as a Netbook or iPad Mini Retina which is even better and of course a suitable data plan from my ISP. This 3G net access is a real lifesaver at times! For the really intrepid tech (with money to burn) there are also satellite modems such as those from Iridium which come in handy when you’re fixing a PC on top of Everest or somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic ocean! I somehow just about get by without one of those fancy gadgets though.

Carrying all this hardware requires a good solid toolbox or bag (or in my case both) with plenty of compartments to keep everything organized and easy to find. There’s no shortage to choose from so pick whatever appeals. Personally I have a big heavy duty plastic toolbox with a small fold-up trolly to wheel it around, plus I have a grab-bag containing the absolute essentials needed for an emergency job which is a lot easier to lug around.

What are your favorite manual tools of the trade? What do you never leave home without?

5 Essential IT Tools I Use Every Day

5 Essential IT ToolsIn my day job of providing IT services to my clients I get to use a lot of different tools to deal with a wide array of issues, however there are some tools which I invariably use every single day without fail. Below I will cover 5 of my favorites, although there are indeed others but I will save those for another article!

Being a IT service business means I am providing professional services to many clients who have a diverse array of requirements, different types of contracts, services packages, prices, assets and more and trying to keep on top of all that is pretty much impossible once you go beyond a handful of clients. So it soon becomes essential to use a Professional Services Automation (PSA) tool and in my case I use CommitCRM, there are of course others but this one does the job well for a price I can easily justify.

I manage quite a few Linux and Unix servers as well as Windows boxes and so I am frequently connecting to consoles on those remote servers. Making connections secure is obviously important and the carefree days of unencrypted Telnet connections are long gone, to be replaced by secure shell or SSH. To facilitate these SSH connections from my Windows PC I use PuTTY which is a free application and very popular among Windows users. It not only does SSH but also Rlogin and even Telnet and is a very lightweight, easy to use application.

When you’re working on a computer it goes without saying that you generally need to know as much about that machine as possible so you can better diagnose issues, replace parts with the right kind etc. There are various utilities which provide such data, including those which are already bundled with the OS such as the Computer Properties and Device Manager tabs in Windows but there’s always room for improvement and on Windows I find that Speccy does just that. Information is power, as they say and so Speccy gives you that power.

Dealing with an enormous number of files of many different types, hidden away in obscure locations on your PC can cause immense frustration and time wasting when you’re struggling to find things or need to copy or move or compare or transfer or perform all sorts of other actions on those files and the built-in File Explorer in Windows can cause premature aging at times. Fortunately there are quite a few alternatives around these days and the one I rely on every day is Total Commander which is free and makes my day to day file management tasks considerably less painful without reducing life expectancy.

Of course it is pretty much unheard of these days to not connect to the Web and my days typically involve numerous web based tasks from Googling for answers to tricky tech issues or networking with other techs or reading the news, downloading updates, tweeting, facebooking, looking at funny cat pics and other highly important things of that nature. None of this would be possible without the humble Web Browser. In my case I use Firefox most of the time but I have been known to dabble with Chrome and Opera just to keep things interesting. The browser has come a long way since the days of Mosaic and there’s certainly a lot more to do and a lot more information on the web these days and that trend isn’t likely to change any time soon so the browser is surely one of the most important applications we techs rely on.

Which are your most used IT tools? Feel free to share in the comments below!

Firewall Management Tools

Firewall Management ToolsWhether you are a provider of general IT services, an MSP, or if you specialize in managed security services also known as an MSSP (which sounds cool but unfortunately doesn’t mean you are managing MI6 like M in a Bond movie), one of the major components of the security system you manage for your clients is going to be firewalls of one kind or another.

To quote Wikipedia, a firewall is a:

“software or hardware-based network security system that controls the incoming and outgoing network traffic by analyzing the data packets and determining whether they should be allowed through or not, based on applied rule set.”

