1 Delivering Support Services Through the World Wide Web Nathan J. Muller Payoff Decentralized corporate operations using client/server and remote access technologies have expanded the responsibilities of the help desk at a time when budgets and staff are shrinking. As a result, many organizations are leveraging their existing Internet connections to provide technical support over the World Wide Web. Web-based support is an efficient and cost-effective method of extending services worldwide while freeing up help desk staff for more pressing problems. Introduction The traditional help desk provides network, systems, and applications support for internal corporate users. But in recent years, the trend toward corporate downsizing has expanded the help desk function to include telecommuter sites and branch and international offices locations that often are too expensive to tie into the corporate backbone network through leased lines or switched digital services. At the same time, customers are becoming more demanding and deluging companies of all types and sizes with requests for technical support for the hardware and software they purchase. Customers want expert assistance when they need it, regardless of business hours. This increased demand for service combined with limited budgets and staff has led companies to seek a more efficient and economical approach to delivering support to customers and internal users. One of the ways companies are extending their support operations is through the Internet, specifically, the World Wide Web (WWW). Conceived in 1990 at the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland(CERN), the Web was originally designed as a means of facilitating the distribution and access of research papers among scientists around the world. The Web has since grown to become one of the most sophisticated and popular services on the Internet, which, according to various industry estimates, now has between 20 and 30 million users worldwide. The Web's characteristics make it particularly suited to the delivery of technical support for both internal users and customers. The Web provides intuitive, graphical navigation from any place and from any platform. Businesses that use the Web for delivering support services assert that speeding up problem resolution through the Web more than justifies the cost of setting up a Web site. Characteristics of the World Wide Web The Web can best be described as a dynamic, interactive, graphically oriented, distributed, platform-independent, hypertext, client/server information system. Dynamic Features. The WWW is dynamic because it changes daily. New Web servers are continually being added to the estimated 250,000 already online. New information is also being continually added, as are new hypertext links and innovative services many of which are commercial.
2 Interactivity. The WWW is interactive in that specific information can be requested through various search engines and returned moments later in the form of lists, with each item weighted according to how well it matched the search parameters. Another example of interactivity is online forms for business transactions, whereby users can select items from a catalog, fill out an order form, and send it by electronic mail. Graphics. The WWW is graphically oriented; in fact, it was designed for the extensive use of graphics. The use of graphics not only makes the Web visually appealing but also easy to navigate. Graphical sign posts direct users to new sources of information accessed through hypertext links. More recently, sound and video capabilities have been added to the Web. A Distributed System. The WWW is distributed, meaning that information resides on hundreds of thousands of individual Web servers around the world. If one site goes down, there is no significant impact on the Web as a whole, except that access to that site is denied. Some servers are mirrored at other sites to keep information available, even if the primary server fails. Platform Independence. The WWW is platform-independent, which means that virtually any client can access the Web, whether it is based on the Windows, OS/2, Macintosh, or UNIX operating environment. This platform independence even applies to the Web servers. Although most Web servers are based on UNIX, Windows NT is growing in popularity and may become the platform of choice among developers of new sites. Hypertext Links. The WWW makes extensive use of hypertext links. A hypertext link is usually identified by an underlined word or phrase, or by a graphic symbol that points the way to other information, which may be found virtually anywhere: the same document, a different document on the same server, or another document on a different server that may be located anywhere in the world. A hypertext link does not necessarily point to text documents; it can point to maps, forms, images, sound and video clips, or applications such as electronic mail, Telnet, and remote-printer. Hypertext links can even point to other Internet resources such as Gopher (a menu-based system for text-only documents)sites and UseNet (topical discussion groups). A Client/Server Network. The Web operates as a vast client/server network. The clients are the millions of individual PCs and workstations that run Web navigation software such as Netscape Navigator and Mosaic. These browsers render the text and graphics retrieved from the servers, which are coded in the HyperText Markup Language (HTML). The servers are interconnected by Internet links that run the hypertext transmission protocol (HTTP). The Business Case For Web-Based Support By publishing support information on the World Wide Web, companies can project a professional image while meeting the routine informational needs of diverse constituents at greatly reduced overhead expense. This, in turn, has strategic ramifications.
