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Four free helpdesk and ticketing systems compared

Is your company looking for a ticketing system so you can better address your customer enquiries? Then look no further – you've come to the right place! In this article, we'll introduce you to four different ticketing systems, highlighting their advantages and disadvantages along the way.

Part 1: Zammad

Zammad, a new helpdesk software package, was launched on 19 October of last year. Zammad is a browser-based, open-source application that has been developed from the ground up and is supported by former OTRS founder Martin Edenhofer and his six-strong team of professionals.

[] Zammad

Clean and stylish user interface

With its modern, clean interface, Zammad makes a striking first impression. It has an attractively designed dashboard that keeps users up-to-date on the processing status and the latest actions taken on any existing tickets and is both intuitive and easy to use. Tasks can be organised as tabs and can be assigned to users via a drag & drop function with customers also having the ability view the status of their requests via the web interface.

With Zammad you can record working times, automatically assign organisational affiliation based on email domains and simultaneously process multiple tickets by different people as well as carry out fast full-text searches with Elasticsearch.

[] Zammad

And if you're looking to use Zammad in a sales environment, its Clearbit integration, which automatically enriches tickets with information about the organisation of the person making an enquiry (industry or professional position), will be a big bonus. Unfortunately, this provider is rather expensive.

Key feature: Social media integration

In addition to its sleek user interface, Zammad also demonstrates a strong social web focus. This ticketing system, which was awarded the Open Source Business Award by the Open Source Business Alliance 2016, can be interfaced with many social networks. This means it's possible to bundle requests from different communication channels in a single location, so that service requests can be accepted, answered or transferred to team members via email, telephone, chat, Telegram (WhatsApp alternative), Facebook or Twitter. This makes Zammad the only ticketing system in this series that links service management with the Social Web and thus opens up completely new user circles and scenarios.

Individual hosting or Cloud access

Developed using Ruby on Rails, Zammad offers installation packages for CentOS and Red Hat Enterprise Edition as well as Debian/Ubuntu and is available as a docker container.

This helpdesk software can be integrated into existing system environments using a REST API or, in addition to Ruby, clients can also access the REST API using PHP.

If you don't want to install Zammad on your own servers, you can rent a Cloud solution from Zammad GmbH instead. Hosting is carried out in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions in a certified data centre in Germany, with all data being encrypted at the time of storage.

The prices for the hosted solution are realisable: Depending on the number of users and the desired functionality, prices are 5 euros (Starter Package), 15 euros (Professional) and 35 euros (Plus) per agent per month.

The Zammad Foundation is responsible for the free availability of the source code, which is released under the AGPLv3 licence agreement. This is to ensure that this new helpdesk and support software permanently remains open source.

Rating: New support solution with great potential

Zammad makes a very good first impression: The interface is slick and intuitive, updates are published every four weeks, the integration of social platforms is in line with current communications trends and the ability to integrate it into other platforms is impressive. However, users should be aware that the software is still under development – with all the limitations and possible problems that can come with it. For example, it's not currently possible to set up workflows and standard features such as automatically converting an entered ticket number into a link (e.g. entering #48011 is converted into a link to the respective ticket) are also missing.

Zammad advantages at a glance:

    • Four-weekly releases/updates
    • modern and user-friendly interface
    • Strong integration of social web/modern forms of communication
    • Integration options for Asterisk, FreeSWITCH, sipgate.io, GitHub, GitLab, JIRA, Nagios, Icinga and Slack

    The disadvantages:

    • Not (yet) suitable for enterprise-level customers
    • According to Zammad itself, this product is intended for small to medium-size businesses with up to 25 support staff. In other words, a demographic that expects a very intuitive helpdesk solution that scores particularly highly when it comes to social media service requests.

      Part 2: Request Tracker

      Request Tracker (or RT) is an old hand among open-source helpdesk systems. Since 1996, this solution from Best Practical Solutions LLC has been programmed in Perl. Large, top 100 companies such as NASA, Nike and Merrill Lynch rely on this open-source ticketing system. In Germany, RT is particularly popular with support sector hosting companies and software manufacturers.

      Complicated installation

      The current version – 4.4 from 2016 – requires the latest versions of many Perl modules. Because these, in turn, require certain releases of other Perl components, it's necessary to load and compile all the required modules from CPAN. But even then, the installation won't necessarily cover all dependencies, although the installer will report that the installation has been successful. In order to find out which packages are missing and manually integrate them, you'll need to have some knowledge of the web server's configuration. All in all – including Google searches – it takes several hours to get Request Tracker up and running.