Which means when you are managing a firewall you could be doing anything from fiddling with arcane configuration settings in a text file or command line, to clicking some big shiny buttons on a fancy interface with a smart wizard to make it all automagically work for you. These firewalls can be installed on a server or desktop PC, or can be dedicated appliances protecting your network in the office or datacenter.

Those which are typically installed on a desktop computer include apps like ZoneAlarm, Avast and AVG while commonly on a server running Linux for example you would likely be dealing with IPtables which is a whole lot of fun! Fortunately there are some wrappers for IPtables which aim to make it just a tiny bit less complex, for example CSF which is popular on CPanel servers (but doesn’t require it) and UFW which is widely used on Ubuntu and others of that ilk.

On the hardware side there is of course the big names you’d expect in this space such as Cisco as well as Checkpoint which does a nice line in firewalls for small to medium sized businesses, and Fortigate which also has a nice range from the entry level 100 series and on up to the big and expensive enterprise systems. I’m quite partial to the Fortigate solution and use it with a number of clients where suitable, for example in the datacenter protecting their servers or in their office protecting the corporate network. It’s easy to remotely manage with a web based interface as well as command line (ssh) and a VPN.

These days as with other aspects of computing, “The Cloud” has moved into the firewall arena as well in the form of Cloud Based Security Services such as that provided by CheckPoint and others and for a monthly fee your network security is handled for you or of course for your clients if security is not your area of expertise. If it is your area then the many MSSP tools around these days will be right up your alley.

With the prevalence of ever more advanced (while also easier to use) security scanning tools it is something of an arms race in the computer security world so you have to stay up to date with the latest happenings in order to fully protect your own systems and those you manage for your customers, from malicious hackers and script kiddies, not to mention a widening array of three letter agencies as well!

Accounting Tools

In any business there is the requirement to manage the company accounts, never a fun thing to do but absolutely necessary if you actually want to stay in business and don’t want the dreaded taxman breathing down your neck. The old way was to hire an accountant and possibly also a bookkeeper, either in-house or an external service, to manage the whole mess and you just had to send that shoebox full of receipts along every month or at the end of the tax year (typically at the last minute!) to whoever you hired for that.

These days though we have computers and “the cloud” and we (sometimes) know how to use them. Needless to say the advent of modern computers also brought with it computerized accounting tools which eventually matured enough to become useable by people that were not raised on a diet of Pi to 200 places. This is of course great for small businesses, particularly IT business because we (in theory) are smart cookies who know how to use a computer and can quickly learn any new fangled software that crosses our desk. The reality is not always like that though and accounting can still be something of a dark art even with such software.

One of the most widely used accounting applications is of course QuickBooks which has been around for a long time now and integrates with pretty much every other business application on the planet such as PSA’s, Quoting tools, Helpdesk apps, Time Tracking tools and on and on and is in fact the one I use in my IT business. In more recent times QuickBooks has also made the move into the Cloud, no doubt due to the increasing success and popularity of young upstart cloud accounting services which were snapping at their heels and now threatening to run off ahead.

Freshbooks appears to be very popular with millions of users and is available through a (somewhat limited) free version as well as a bunch of reasonably priced paid plans which also include “Awesomeness”, or so they say. They also aim to make the accounting process as painless as possible and it can be accessed from just about any device these days.

Xero is a slick looking system which they call “beautiful accounting software” – can accounting be beautiful to regular people and not just accountants? I’m not sure but they certainly give it the old school try. Not ones to be modest, they also claim to be “the world’s easiest accounting software” which I’m sure is highly debatable but they do seem to have a good reputation.

Zoho Invoice – is there anything that Zoho doesn’t do these days? At this rate they’ll soon progress to actually running every business out there so us biz owners can get on with more important things like sailing around the Mediterranean. They also have a free plan as well as paid and it is pretty much what you’d expect to find with a Zoho app in terms of look and feel and functionality.

