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Central Computing Helpdesk - Outlines and Strategy

Nicole Crémel and Roger Woolnough , IT/User Support

This article outlines a brief history and the present day working strategy of the Central Computing Helpdesk. It seems that many members of the user community have a misconception of the Helpdesk model used at CERN today, and this article should clarify any doubts on the working environment of the Desk.

The idea of 'User-Support' in computing has been at CERN since the computers were first introduced. The first level support has always been a technical helpdesk with skilled persons available to solve many problems immediately. Naming conventions have varied and included "Program Enquiry Office" (or PEO), "User Consultancy Office" (or UCO), etc. The original CERN conception of the helpdesk was that as many technical problems as possible could be answered by one person on shift. This conception worked well with the days of the mainframe, a maximum of two operating systems, VAX and CDC or VAX and IBM, and Fortran as a unique programming language.

The previous paragraph explains the relative simplicity of the 10-year-old model but now the whole area of support has undergone a radical change. First and foremost we have many more questions on many more topics. Even 'casual' CERN computing users are confronted with difficulties with mail clients, Web browsers, PCs and their respective operating systems and also centrally controlled Unix clusters. Add to that the 'experienced' user who uses many programming languages, C, C++, Fortran, Java etc., many different platforms HP, Sun, IBM, Linux, Windows NT and then mix-and-match these together to give an idea of some of the topics required for support. One should also remember the hardware failures and the higher expectations people have of computer stability that do not help when problems arise. With this complex and also constantly changing environment a new type of helpdesk model has to exist.

In 1998 CERN decided on an out-sourced Computing Helpdesk and as of January 1999 a consortium of WM-data and DCS are running the Computing Helpdesk in building 513 (see related article on "Service Handbook for the Desktop Support Contract"). Recently a new (easy-to-remember) phone number has been defined and the desk has been moved to join up with the Operations staff in an effort to help communications in cases of hardware failure and optimise the space available. The move was prompted initially by the fact that the two staff were rather isolated and relied on information from others regarding hardware and software problems. Being next to the operators gives the Helpdesk staff a chance to interact and help each other trouble-shoot problems via user feedback. Another major factor for the move was to have one unique window for the user-interface, hence clarifying the entry point for all user problems in the Computer Center (building 513).

The 'Central Computing Helpdesk' operates during weekdays from 8.30 - 17.30 and users may call the central number


Or they may prefer to send electronic mail to

We invite users to paste this information wherever this might be relevant (e.g. near desktop computers) as it had been announced (with a pre-printed note) in the Weekly Bulletin n0 9/2000.

The helpdesk now works on a tiered system. Two persons staff the desk during prime shift (8:30 to 17:30, Monday to Friday). [Outside these hours calls are routed to the computer operator who will try to answer questions on a best effort basis or pass these questions on to the helpdesk proper.] The members of staff on duty receive requests via phone and e-mails as well as visits to the desk in building 513; they have a large knowledge database at their disposal as well as many tools to help with their work and try to answer as many questions as they can immediately.

Should the staff on duty not be able to reply to the question or that it requires the assistance of a person directly on their machine the problem is 'escalated' to another level. This support level might be another member of the out-sourced group for 'local support' or it might go to a second level of support within IT. Bearing this in mind remember that when you report a problem to the helpdesk it is imperative to give them as much information as possible relevant to the problem, as it is not necessarily the person to whom you report the problem who will supply the answer. If your problem is escalated you will receive an informative message within 2 hours (this being working hours). This message should contain a reference number (a so-called trouble "ticket"); you should note this number and quote it on all subsequent requests for information about this problem.

Remember also that the Helpdesk 'hosts' support lines to filter simple problems; hence even though your problem might be sent to it will pass through the Helpdesk anyhow, such that straightforward problems are answered immediately. With this in mind the goal is to reduce these 'support' lines to a minimum such that they disappear and all problems are then routed centrally to and from the Helpdesk. At present the Helpdesk hosts :,, (or,,,

and more will soon be added.

Another recent innovation at the helpdesk is the use of a problem report tracking system. The commercial system chosen by the Laboratory is the Remedy Action Request system and is used widely in IT and other divisions to track problems and provides statistical information. In the near future all mail received by the helpdesk will be automatically channelled into this system so that no mail should ever be lost.

We encourage all users to take advantage of the Central Computing Helpdesk, but also of the public knowledge database managed by the User Support group in IT, that is available at and where you might even find the answer to your question before sending it ! Note that a small fraction of this knowledge database (from the 'Question & Answer' segment) is already displayed in all CNL issues, in the regular section "Questions and Answers from the Computing Helpdesk". The complete list of 'Question & Answer' is available at with a full text search based on keyword(s) input. There are regularly reviewed and user feedback on (a) specific "qa(s)" is welcome (because it is not precise enough, maybe incorrect or even out-of-date).

For matters related to this article please contact the author.

Vol. XXXIV, issue no 1

Last Updated on Fri Mar 17 21:33:27 GMT+04:30 2000.
Copyright © CERN 2000 -- European Laboratory for Particle Physics