Help Desk vs. Service Desk: The New Managed Service Provider?

Dorota Gibiino 09 September 2019

With all the noise around Artificial Intelligence Machine learning, chatbots for support and all that comes with that, I’m going to give a brief explanation of what you would expect and what you will experience with regards to Help Desks and Service Desks and how they sometimes are confused or even misused.

These services form into yet another acronym, but this blog isn’t about IT jargon per se, it’s about three IT support phrases that are sometimes confused and misused: IT Help Desk (or just plain old ‘help desk’), Service Desk (or "IT Service Desk”) and Managed Service Providers (or ‘MSP’s’)

Should I be bothered to learn the difference?

Having been in and around the Managed Service Desk and communications Industry for nearly 20 years, I have a firm understanding of what the differences are, where these services are miss-sold or in worse cases provided with no real concept of standards or recourse. The answer to the title question is yes you should be bothered! An internal conversation about the good old Help Desk might mean something completely different to an end-user with a printer issue who might call up the Service Desk on the same number for remote support. On the other hand, IT Managed Service Provider actually means a lot more in-service benefits than say a fully blown Service Desk, so it’s important to differentiate the core differences. Does it matter if you use the term Help Desk, Service Desk, or MSP to describe IT support? I think it does, as you may well be underselling or overselling capabilities (either to yourself or others) including your IT support technology.

So, what’s the difference between IT service Desk and IT Help Desk and will a Managed Service Provider cut it?

Back in the day (circa the late 80’s) the IT Help Desk and the more important term “Break Fix” was coined in IT circles, meaning that if it broke, then the Help Desk would run off and fix it. At that time service levels were sketchier and fix times were even longer. But jump forward to today and we have more monitoring tools at our disposal than we can shake a stick at; from the ability to check the temperature of a certain core in an Intel Chip halfway across the world, to watching bandwidth fluctuations on a network in Iceland. Back then we didn’t have such tools and as a result when something went wrong the Help Desk was called and an engineer was dispatched to the end-users’ desk or cabinet in a data centre to fix the issues. The engineer was thanked and all was well with the world again, which was incredibly inefficient but it worked for most. That is, until the world woke up to monitoring tools and other systems, some proprietary and some hand-built (open source), and the IT Service Desk in its pure definition was born. It had structure, was ticketed and engineers layered up into 1st line, 2nd line and 3rd line support dependant on the severity of fault or skill set needed to fix the problem. The other primary differentiator for the Service Desk is the prevalence of standards and service methodology, including the ITIL principle, followed up with the advent of Prince2 and now Agileshift for certain vertical markets. All of which offer concise solutions for Service Strategy, Design, Transition, Operation, Change management and the key Continual Service Improvement. The latter is possibly the largest differentiator, and here enters the value of the Managed Service Provider.

As more and more companies move toward cloud-based services, private and public service offerings add more choice and cost savings, but with it cyber security issues loom large and even physical deployment of legacy systems between platforms become a major problem. Questions such as: will my database physically work on Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure? What will be the user experience if we outsource 1st to 3rd line support? So, which way do you go and have you got the in-house skill to run and maintain it? I believe that this is where the Service Desk is now positioned, sitting above the main support function, the Help Desk. Service Desk as now become a Managed Service Provider or MSP, offering anything from an engineer on-site one day a week to a simple 3rd line service desk model and offering the client technical excellence deploying services and migration within the cloud environment while handing 1st and possibly 2nd line operation back to the client.

I’m sure that many organisations set up with “support as a core” philosophy do offer the full Service Desk experience, however I am finding more and more companies are pulling some technical resources in-house for continuity while letting the expert MSP’s look after the rest. Let’s face it, everyone loves to see Bob the IT guy come to your desk and sort out your woes, with that all-important cup of coffee and a chat. The faceless Service Desk is not a thing of the past either, but I can see the rise of the MSP’s encompassing this more and more, engaging in Partner Ecosystems to bring value and breadth of technology to the SME, Charity and Small Corporate spaces. But decisions often come down to costs, and why employ an internal IT guy when you can outsource the function for a third of the cost? Stats such as 95% of IT issues can be fixed remotely become more and more empowering for a CFO or CTO to outsource to an MSP model. With monitoring tools offering pre-emptive solutions for failure, why wouldn’t you consider an MSP to look after the entire IT estate on and off-premise?

With these three core services now defined, it might become clearer to you that the route of IT support in general is turning towards a fully managed service and if it isn’t for your organisation then I would seriously consider your IT and where it will be in as little as a years’ time. If you can find an MSP offering full support services backed up with a solid service level agreement, with a great partner network and practical knowledge of all common cloud infrastructure then you could be helping your company avoid many of the pitfalls associated with outsourcing your IT. It really all boils down to this.

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