Sage 50 (UK version here) has a loooong history, going back to the 70’s in fact which is practically prehistoric in computing terms, so by now it must be pretty!

Outright, now known as GoDaddy Online Bookkeeping, is as the name suggests an online accounting application now owned by domain registrar GoDaddy.

Intacct is not what I would call a budget system since the price for what they call “smaller companies” starts from just $400 per MONTH! Compare that with others such as Xero and Freshbooks which charge around $20 – $30 for the starting packages, workingpoint starts from just $9 and even QuickBooks (online version) starts from around $13 – quite a significant difference!

Whichever accounting tool you choose, you’re still going to have to invest some time in learning how it all works to get the most from it. Also if you’re in IT services (which you probably are if you’re reading this blog!) you’re going to want to make sure it integrates with your other business apps such as your PSA or Ticketing system. Many such apps these days are certainly working towards hiding the complexity as much as possible however proper accountants are not about to be put out of work any time soon, if anything they just have an easier time now sorting out the mess their clients bring to them!

Sales Quoting Tools

Sales Quoting ToolsWhen you are in the business of selling products or services, in this case IT services but the same applies to any other type, sooner of later you will quite likely need to create a quote of some kind to send to a potential customer (or even an existing customer for additional services) if you actually want to make any money that is! On the face of it, this may seem like a simple task – customer asks for price quote on a service you sell, you scribble something down and send it by fax or email, customer accepts it and sends back signed copy (hopefully), job done.

In reality it can be a lot more complicated than that, including multiple products and services with varying prices, discounts, markups, taxes and who knows what else. On top of that it may need to be worked on by multiple people and sent to one or more potential customers in a range of formats. All the details need to be logged and tracked so when the customer responds you know what exactly he or she is responding to and why you quoted what you did in the first place (to avoid that “what was I thinking?!” reaction) and of course when it was quoted and a host of other important points. On top of all that it will need to be integrated with your other business applications such as a CRM or PSA tool so you can pass the relevant data back and forth between as needed.

All this initially unforeseen complexity has given rise to a whole range of products catering specifically to this process and to press home that point they nearly all have “quote” in the name – Socket being the odd one out (what were they thinking?!) from those mentioned in this article. The applications follow the typical pattern these days of being either installable software, such as QuoteWerks, or web/cloud based such as Quote Roller.

Starting with the installables, there is QuoteWerks which is a very comprehensive quoting system that offers pretty much every possible quote related feature you could think of and then some. On the integration side it seems to have it all – many accounting systems such as QuickBooks and Sage 50, CRM/PSA systems such as CommitCRM (which itself has a quoting module) and Salesforce, a long list of distributors and various others. There is also an API to allow for custom integrations.

Moving swiftly on to the trendy web based quoting apps, there are quite a few to choose from here and as you’d expect from a web app they do tend to look very modern and flashy. But how do they measure up on the features front?

Starting with Quote Roller which looks very nice, with bright colors, fancy charts and all the usual features you’d expect from a quoting app. It also has pretty decent list of integration options with many billing systems, CRM’s, project management and others so it should be very useable for many people.

NM Quote is another web based quoting system but appears to have less options with regard to integration and is instead focused more on the core quoting function.

iQuote Xpress is more of a CRM, rather than just a quoting tool even if the focus is on quoting and sales. It is web based,covers the bases you’d expect and has various integration options. You can have your account setup there in “as little as a few days” they say but I’m not sure why it should take days rather than minutes to get started with a SaaS app!

Quotegine thinks quotes should be fun and tries to make them so while still being useful, you will have to try it to find whether or not you agree!

Socket, despite the non-quotey name, lets you “create quotes in the cloud”, so they say anyway. It features a nice simple interface and can even be embedded in your own site by pasting in a bit of javascript.

Whichever quoting system you choose you should ensure it can be easily integrated with your existing business applications and processes and can be learned and used by your staff without too much effort.

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