Lead Image © Sorin Colac, 123RF.com

Lead Image © Sorin Colac, 123RF.com

Documentation Tools for Admins

Seat of Knowledge

Article from ADMIN 20/2014
Scattered documents lying on the file server are an inconvenient resource when admins need to solve problems at the help desk. Free knowledgebase components combine knowledge and structure, providing a better overview.

Help desks are a company's way of utilizing technically skilled staff to process problems and user's questions politely and in a goal-oriented way. This is especially true in IT, where admins and developers fix software bugs for their customers. Besides making a note of the most important data for a problem and feeding the ticketing system with this information, the staff preferably solve the problem immediately on the phone or by email. Ideally, help desk staff should handle 80 to 90 percent of all requests themselves and pass on only the really tough cases to the specialists.

The success rate depends, among other things, on whether the company fosters a culture that promotes gathering and documenting knowledge and whether it creates a clear workflow for problem solving. Help desk personnel, for example, regularly fish in troubled waters when important resources lie broadly distributed over PDFs, wikis, IRC logs, and bug reports on the intranet. A knowledgebase can provide a remedy by bringing together the fragments of expertise and making them accessible.

Depending on specific needs, the requirements for a knowledgebase can be different from company to company. Although standalone knowledgebase applications exist, the database is typically part of a larger work organization system, such as a production management (PM) software tool or an ITIL-compliant IT Service Management (ITSM) system.

In this article, I introduce free knowledgebase components for wikis, project management, ITIL tools, and more.

Help, I Need a Wiki

In small companies, startups, or companies without a help desk, organizing knowledge is often a fairly low priority. In most cases, a more or less logical folder structure exists on the file server, providing a home for help documents and manuals.

Knowledge also is embedded in personal email messages and in staff memories; thus, valuable know-how is lost when an employee leaves the company. As a first-aid measure, a wiki typically is used, or someone tidies up the folder structure jungle. FAQs on the intranet are also a popular means of making knowledge available in the company.

Inside and Outside

In general, a company distinguishes between knowledge for internal and external use. Web hosting companies publish technical knowledge for their clients online in FAQs or HowTos. Customer questions can be answered in this case with reference to the wiki or the FAQ, but this presupposes that someone constantly maintains these documents.

Larger companies have more recently started using stack exchange platforms like Stack Overflow [1]. Interested users can formulate questions and then pick out the best among many answers from other users. The asker and the community then assess the quality of the responses, thereby ensuring relevance.

However, good stack exchanges only work if someone laboriously tidies up the questions, making them understandable, deleting inappropriate and duplicate content, and assigning tags. Two open source platforms in this genre are Open Source Q&A [2] and Shapado [3], both licensed under the GPL and the AGPL, respectively.


When it comes to internal company communications, MediaWiki continues to be the tool of choice; the statistics website Ohloh counts nearly 200 code contributors [4]. Currently, MediaWiki presupposes an installed PHP server version 5.3.2 or later, with a MySQL, PostgreSQL, or SQLite database tied in. Using an LDAP extension [5], administrators can ensure that employees authenticate before creating entries, making it clear later who posted an entry.

Less computer-savvy users are supported by a WYSIWYG editor [6] or at least a help link for the wiki syntax. The structure of wiki entries needs to be logical and the titles of posts as meaningful as possible, so that the integrated search function can easily find them. Being able to associate entries with files, such as images, PDFs, or various kinds of text documents, also makes sense.

You can find many alternatives [7] to the popular MediaWiki, including DokuWiki [8], MoinMoin [9], and Tiki Wiki [10], as well as TWiki [11], Foswiki [12], and XWiki [13].

The last three tools in this list are primarily oriented toward business requirements and come with uncluttered interfaces, an integrated WYSIWYG editor by default, RSS feed support, and, if necessary, commercial services that help you get things set up. Some wikis are almost PM tools, such as Tiki Wiki (Figure 1), whose makers appropriately refer to it as the "Tiki Wiki CMS Groupware."

Figure 1: The feature-studded Tiki Wiki steps over the boundary to groupware.

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