Here at Lida we've had the opportunity to roll out Alemba's latest-and-greatest Alemba Service Manager (v10.4) at some of our clients, so we thought it might be timely to give you our impressions of the new world for vFire customers. Given the looming end-of-life for Internet Explorer 11, ASM 10 is going to be on nearly everyone's radar before too long!
The upgrade experience
We found the upgrade experience from later versions of v9 to be pretty painless. There are a couple of extra prerequisites to install on the server, but otherwise it was a pretty simple process. We've been told that sometimes upgrades need to take a more iterative approach (i.e. run the upgrade until it fails, work out why it failed, restore to the starting point, resolve the issue and run again), but we didn't experience any of those kinds of issues.
The other change to the upgrade process is the separate requirement to install the SyncFusion Dashboarding platform, if you plan to use it. We did find that a little bit fiddly to get up and running the first time. Give yourself a bit of time there to work through some of the configuration challenges and, as always, feel free to get in touch with us if you have any questions.
You may find there's a little bit of work getting your authentication up and running in IIS as well. That has changed quite a bit and there are a lot of different permutations depending on what you want to do - basic authentication, integrated authentication and SAML-based Single Sign On all have different setups from each other, and different setups between the Portal and Core. Look out for a blog about this, coming soon.
No more ActiveX!
No doubt the biggest change in ASM is the removal of all of the ActiveX controls that have been such a bugbear for so many years. No longer do you need to worry about packaging up and installing a new set of controls for all of your analysts, or getting someone with an admin password to run around and click ok on all of the install dialogue boxes. And no longer is ASM tied to IE11 - in fact, it doesn't work with IE11 at all anymore (to be precise, ASM Core doesn't work with IE11, and from ASM 10.4 on, neither does the Portal). It seems that Edge Chromium is the preferred browser, but we've run ASM in Firefox and Chrome without coming across any real issues.
Alemba's approach has generally been like-for-like with replacing the ActiveX controls, so Core will still be familiar to experienced users, albeit with a lick of paint and a few nice extras. We're hoping that, now that they're free from the constraints of ActiveX, Alemba might be able to introduce some nice modern touches to the Core interface over the next few releases - things like a quick and clean Kanban view of the Workload screen, a general reduction in clicks, more flexible use of screen real estate (maybe in tandem with untying screens from the legacy 4-column limitation), and an enhanced ability to undock screens (so you could view a request screen, its workflow and its history side-by-side, for example).
A new portal
The next most obvious change in ASM is an optional new skin for the portal - we think it is a big step forward.
Here are a few of the things we like about the new portal:
Global search at last!
Alemba have added a search box to the portal home page that lets you search for text across calls, requests, the service catalogue and the knowledge base. It's a great for a few reasons:
It lets users find specific tickets that they've logged in the past more easily
The knowledge search can help users resolve their own issues and answer their own questions
It makes finding the form the user wants amidst a big service catalogue much easier and faster
There are still a few usability enhancements that we're hoping Alemba might make - filtering could be handled a bit more nicely, it would be helpful to give admins more control over what users can see, and it would be good to have it also search some 'metadata' field on service actions, so you can define alias terms for the things your users are searching for. But all-in-all it's a great start and a very nice addition to the portal.
The menu across the top collapses into the standard three bar menu icon when viewing on a device. The single-column widgets arrange themselves vertically without any fuss. and the individual forms render their fields just as you'd expect. This is a big leap forward for encouraging users towards the portal - if nothing else, giving a manager the ability to access their pending approvals from their phone on the train on the way home can only ever be a good thing!
Calls and requests can be merged into 'items'
The distinction between requests (with a workflow behind them) and calls (without one) has always been a source of confusion for users. In reality, it isn't something they should ever need to care about. And with the new portal, they don't. A new My Items widget has been added to the portal which shows both calls and requests in a single view. In addition, searching for items returns both calls and requests. That change doesn't extend to Core (yet....but last we heard it was in the pipeline, so fingers crossed), so to help analysts know whether they're looking for a call or request, ASM helpfully prefaces the number with a C or an R in the portal.
Closing and re-opening calls
You now have the option to allow users to close and/or re-open their own calls in the portal. When activated, a new Close button appears in the review screen for open calls - they can then choose a reason for closing the call and add their comments. Similarly, when reviewing a closed call in the portal, users will see a Reopen button.
Search fields as dropdowns
Alemba have made some great improvement to search (lookup) fields in the portal over the last few years. Being able to "smart search" for an approving manager by typing part of their name and picking from a list of suggestions is much nicer than the old way of having to type "surname, first name", for example. With ASM, they take this a step further by allowing you to present search fields as dropdown fields, giving you truly dynamic dropdowns with the ability to link attributes to them.
Imagine that you have a software form that allows users to request automatic installation of approved free software. You'd want to drive the automation by creating the approved software items as configuration items, but presenting those to the user in a portal form could be problematic. For example, if you use a smart search field, the user can only see if a piece of software is approved by starting to type its name and seeing if there are any matches. The new functionality lets you present all of the approved software as a dropdown list, so the user can easily scan through and see what is there. And when they select something, the corresponding software configuration item is selected and can be used to automate the solution.
ASM also introduces a 'Popular Items' widget, to let you display your most requested Service Catalogue Items front-and-centre on the portal homepage. You can add as many items as you like via an admin screen in Core, letting your users access the forms to log a fault or request a new laptop, for example, with a single click from the homepage.
Rich text support
Textarea fields in portal forms now support rich text. The best thing about that is that users can now paste in screenshots of their errors, rather than having to save them to file and attach them. And analysts can then see them in Core without having to open the attachment first. A big time saver for everyone.