      Key feature: Encryption

      Unlike other ticketing systems, however, RT offers seamless PGP integration. PGP support enables users to encrypt, decrypt, verify and sign both incoming and outgoing email.

      This means Request Tracker can also send encrypted emails to all RT users. That is, if an encrypted mail is received by the system and is to be forwarded to certain users, RT can decrypt the message and then send it on to the corresponding users – encrypted with their respective keys. What's more, it's even possible for Request Tracker to receive replies and comments from RT users by mail, because with a correctly signed (and optionally encrypted) email, the system can be sure that the message has come from the respective user and not from someone else.

      However, there is a small stumbling block with the encryption feature: Request Tracker can only use either PGP-Inline or PGP/MIME. Depending on what the user has configured in RT, there can be problems if the other format is used.

      [] Request Tracker Update Ticket

      Automation using "scrips"

      One feature that makes RT particularly interesting is its so-called "scrips" (no, that's not a typo!) functionality. Using this feature, you can assign a certain sequence of actions to the events in the ticketing system. The functional spectrum ranges from the automatic sending of mails to the mapping of workflows. The RT user clicks together a new "scrip" in the web interface. "Scrips" themselves consist of ordinary Perl code and provide access to the entire RT API.

      Sophisticated rights assignments

      Request Tracker offers a number of configuration options, including differentiated user rights assignments. Access can be controlled separately for queues and problem categories. Multiple users can be grouped together via groups. User groups can then also be members of other groups themselves, so that a hierarchical authorisation structure can be displayed. This does, however, pose the risk that definitions can contradict each other.

      Multi-ticket overview

      All serious ticketing systems contain a search function, but very few offer the user as many possibilities as Request Tracker does for maintaining an overview of multiple tickets. After logging in, the user accesses the "RT at a glance" page and, depending on the settings used, can find the ten highest priority "requests" (tickets) or the ten most recent requests.

      RT also offers the ability to combine tickets (merge function). But be careful! Once performed, this step cannot be undone via the web interface. The only way to unmerge tickets is by directly manipulating the SQL database.

      Rating: A solid, old hand that has fallen a bit behind the times.

      Request Tracker isn't difficult to use, but it's also not what you'd call intuitive. In many cases, this is just due to the German translation: Common technical terms are sometimes needlessly rendered into a German equivalent, while other elements are simply overlooked.

      What were once very innovative features in RT are now considered commonplace, e.g. assigning tickets to different agents, identifying incoming emails or reporting events by email, such as closing a request ticket. Request Tracker offers some solid functionalities, but not innovative concepts such as the integration of social media channels like Zammad.

      If a user marks a ticket as deleted (or rather sets it to a status of "deleted"), it still remains in the database, it's just no longer possible to find it using the search function. The main reason for this is that RT's database structure doesn't allow you to simply delete tickets from the database. This means, of course, that the size of the database grows continuously and certain operations (such as full-text searches) become increasingly sluggish.

      Some users may forgive such shortcomings in open-source programs, but in the case of Request Tracker, it can rightly be asked whether this software can still be called "Enterprise Grade".

      RT advantages at a glance:

        • Enterprise-ready (e.g. Kuehne & Nagel logistics, 20,000-70,000 tickets/day)
        • Clearly designed user interface
        • PGP support
        • Several hundred available extensions

        The disadvantages:

        • Extremely complicated and time-consuming installation
        • Very US focused (e.g. only one training course available outside the USA)
        • Long development cycles

        Part 3: KIX

        In autumn 2015, quite a stir went through the otherwise rather quiet helpdesk market: Cape IT announced its intention to develop a fork of the OTRS ticketing system. From Cape IT's point of view, this was triggered by poor quality in OTRS development, a lack of insight into the long-term product roadmap and questions around its availability with regard to the cloud-oriented OTRS.

        OTRS fork preview at CeBIT

        KIX (based on OTRS 5) was first presented to the public at CeBIT 2016. Since then, a lot has changed with KIX and can be found in the currently available version 17.0.1. This ticketing system can be used both within the company (on site) and via the KIX ManagedCloud. Cape IT wants to develop KIX in such a way that it will be completely independent of OTRS. Thus, Bad Homburg-based OTRS AG is proving, alongside Zammad, to be a further open-source competitor.

        Kix is released under GNU AGPL V3. In addition to a Windows installer, the system also offers installers for all popular Linux distributions (Debian/Ubuntu, RHEL/CentOS, openSUSE and even SELinux). It works with PostgreSQL, MariaDB, MySQL and Oracle databases and in conjunction with Windows Server's MSSQL Server.