3 For example, an engineering department can use an internal Web server for distributing technical documentation and drawings to suppliers and customers, as well as to design consultants, anywhere in the world. This can greatly speed product development and shorten the time to market. Companies also can use the Web server to distribute help information, drivers, software patches, and other commonly requested items to customers. This saves staff time and mailing costs while meeting the support needs of customers on a timely basis. Posting product configuration and troubleshooting advice on the Web can ease the telephone bottleneck and reduce support costs. This, in turn, increases customer satisfaction and hence customer loyalty. Banks and other financial institutions are turning to the Web to offer a variety of customer support services. Not only can bank customers retrieve information about various services and products, in some cases they can access a range of additional services, such as applying for credit and checking account balances. In the near future, such services will be expanded to include online banking, with Web pages providing banks with an alternative to building new branches. Brokerage houses are enabling investors to track their portfolios over the Web and even trade securities in real time. The movement of banking and other financial services to the Web provides institutions with a strategic advantage, because convenience increasingly accounts for the influx of new customers. Delivering Web-Based Support Using the Web to Enhance Network Support Many companies are finding that the Web is an ideal medium for enhancing systems and network support. The following are some of the routine tasks being implemented over the Web: LAN managers at distributed locations troubleshoot systems and network problems by accessing an HTML-coded data base stored in an internal Web server. The Web server makes a valuable adjunct to the help desk, especially when corporate locations are spread across multiple time zones. Service requests are dispatched electronically to carriers, vendors, and third-party maintenance firms through standardized forms written in HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Remote sites that are too small to justify the expense of being tied into the corporate backbone network expedite inventory management by using HTML forms to convey, move, add, and change information to a central management console. Among other things, forms also can be used to report trouble and request technical assistance. Remote sites too small to afford private lines or switched digital services can tie into central help desk facilities through dialup lines. All that is needed is a SLIP/PPP (Serial Line Internet Protocol/Point-to-Point Protocol) account from an Internet service provider, which can cost as little as $10 per month per user. SLIP/PPP essentially enables the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) suite to be run over ordinary phone lines. Access to the Web server can be secured through user IDs, passwords, and site IDs to prevent unauthorized usage and break-ins.
4 Additional security can be provided by a firewall, which allows all traffic to leave the server but screens incoming traffic in ways that control various levels of access. For example, all packets directed at the firewall can be filtered to block access to unauthorized ports. Or connections can be allowed only from authorized hosts. The firewall administrator can grant or deny access from a broad level down to specific host/port combinations. Help Desk Support for Remote Users and Customers In keeping with the trend toward increasingly decentralized corporate operations using client/server and remote access technologies, the traditionally centralized help desk is giving way to a more distributed approach. Accordingly, new ways of delivering help desk support are being implemented. For a long time, many companies relied on bulletin board systems (BBSs),which enable remote users and customers to dial into data bases that provide answers to common problems. The big advantage of bulletin board systems is that they are available 24 hours a day and provide answers to the most frequently asked questions, thus conserving corporate resources. The disadvantage of such systems is that they are often difficult to navigate. In addition, because users typically pay long distance phone charges while they attempt to learn arcane commands, they are reluctant to use such systems. Internet access, on the other hand, entails only a local SLIP/PPP connection to an Internet service provider. For a flat monthly fee, users have unlimited access to a variety of services, including the World Wide Web. Unlike BBSs, the Web uses a standardized method of navigation. Today, companies are capitalizing on the growing popularity of the Internet and are leveraging their existing Internet connections to offer support services over the