You can "Designer" the portal homepage
The portal homepage can now be almost entirely configured from within the Designer tool. You can reorder, rename and hide or show widgets like you would with any other form. A few new widgets have been added as well - calls awaiting action by your organisation, most recent calls and FAQ - and there's the tantalizing possibility of adding your own widgets as well in the future (although we think that Alemba still have some plans to enhance that before rolling it out in earnest).
Some enhancements to Core
Unlike the new portal skin, for the most part Core looks and feels similar to v9. There have been some styling changes, but the underlying layout and functionality will remain familiar to analysts. But that's not to say that all of the good stuff has been reserved for the portal. There have been a lot of functional additions made to Core as well - here are a few that stood out for us.
Improved call handling
There have been some useful functions added to give analysts more control over how they work with calls. Here are just a few:
Forced call ownership. Up until now, an analyst would forward a call to another analyst but remain the owner of the call until that second analyst actually picked it up. If the receiving analyst was away, busy or just recalcitrant, the call would sit there unactioned - the original analyst would assume it was being handled by someone else but (since they were still the owner) they would still be the one that any SLA breaches were recorded against. In ASM, there is the option to force the receiving analyst to become the owner of the call immediately.
Assign calls back to the forwarding group. This new function in 10.4 allows an analyst to select a number of days when a call that they forward to someone else gets reassigned back to them if it hasn't been actioned yet. This is a great way to make sure that important calls get attended to in a timely fashion - so if an analyst is off sick, calls sent to them will bounce back so they can be reassigned to someone who is in the office.
Call Activities. It's now possible to create list of activities that an analyst should perform on certain types of calls. For example, you can create a list of the steps that should be taken to troubleshoot a service that is unavailable, or to provision access to a system. Activity lists are created by administrators and can be selected from the left hand menu when a call is open:
Analysts can complete activities from the same screen.
This is a great addition to call handling in ASM. It allows Service Desk Leads to create steps for resolving common issues or delivering common services, ensuring that analysts are taking a consistent approach each time.
Better handling of call suspensions and SLAs. There are a couple of other additions that give better control over the SLA clock. The first one allows you to automatically remove a call suspension when someone takes action on a call, and the second one allows you to automatically restart the SLA clock when someone takes action on a call. Both of these close some gaps that let analysts get around SLA breaches.
Smart Search Fields
Smart search fields have now been added to Core. They can be filtered like in the portal, but the ability to present them as dropdowns is not available in Core yet. One thing we did notice is that it is no longer possible to do a full search in a smart search field, even though the familiar magnifying glass is still present. We did find that this can sometimes cause difficulties - for example, one client has a Config Item called 'Melbourne' and a whole lot of other ones that also contain 'Melbourne'. We couldn't find any way to get the one we wanted to appear in the results.
Another useful addition to search fields is that you can now create custom fields to search for calls, requests and knowledge items from within a screen.
Alemba have also been spending a lot of time enhancing the ASM integration platform. Alongside a bunch of new connectors (e.g. for Snow and Azure DevOps) , here are a few of the key additions.
This one is our tip to be a game changer for ASM over the next couple of years. Web hooks allow calls to be made to external web services when certain events occur on calls, requests, tasks, CMDB Items and people (and Alemba plan to extend this to other entities as well). So for example, you can configure a call to an external service when any of the following events occur on a call, request or task:
And for a CMDB Item or person, you have the following event types:
What are some of the use cases for web hooks, you might be wondering? Well here are a few ideas:
Updating your CRM whenever a Person record is added in ASM
Creating a ticket in an outsource partner's ticketing system when a new call is logged in ASM (and sending updates and closures across when they occur as well)
Calling a 3rd party automation service (like our very own Riga) to take a snapshot of a server or create an account in Active Directory or provide access to an application, when a task is created in a workflow
Call Alemba's own API to create a new Contract when a request is approved
Look out for a more detailed blog post on working with web hooks soon. We can see a lot of possibilities.
MS Teams Chat
It's now possible to use MS Teams for chat in ASM, rather than the built-in chat tool. When a chat is initiated by a user and accepted by an analyst, a chat gets started in Teams. When it is complete, the analyst can import the chat log into the ticket in ASM. As Teams becomes more and more prevalent in businesses, it makes a lot of sense to allow users to chat the way they are used to, rather than forcing them to use a separate chat tool.
A new connector ships with ASM which allows you to import virtual machines, resource groups, virtual networks and subnets, gateways, snapshots, NICs, disk and IP information from Azure directly into your CMDB. This is a very welcome addition, making it much easier for businesses to populate and maintain Azure server and infrastructure information in the CMDB, which in turn can be used for tracking incidents and changes against Azure entities, as well as for building out interdependencies between entities for activities like outage modelling.
It is now possible to import Word, Excel, PDF and text documents directly into the ASM Knowledge bank. This is a super-quick way to consolidate and grow your Knowledge Base.
Nano hasn't been ignored in ASM either. There have been some changes made to freshen up the styling. But most significantly, it is now possible to copy screens across from Core into Nano. This has always been a barrier to the wider take-up of Nano, as having to re-create many complex screens has proven too daunting for many administrators. That is no longer the case, as the new function copies both the screen layout and the screen rules across into Nano.
Last, but by no means least, ASM introduces Alemba's new Dashboarding platform. We won't go into this in detail here because it will have a blog post of its own very soon. But our short version is: it's powerful, it does have some limitations, and there is a bit of a learning curve. But within days our consultants were able to get some great dashboards up and running. It's definitely worth playing around with to see if it works for you.
On the whole, we're pretty happy with Alemba Service Manager. It has taken some big steps forward and addressed some of the main criticisms of previous versions. While it's true we would have liked a little more done to modernize the Core functionality, we do like where Alemba is heading and think the future is looking pretty bright.