        The enterprise version – KIX Professional – contains the following modules (among others):

        • Task management
        • Fault management
        • Service contracts/service catalogue
        • Knowledge management
        • Device DB/CMDB
        • Process management

          And for your technical field service needs, there's KIX Professional MRO (Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul). This version, which won the "BEST OF 2017" industry award, covers not only the functional scope of KIX Professional, but also the entire maintenance and servicing planning for machines, production facilities and tools. The differences between the individual versions KIX, KIX Professional and KIX Professional MRO are outlined in this overview.

          Advantages

          KIX is a fully-fledged ticketing system based on the established open-source market leader OTRS. The MRO version, which has special functions for manufacturing companies, is an interesting offering. KIX offers ITIL-compliant workflow management and add-on modules for a Kanban board and baseline IT protection. If required, Cape IT can provide long-term support for KIX Professional, the commercial version of the software.

          Disadvantages

          Even though this OTRS fork has attracted a lot of attention and has an impressive range of functions, it still doesn't have a very large customer base as yet. According to the manufacturer, at the end of 2016 there were "several hundred" KIX installations and 40 KIX Professional installations. So the big rush away from OTRS to the supposedly better big brother hasn't materialised – but to be fair, only 13 months have passed since it was launched on the market. So the future viability of KIX has still to be proven. From starting a fork to delivering an independent product offering can take time.

          Part 4: ((OTRS)) Community Edition

          With more than 160,000 installations in more than 38 languages, OTRS is the leading open-source ticketing and helpdesk system. It is available in three different versions: ((OTRS)) Community Edition and OTRS™.

          From the simple ticketing of faults to support for ITIL processes (incident, problem, change management and request fulfilment), ((OTRS)) Community Edition can be used to fulfil all requirements individually. The standalone module for IT Service Management OTRS::ITSM, which is currently available in version 5, deserves special mention. Tickets can be created via email, phone, the customer web front end, fax, chat and SMS channels (the last two of which are only available in OTRS™).

          The individual functions accessible from the web interface are realised as separate modules. This means that ((OTRS)) Community Edition can currently be extended by some 44 functions. The web interface itself is equipped with its own template language (Dynamic Template Language, DTL), which provides flexible data output. This open-source software is freely available under the Affero General Public License V3 (AGPL).

          [] OTRS Dashboard

          Video troubleshooting

          Since version 5s (published last November), ((OTRS)) Community Edition has been equipped with an integrated calendar and WebRTC-based video communication ("EasyConnect") function. With the latter, customers can connect directly to a helpdesk agent via the browser.

          The calendar, called StayOrganised, not only manages team appointments, but also links appointments and tickets and enables centralised resource planning. This makes the ticketing system a solution for all
          service management tasks.

          With the Ready2Adopt module in version 5s, process templates for standardised workflows for incidents, orders, room bookings, holiday requests, travel expense reports or similar processes can be created. Information from tools such as JIRA and Bugzilla can also be included.

          High integration capability

          Using the generic interface, you can use SOAP and REST to create many third-party systems such as merchandise management or customer management systems. Using the i-doit/((OTRS)) Community Edition Connector, the system can also be integrated with the IT documentation software i-doit via the i-doit/openITCOCKPIT connector, which in turn enables a connection to the openITCOCKPIT monitoring system. By drawing on these various connections, an integrated service management system can be achieved.

          Enhanced security through PGP and S/MIME

          Security has also been improved: Tickets are now signed/encrypted and outgoing emails are sent using PGP or S/MIME. Certificates can be stored in ((OTRS)) Community Edition or in an LDAP directory. A two-factor- authentication for higher login security has been introduced in version 5.

          However, many of the new features described above are not available in the free version, just in the paid business version.

          Overview of features

          • Knowledge management using the knowledge base
          • Reminder functions/escalations
          • Automation/processes/workflows
          • Configurable notifications
          • Dynamic field database: Display data from external ERP/CRM systems
          • Report generator for PDF statistics reports

            ((OTRS)) Community Edition advantages at a glance:

            • Very diverse configuration options (OTRS AG says there are some 1,441 possibilities)
            • High integration capability using generic interface via SOAP and REST
            • Enterprise-ready: Several thousand tickets/day can be processed by large numbers of agents
            • High user acceptance

            The disadvantages:

            • Not insignificant learning curve
            • Many useful features are only available in the paid OTRS™ solution
            • Poor documentation