Web. Although a growing number of vendors offer Web-based modules that work in conjunction with their help desk systems, support applications can easily be developed inhouse with the C language, or a derivative such as Perl (practical extraction report language). For example, a user at a branch office that is not connected to the corporate backbone network can dial into the company's Web server and fill out a standard help request form. By clicking on the form's send button, the completed form is processed by the server's program and sent to the help desk by , where it is logged, acknowledged, and responded to based on the reported severity of the problem. Exhibit 1 shows the scrollable online form filled out by the user. Exhibit 2 shows the message that arrives at the corporate help desk through the Web server. Scrollable Online Help Desk Form Message Received by the Corporate Help Desk Through the Web Server
5 Date: Thu, 7 Sep :25: To: (Help Desk) From: Sam.Retman Reply-to: (Sam Retman) This is a request for technical assistance from Sam Retman, who is reachable at Sam Retman can also be reached as follows: Location: Mission Viejo Phone number: The kind of technical assistance Sam Retman needs is related to hardware installation. The type of system Sam Retman has is: IBM thinkpad OS/2 Warp 3.0 Sam Retman has categorized the severity of the problem as: SERIOUS The problem seems to occur intermittently. The version of the software/firmware Sam Retman uses is: Don't Know Sam Retman believes the following additional informaiton is relevant: Laptop reboots by itself. The power supply may be faulty Here is some informaiton about Sam Retman's machine and connections: Server protocol: HTTP/1.0 Server port: 80 Remote host: nmuller.iquest.com Remote IP address: Vendor Add-On Modules As noted, vendors are recognizing the potential of Internet connections for augmenting help desk operations and offer add-on modules that integrate the Web with their LAN -based support products. Problem Reporting and Resolution. Remedy Corp. of Mountain View CA and the Molloy Group of Parsippany NJ provide two examples of problem-reporting features. ARWeb. Remedy Corp. offers ARWeb, a program that connects its Action Request (AR)System with Web browsers. ARWeb permits browsers, such as Mosaic or Netscape Navigator, to function as read-only clients of the Action Request System. This gives end users the capability to submit a trouble ticket, look up a ticket, and check its resolution
6 status. Users also have access to the AR System data base of problem solutions as well as to third-party knowledge data bases for more solutions. Cognitive . The Molloy Group of Parsippany NJ allows remote users and customers to use the Internet to report problems directly to its Technical and Office Protocol Of MIND help desk software using its Cognitive feature. Received messages are imported into TOP Of MIND, and the system automatically opens a trouble ticket for each one and starts the problem diagnosis/resolution process using artificial intelligence technology. Configuration Support and Troubleshooting. The Web is also being used to deliver configuration support and troubleshooting assistance. WebManage. One innovative Configuration Management application from Tribe Computer Works of Alameda CA offers routers, switches, and remote-access servers. Through firmware called WebManage, which contains an integral home page to display and configure network device settings, customers can view and interact with the devices using Netscape Navigator. Using hypertext links for quick movement between management functions and Tribe's technical support servers, WebManage allows a network manager to get immediate answers to setup or troubleshooting questions. Different views and access privileges can even be created that vary by user log in and password. Network Management. Some hub vendors, such as the Thomas-Conrad Corp. of Austin TX, offer network management capabilities over the Web. A Built-In Web Server. As part of its Simple Network Management Protocol (simple network management protocol)-based management processor for its 100VG-AnyLAN Hub, Thomas-Conrad offers a built-in Web server. The Web server can be accessed from a LAN, or over dialup Internet connections. The user's browser software provides a Graphical User Interface to configure ports, display hub status, and view statistical information. Because Internet browsing software is available on many platforms, users can benefit from WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) management, whether they use IBM, UNIX, or Macintosh-based computers. This method of support is designed for users who do not need all the management features of a full SNMP software package but who still require management capabilities delivered in a friendly manner over the network. Customer Support. Several vendors offer support modules that allow organizations to provide customer service through the World Wide Web.
