The National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources project (NeCTAR) provides an online infrastructure to help researchers connect with colleagues in Australia and around the world, allowing them to collaborate and share ideas and research outcomes. NeCTAR is broken up into programs of work — NeCTAR Virtual Labs which are rich, domain-oriented online environments that draw together research data, models, analysis tools and workflows and NeCTAR Research Cloud that provides computing infrastructure, software and services that allow Australia’s research community to access and share computational models, tools, data and collaboration environments.
Currently, the NeCTAR Research Cloud has over 8500 registered users.
A siloed email-only environment
Established under the Australian government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), NeCTAR supports its research scientists through email, phone, chat and a portal which includes a knowledge base and discussion forums.
“The most common support channel”, says Nick Golovachenko, Support Manager at NeCTAR, “is email. People submit a ticket through the portal or they email the support address. If the issue impacts production, they quickly hop onto chat and let us know they’ve submitted a ticket. And we can reply to them quickly using phone or chat. That’s something we weren’t able to do earlier.”
Previously, users could get in touch with NeCTAR’s support team only over email. The tool they were using, Request Tracker was not set up to support other channels. Even though it was open source software that had been customised for their environment, they felt the shortcoming keenly.
“Since we’ve switched to Freshdesk,” Nick confides, “we’ve seen an increase in chat, which people use to connect with us and ask questions directly. But the channel that has really impacted our support is the knowledge base.”
“We were getting about 400 tickets a month in our previous system but since we set up our knowledge base, this number has dropped to about 150-200 tickets a month.”
On structuring the support team
“We have about about 200 tickets a month”, Wilfred Brimblecombe, Operations Manager at NeCTAR, pitches in, “but we’ve got only about one agent on it at any time. We have approximately 65 support agents on Freshdesk, out of which 20 are federated helpdesk people. The other 45 are Sysadmins from tier 3 organisational groups and a couple of managers like Nick and I. So, one of our challenges when we were choosing a helpdesk was to make sure it flows nicely even though we’ve got all these slices of people doing support.”
NeCTAR’s support situation is unique, to say the least. They are a federation of 8 nodes (organisations and institutions) distributed over 7 states, running OpenStack. The nodes do tier 1 support for users, tier 2 support is provided by the distributed helpdesk and tier 3 goes to specialised experts. “For instance, there’s a High Performance Computing group, a Storage Service group, all of whom are using our service as a part of our organisational aim of providing e-research support. However, these groups have their own individual portals. We just concentrate on the core services we support. We’re not a traditional single organisation. We’re, I suppose, multiple.”, says Nick.
And of course, there’s Tier 0 or self-service as they like to call it. But all of this, the tiered approach to support, is relatively recent. Before Freshdesk, NeCTAR’s support situation was very different.
Previously, with NeCTAR
“When I came on board we already had some requirements in place for the support tool. We had a list or requirements — multiple channels, more than email – phone, chat, portal, mobile, multi-tenancy. It had to be flexible enough that our own people could configure and change the workflows and do things in it rather than have consultants come in to do it. It had to be cost effective. It had to fulfil certain parts of the ITIL stack. It had to be on the cloud.” Wilfred let on.
NeCTAR’s shortlist was quite extensive — they took inputs from their peers and added some industry leaders like Freshdesk, Zendesk and Landesk as well. When the team narrowed it down, they found Freshdesk to be the most suitable of all the contenders — it fulfilled all of their requirements, phone, chat, multi-tenancy portals and in a more bang for buck manner.
“We were able to configure and customise it in-house. No consultants necessary.”
“The portal aspect was one of the most important considerations – the fact that we can do individual portals means a great deal, since we have org units that we want to support because they’re a part of our federation, but not necessarily as closely linked.”
Closing the loop
When NeCTAR went live with Freshdesk, it provided the impetus for a substantial overhaul of support materials. OpenStack and the NeCTAR cloud have been rapidly evolving technologies and the need to keep materials up-to-date and fit-for-purpose has been a continuing challenge.
“We weren’t always closing the loop and we weren’t collecting knowledge based on the types of problems we were getting. But now that we have a knowledge base, our support agents can tune up knowledge base articles with the missing bits. It’s not a true KCS framework but we’re getting there.”
The ability to link a kbase article in a ticket reply is a favorite feature for many NeCTAR support agents.
“Our agents love that they can just link an article without explaining the same thing over and over again to people. And for us,” Wilfred elaborates, “it means more consistent answers to repeated problems.”
“Another feature that really helps with this is ticket tagging. If there’s a trend that’s developing in our support requests, we can quickly tag that trend and then collect information if we have to do a PIR (Post Implementation Review) afterwards of the incidents we’ve received about that.”
Service level targets and integrations
NeCTAR’s efforts to improve their user support include making not just the ticket submission process but the ticket resolution process easier.
The team has integrated Freshdesk into the dashboard for the NeCTAR Research Cloud. This way, users can submit requests and look up knowledge base articles through the dashboard. They’ve also built an integration that pre-populates support tickets by leveraging the Freshdesk API.
“The NeCTAR Research Cloud is based on Open Stack. When a user submits a request, we’ve built an integration that makes Freshdesk scan for information about their instance and add it to the ticket — all of that relevant information is there for when agents start attending to the problem.”
The team also set themselves a service target to improve user support — a 2 hour resolution window for requests. Previously, it was best effort but now they’re actively measuring service targets to make sure they’re delivering the best experience possible.
On bringing their team onboard
“We’ve got a much better user experience now.”, Wilfred says. “When we first put Freshdesk in, a lot of our technologists took a while to adjust to it — they like very rich, detailed and customisable software and they love to do the customisation and build it themselves. But from an end user’s perspective, and an agent’s perspective, we’ve got a much more engaging user interface now.
“And even those technologists…they don’t mind it now. They actually did some hands-on work. So, that’s a bit of a clue — pick up people who don’t like it, get them to write some code…
“That’s just change management.” Nick laughs.
Support as a service
“Support’s been fantastic. It’s a good feature.”
“What we do is, if there’s a gap or something we don’t like, we make a note and share it with the team. We try to actively give Freshdesk feedback and the support we’ve received is number one.”
“We do face issues once in a while,” Wilfred says. “but overall, it’s been a great experience. We wanted a one-stop location for support and Freshdesk has helped us improve our user support by meeting those requirements.”