RT Scratches a Trouble-Ticketing Itch

Ticketing systems do much more than keep track of issues that need to be addressed. They foster collaboration, track institutional knowledge, track tasks, and even keep tabs on assets.

Much available help desk software is quite bland, with two exceptions: open source RT and the more corporate Remedy Help Desk. The two have quite different goals, but they both do one common thing: track trouble tickets. The question is, which one will meet your needs?

RT, or Request Tracker, by Best Practical is an open source software package for managing help desk requests. RT has a wonderful user interface, and is also very good at keeping an audit trail of all activity performed on a ticket. Users or IT staff can initiate tickets, and all responses and updates are kept within a single ticket. Of course, that’s how you’d want it to work, but don’t take that seemingly core functionality for granted. RT is also very good at tracking projects or tasks.

Remedy, now a product of BMC Software, includes many pieces of software including Service Desk and the Action Request System. On BMC’s Web site, both product descriptions are chock-full of ITIL-based marketing terms with no real mention of their functionality. It’s certainly painful to read about. Everyone, literally everyone, I’ve encountered who talks about ticketing systems, shuns Remedy for its lack of functionality and overall brokenness. Based on the marketing material, that’s not surprising.

So let’s take a look at the software that many are switching to.

RT likely began life as a result of someone’s frustration with Remedy. In the open source world, many pieces of software are born out of frustration rather than necessity. Plenty of software may exist, but if a large group of people all agree that no existing packages really meet some fundamental goals, an open source project will emerge.

The biggest advantage RT has going for it is that tickets can be created and updated by simply sending e-mail. Other products often require that users or help desk personnel log in to an interface and manually create a trouble ticket. They actually advertise this as "user self-service," but in reality it’s a pain. RT is completely Web-based, so it doesn’t require any software installations aside from installing RT on a Web server.

When users or staff members send e-mail to an RT queue, they get an auto-response acknowledging receipt of their ticket. Any time the ticket is updated, reassigned, closed, or any other action is taken, the affected parties will receive notice. This functionality really does streamline the help desk. Of course it is also possible to add notes to a ticket without sending anyone mail, which is great for internal comments that you wouldn’t want a customer to see.

RT’s Web interface isn’t perfect, but it is quite usable and intuitive. Searching for tickets is made easier in theory, by allowing users to click on every constraint they wish to search by, but it’s really cumbersome for sysadmins who are used to constructing complex search queries. Fortunately, that’s where RT’s drawbacks end; it’s all good news from here.

Perhaps the most flexible and attractive part of RT is that it makes team collaboration easier. RT "queues" are queues of tickets for each team, and they can be shared with other teams. Say you have a Unix queue, and a ticket arrives that requires the Networking team do some work first. You can assign it to the Networking queue, and when they’re done, they can hand off to Unix—and the entire workflow is tracked within one ticket.

Queues in RT are much more flexible than even that. Priorities can be assigned to tasks, and a queue can even be dedicated to "projects." This is a great way to unclutter a trouble ticket queue, and assign staff to work on the projects. RT’s display of the ticket also makes it very easy to construct a timeline of work that has been completed.

RT also includes an asset-tracking module, which adds a very nice mechanism for storing information about IT assets. It doesn’t have the ability to gather information for you like OCS, but it does provide adequate data entry capabilities, with a central location to view all assets.

Don’t forget, RT is open source; of course it’s easy to customize! "Open source" customization doesn’t mean that a developer needs to be dedicated to customizing the application, Like most open source software, RT realizes that it needs to make available a mechanism for site-specific customizations. RT includes well-documented APIs, Web page templates and extreme overall flexibility. All data is stored in a MySQL (or PostgreSQL, or Oracle) database, and can be searched by other applications or report generation software.

All in all, RT is the answer to nearly every gripe about previous generation trouble ticketing systems. RT is very stable and well maintained by a small company that also offers fully supported systems and maintenance contracts.

The masses demanded a more flexible ticket tracking system. Business opportunities for the existing vendors were lost, but a great product was born: RT. Projects, trouble tickets, bug tracking, project management and workflow documentation—use it for whatever you can dream up—RT can handle your creativity and whatever volume of tasks you throw at it.

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