Documentation Tools for Admins

Seat of Knowledge

ITIL Inside

ITIL, the IT Infrastructure Library, is an internationally accepted de facto standard for the organization of enterprise IT (IT Service Management) and is mainly used in larger IT companies. A number of books describe best practices that help build an optimal IT infrastructure in the enterprises, although ITIL fans do not have to implement all the details. In the publications for ITIL 3, the current version of ITIL, knowledge management for the first time plays a role in ITIL Service Transition [23].

It is true that software solutions cannot be certified in accordance with ITIL, but free service management solutions include their own knowledgebase components and claim to be ITIL-compliant. In the help desk area, these are iTop [24] and the OTRS Framework [25].


The Open Ticket Request System (OTRS) ITSM is the open source stack component by the Open Source Business Alliance (OSBA); it is released under the AGPL, and the current version is 3.3.2. Programmed in Perl and JavaScript and equipped with a web interface, it requires an Apache 2 server with mod_perl2 and Perl as of version 5.10.0. In MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle 10g, Microsoft SQL 2005, and DB2, it supports an impressive range of databases, integrates multiple authentication methods (LDAP, Radius, HTTP Auth), and can be linked with monitoring tools and external customer databases. It is auditable thanks to the integrated history, is generally considered to be easily customizable, and has an extensive list of features [26].

The knowledgebase component is a FAQ module that you need to install separately using an integrated package manager. Following installation, the module can be configured for internal, and of late also external, tasks (via Generic Interface, the web services framework). Besides posts, tickets and items from the Configuration Management Database (CMDB) can be linked with the FAQ entries. Article linking via category names was introduced in version 2.2.x .

The FAQ module consists of several components. The FAQ Explorer lets the admin navigate through the knowledgebase. If you want to create an article, you can call the WYSIWYG editor; posts can be linked with various attributes that indicate whether the post describes a symptom or solves a problem. You can also specify title, language, category, and clickable tags. Common metadata, such as the status and creation and modification dates are also in place.

Attachments and images can be added to posts and linked with objects such as tickets and responses. A full-text search and a quick search feature help to find relevant results quickly. Ranking and voting features facilitate the organization of postings; lists of the top 10, and the most recently created and changed, postings are also available.

On request, the system sends email via its own server (Sendmail, Postfix, Exim); the web interface is used for configuration. If you do not have your own mail server, the program will also use the secure or insecure variants of the SMTP, IMAP, and POP3 protocols. Email can also be encrypted and signed using PGP or S/MIME. Postmaster modules allow the admin to add an X-OTRS header to messages, which OTRS then uses to perform actions, such as changing the priority of a ticket or assigning a ticket to a particular customer.

Wide Range

The spectrum of the free knowledgebases is huge and ranges from simple wikis and websites, to PM systems, to ITIL-compliant all-rounders. ITSM solutions, such as OTRS and iTop, are primarily suitable for use in the enterprise, where admins will inventory the computer farm and handle patch management with the same tool. They go well beyond the requirements of an average help desk, and extend into administration.

Smaller and medium-sized companies often find a clear-cut help desk with a ticketing system with a knowledgebase fine for their needs. A good choice here could be a smaller solution like Redmine, Trac, or Request Tracker, although RT already drifts toward ITSM.

It is important that the knowledgebase is well integrated with ticket management. If you do not like wikis because of their tendency toward entropy and their syntax, you might want to opt for RT or the Redmine plugin for knowledgebase-related matters. However, wiki fans will fare equally as well with the popular Trac.

Overall, you can typically reduce your search to a feature comparison: Then, things like quality of documentation, usability of the web GUI, or whether the tools integrate well with the PM system will tip the scales.

Because some manufacturers offer demo installations on the web, enterprises can work through their business cases on a live object, which will also help to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the software in question. If you just need bug reports in the context of a software project, you will do well to choose a bugtracker like MantisBT or Bugzilla.

Plain vanilla wikis are only suitable as repositories of knowledge because they lack well-integrated ticketing systems. This simplicity does not need to be an obstacle if a company only wants to organize its internal knowledge and is looking for a way to organize a hodgepodge of documents scattered over the file server. For wiki use in the enterprise sector, special platforms such as TWiki, Foswiki, or XWiki are recommended. Ultimately, however, this decision also depends on the programming language used and the usability of the editor or the search function.

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