7 Target WebLink. Marlboro MA-based Target Systems offers the product support module Target WebLink, which allows organizations to create a home page containing customizable incident-logging forms with direct links to a customer support center. Customers can access the forms through the support center via the Web and log incidents directly. Every aspect of the forms is customizable, including screen color, fonts, fields, and workflow rules. Companies that provide customer support worldwide can use WebLink to create multilingual forms or different forms in different languages. ClearExpress WebSupport. Clarify, Inc., of San Jose CA also offers a Web-based customer support solution. ClearExpress WebSupport is an extension of the company's Customer Service Management (CSM) system. It consists of two components: a data server and a set of HTML templates. The first component, WebSupport Data Server, is tightly integrated with ClearSupport, the company's customer service and support application, which handles problem diagnostics, call handling, service contract verification, and report generation. The data server component provides a real-time, secure connection between the Web server and the server and data base used by ClearSupport. Additionally, data specific to the Web interface such as usage and traffic is maintained for reporting purposes. The other component, WebSupport Forms, consists of a set of preconfigured HTML templates that companies can use out-of-the-box or customize to fit their business needs. The templates include fill-in forms for new and open cases, as well as prompts to search the Clarify data base. Adapting Text Data Bases For Web Access Companies that have gone to considerable time and expense to set up distributed support data bases with such products as Lotus Notes and Folio Corp.'s Folio Views can now adapt them for WWW access. InterNotes Web Publisher InterNotes Web Publisher (from Lotus Development Corp.) enables users to publish their Notes applications to the Internet. Notes is a leading client/server platform for developing and deploying groupware applications that help organizations communicate, collaborate, and coordinate strategic business processes, including support operations. Notes presents data in Forms and Views. Forms show a particular data base record, and Views provides a summary of some or all of the data base. Like a Web document, a Form can contain rich text and graphics, making Notes suitable as a platform for Web publishing. In addition, Notes' DocLinks icon functions exactly like a hypertext link used in a Web document. Rather than requiring dedicated staff to convert existing documents into HTML, InterNotes Web Publisher leverages Notes' distributed authoring and management environment to automatically populate Web sites. Individual authors prepare their own information in Notes. Using Notes' replication and distributed storage model, authors from various locations contribute documents to the corporate Web server. The product's selective replication feature even allows specific portions of a data base to be extracted for HTML translation and publication on the Web. InterNotes Web Publisher then automatically
8 converts Notes data bases, documents, and DocLinks into HTML so that they are accessible to popular Web browsers such as Mosaic or Netscape. As content changes and as contributors submit new Notes material, InterNotes Web Publisher automatically updates the pages, as well as all links that refer to the new documents, without any manual intervention. Items can be programmed to show a New sign, or to be present on the Web site for only a specified period of time. InterNotes Web Publisher, which runs on Windows NT and OS/2 servers, also gives Notes authors more flexibility in presenting information. It allows HTML commands or whole HTML documents to be embedded in Notes documents. Folio Corp. Folio Corp. offers Infobase Web Server, which enables users to publish their Folio Views infobases on the Internet. An infobase is a repository of text, graphics, and multimedia objects. Infobases are created by the Folio Views Infobase Production Kit (IPK), which is used to structure information with such aids as embedded notes, highlighters, and hypertext links. Folio Views also features a powerful search-and-retrieve capability. The Web server translates infobases into HTML on-the-fly for viewing with a Web browser, leaving infobases in their native format. Because there is only one copy of the infobase to update, maintenance is simplified and infobases can be authored once for distribution on CD -ROM, floppy disk, and PC LANs. When an infobase is accessed from the server, the user is presented with the infobase information screen or taken to a particular point in the infobase by a link. The buttons at the top of the screen Document, Contents, and Query provide navigation assistance through the infobase. The Document button takes the user directly to the body of the infobase. The Contents button displays a multilevel contents list, with each level capable of being expanded or collapsed by clicking on its associated icon. The Query button allows the user to perform key word search and retrieval. The dialog box displays a map of the results as well as the number of hits. The Web Server, which runs on the Windows NT platform, also provides firewall security. With the firewall in place, the server allows access to only specified persons or IP addresses. Users can be restricted by password and IP address or by a complete subnet of IP address. Even users from a particular IP address or range of addresses can be specified. Conclusion Businesses are showing a clear trend toward leveraging existing Internet connections and exploiting the forms-handling capabilities of the Web to extend help desk and customer support functions worldwide. This frees staff from handling time-consuming telephone calls for routine problems and can shield them from some of the abrasiveness inherent in verbal exchanges. Delivering support electronically can also lower stress levels among support staff and permit them to devote more attention to high-priority problems. From the buyer's perspective, the ability of vendors to provide online support services should be considered in any major purchase of systems and network components. Anything less can result in prolonged downtime, lost productivity, and hinder the ability of the organization to serve customers in a timely manner.
9 Author Biographies Nathan J. Muller Nathan J. Muller is an independent consultant in Huntsville AL specializing in advanced technology marketing and education. He has 25 years of industry experience and has written extensively on many aspects of computers and communications. His latest of 11 books is The Webmaster's Guide to HTML (New York NY: McGraw-Hill, 1996). He operates a Web page for IS and network professionals called Strategic Information Resources, which can be found at