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Virtual Tech Support is on the Rise

By Amy Zuckerman

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For many companies the days of resolving tech problems through phone based help desks are long gone, being superseded by ever more advanced formers of remote tech support tools.

 

In the growing world of virtual tech support, IDC Research Manager, Matt Healey, said increasingly advanced solutions mean that tech support personnel can take over the mouse, keyboard and video, and “fix anything as if they were sitting right there.”

 

These newer solutions, provided by vendors ranging from WebEx to Citrix Online and Bomgar Corp., among others, can serve an enterprise with multiple machines, versus earlier remote control software that required each PC to carry the solution individually. That meant only one machine could be accessed at any given time. 

 

Healey is finding the newer tools “getting lots of traction for companies with a lot of remote workers, with high-tech companies that have to support their products and don't know where or how they’re being deployed, or for services providers with a suite of clients that can’t be supported by rolling out a truck.”

 

With the increase in teleworking and rise of remote workers, Healey believes that the world of remote tech support is going to mushroom and, in some cases, provides the ability to create “virtual” IT departments. Calling this “a pretty aggressive market,” he’s expecting sales of remote tech support solutions to almost triple in the next four years from $126 million in 2007 to $335 million in 2012.

 

“I think CIOs need to look into this technology over the next 12 to 18 months to see if is applicable to their organization” and determine if “these tools will allow the help desk to be more efficient.” But he warns that the move to virtual work places “won’t ratchet back.”

 

“Forward thinking companies have turned support into a key differentiator and profit center. By being able to provide instant, virtual ‘hands-on’ support, companies have been able to differentiate themselves from competitors and offer higher, profitable support packages,” said Colin Smith of Cisco Corporate Communications.

 

Cisco owns WebEx, which provides two on-demand solutions to serve internal staff or provide external tech support capabilities—Cisco WebEx Support and Cisco WebEx System Management. Both products adhere to strict national and international website authentication and data encryption standards, according to Smith.

 

Most vendors in this market provide the solution as a hosted application, meaning the customer or services provider pays a monthly or annual fee to the vendors. According to Healey, the traditional software licensing model is also available and is often used to support internal employees.

 

Bomgar, located in Ridgeland, Miss. is reportedly one of the few vendors that offers customers an appliance,  a fully loaded server to plug into a corporate network that sits behind the company’s firewall. Joel Bomgar, co-founder and CEO, used to work as a consultant for a small technology integrator and grew tired of driving from site to site every time he had to fix a problem. Most of the time was spent “on the road, burning gas and being inefficient.”

 

He developed the first version of what would become Bomgar’s product “ … so I could work from home or a coffee shop and fix computer problems from any place in the world in seconds.” What started as a personal quest grew into a business as Bomgar noted the rise of the virtual work place where “ … suddenly you’ve got people working everywhere from park benches to coffee shops,” which meant deploying technology to “support them anywhere.”

 

The next step was applying the product to help desks and tech support departments so they could connect to end users via the Internet and work “ … without constraints of fire walls or geography,” explained Nathan McNeill, co-founder and vice president of Product Strategy.

 

Five years later, Bomgar has 4,000 customers some of whom use the product to serve their internal staff and others who provide tech support virtually to external customers. As the solution has evolved, Healey said it can “de-couple IT personnel from the task they need to complete,” meaning organizations “ … effectively virtualize the support side of an IT departments for a wider range of benefits.”

 

Ease of Access

 

Here’s how it works: An organization decides to create virtual tech support capabilities, either for internal staff or external customers, and installs a Bomgar “box.” Users seeking help can connect to a special Website  and download an application that opens access to the Bomgar solution, which starts a tech support session. The user then choose to end the session and the application is removed from their desktop.

Because of the Web access, McNeill said the solution can be used by "IT departments supporting 1,000 employees or an IT vendor supporting their customers anywhere in the world. It doesn't matter where (the end user) is." An average deployment of Bomgar can support up to 20 reps concurrently, he added.

 

To ensure security and minimize the exposure of sensitive data that  may be viewed in the remote sessions, Bomgar’s hardware appliance is placed within the company's own network and firewall. According to McNeill, the appliance is placed with an outward connection to the Internet, similar to an email server. Plus, he said everything taking place during a session was logged, allowing the administrator to audit and manage the process.

 

Beringer Associates in Pennsauken, N.J., a provider of managed network services, VoIP phone systems and CRM software to over 1,000 small and medium-sized businesses nationwide, has installed the Bomgar product for about a year to replace traditional phone based tech support.

 

Although Beringer had experimented with any number of programs that allowed their 12 support reps remote access to customers’ desktops, Beringer Vice President David Buggy said Bomgar’s was the only one they found that allowed them through customer firewalls with sufficient auditing to meet the security needs of their many financial services industry clients.

 

According to Buggy, Beringer benefits “ … by having our reps as productive as they can be, while the customer benefits by not having to be bothered with connectivity issues. With previous solutions, the rep would first have to uncover how to connect with the customer before they could even begin the troubleshooting process. Additionally, the customer always had to be available to grant the support rep permission for access to the system after a reboot.”

 

He says the fact that support representatives can connect remotely and perform their job has not only given the existing reps great reliability, but means that Beringer is able to deliver services consistently with locations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Florida. In addition, Buggy says they have integrated Bomgar with their trouble ticket system, so once a ticket is opened, they can immediately connect via Bomgar and have a complete history of the service process once it is complete.

 

Some of the most significant benefits of remote tech support, according to Buggy, are reduced travel time, shorter time to resolution, and enhanced productivity. Support service levels have also been expanded, he added.

 

Virtual IT support “ … doesn’t change how our own IT is provided, but it certainly changes how we do business, in general,” added Buggy. Besides serving external customers, support reps use the tools to collaborate on problems via their desktops rather than meeting face to face. “It can certainly make an internal IT department more productive and efficient because (these tools) make providing support more efficient.”

 

Healey said there are pitfalls to the virtual tech support model, however. The service provided may be handled remotely, but it’s only as good as the tech support provided. Humans still have to actually resolve the tech problems and be able to maintain the technology. The winning product, he added, will be the one that is easiest for the tech professional to use.