Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The struggle towards productivity

Anyone working in the IT sector knows how hard it is to get a flow going without interruptions. Working in a small business and supplying support for everything in IT to our clients, the phone rings constantly (desk and mobile) and email never stops pinging in the background. Add to this our obsession with multiple screens, a billion web pages open, Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram etc and there is a huge amount of data overwhelming us.

We also get jobs logged from our other staff members, clients can create their own and the phone calls / emails generally generate work to be done. Keeping up with all of this is hard, and the hardest part is keeping all the tasks straight and on point. We use multiple systems - OTRS and another, non-cool job management system for our tasks. This is a nightmare too - jobs coming in to both, keeping them updated and trying to remember if you've actually updated the job or not. Plus trying to keep on track with a complex task long enough to get the thing done.

I've been working with my guys on being task oriented and not worrying too much about time. If they are working on a task for a client, and it's all billable, then move onto the next task and do it, then their time is being used productively and everyone is happy. This seems to be the best way to work with tasks.

I have also found that when the pressure is on, I leave my dual monitor setup and take my laptop off somewhere to work, usually the boardroom with no direct extension and leave the mobile phone on my desk. The more I do this the more I wonder if having dual monitors is a hindrance and paying attention to my multiple mobile devices is worth doing. I read research that suggested after a break in concentration it could take up to 20 minutes to get the focus back on what you were doing.

We have been aiming to have 90 min stretches working on a single task, then a break for a bit, then back into it. It's incredibly hard, but getting the other staff around us on board is making it easier. With a bit of luck we can continue to push this forward. Leave a message in the comments if you have productivity tips that work for you!

XenServer physical moves - traps for new (and old) players

Recently one of our clients relocated their main office and we moved their servers for them. Upon arrival, racking and cabling the XenServer hosts all powered up immediately. The HP StoreEasy NAS with all the data on it also started up.

We noticed that our XenServer hosts had no IP addresses - no data was showing and they seemed to have lost their configuration. Uh oh.... we had a huge bet on getting this thing going by the end of the day with the managing director. There were beers involved and we were pumped to make it work.

After fiddling around with the XenServers and trying to get it working and swearing a *lot*, I turned them all off then back on. Lo and behold they came up and it took a bit to figure out what had gone wrong.

The answer was simple - the XenServer hosts are big, fast machines with a lean install on a high speed SAS drive and the NAS is slower - running Windows Storage Server 2012 and RAID'ed disks. The hosts had come up first, looked for the storage repository and then failed when they couldn't find it. Odd given that I thought the hosts retained most of their settings.

So in future - NAS up first, then start the hosts and all will be happy. The rest of the move was spectacularly successful and we had plenty of beers to drink as a result!

OTRS 5 Review

I've been using OTRS for about 10 years now, starting when I was doing desktop / server support at uni. Since then it's changed a lot in the way it looks, but fundamentally it has remained the same. The great things about OTRS are:

  • creating / modifying / updating and closing tickets is easy
  • the interface is relatively straightforward
  • creation of tickets from emails is easy
  • reporting is straightforward
  • open source and robust
Since the early versions it's ticked all these boxes and I was very interested to see what OTRS 5 was going to bring. The interface is still the same, updated here and there with a prettier graph showing closed / opened tickets but generally the same. Fonts are still nice and readable and its good for what it does.

We use it for our clients that have a maintenance agreement with us. We have them create tickets that we then update and put minutes against. OTRS has never had a parts component and we have always used a secondary system for that. It does a good job too of keeping tickets together - I can't recommend using the master/slave system enough. Merging tickets has always worked flawlessly too.

The upgrade process is well documented and relatively straightforward. Just be aware of what user you are accessing the system as when you're doing it - sometimes you need to be root and other times it's important to be the OTRS user. All in all, it took about 45 minutes with backups, testing and checking before I let the boys go wild on it.

So while the interface is prettier there are a couple of things that annoy me right off the bat. When I add a note I now have to put something in the title - before it would simply put "Note" in there. Likewise for closing a ticket or changing ownership - this one extra step is annoying because I do it so frequently. Also, we have queues that are underneath a top level queue and that needs to be manually expanded out each time now instead of it sitting out like it always has. Minor annoyances it's true, but annoyances nonetheless.

I suspect most of the changes in the system are in the back end and I'm noticing that it is running more smoothly. We are using a fairly archaic IBM server to host it on an Ubuntu Linux Server platform with about 10K tickets give or take. MySQL is our database of choice and the backups run at around 1 GB in size. Thus far it has all been good. I'm looking forward to seeing how it travels over the next few weeks. I have noticed that the iPhone package is no longer supported - apparently the interface scales with the mobile platform - we will test this further. 

Enjoy :-)