A Deep Dive into Data Collection Agents; Why Should Dealers and their Customers Care About Them?

Monday, 30 November 2020

Partner Viewpoint: Asolvi hears from MPS Monitor about the importance of ensuring redundancy in Data Collection Agents.

Nicola De Blasi, CEO of MPS Monitor

Although we talk a lot about Managed Print Service (MPS) solutions, it’s relatively rare to look under the bonnet and explore their actual mechanics. But Data Collection Agents (DCAs) are pivotal to the success of any MPS solution. Their reliability, redundancy and the quality of information they can deliver distinguishes a market-leading managed print service from an ‘also-ran’. As such, they also impact dealers in terms of their ability to save costs, improve efficiency, boost customer satisfaction levels and retain clients.

Dealing with DCA Redundancy

As a dealer, you will probably have installed a fair few DCAs on customer premises. Perhaps it’s not something you’ve given much thought to, but the DCAs for many device management solutions have no in-built redundancy.

This may not be a problem for larger customers as the DCA is probably on a server in a dedicated server room or data centre — or more recently on a virtual on-premise server. In these instances, your DCA gets the enterprise IT treatment. It is backed up and replicated as part of your customer’s disaster recovery and business continuity programme. But you’re relying on the redundancy in their IT network rather than the redundancy in your MPS solution. And that should trouble you if you’re looking to deliver the very best quality of customer service.

DCA redundancy becomes a real issue for dealers across their smaller and mid-sized clients where there may not be a central server or reliable backup and recovery procedures in place. Without an on-site server, dealers have no choice but to install a single DCA on a single networked PC. If that PC fails, becomes corrupted or doesn’t get switched on one morning the DCA doesn’t gather its data and the MPS solution stops functioning. The problem is somewhat lessened if the PC with the DCA is backed up regularly. But it still won’t help if the actual machine isn’t switched on or can’t connect to the network for any reason.

DCAs could also be removed during automated OS or software updates or because the machine has to have a factory reset after a virus attack. Other scenarios include DCA removal by IT admins because they don’t recognise it or it’s not on the list of officially approved software. In some instances, DCAs are also removed by IT admins — or even the actual machine users — in the belief that they’re slowing down processing speeds.

Reinstalling DCAs — A Thankless Task

If a DCA with no in-built resilience fails, then the MPS solution grinds to a halt. Most MPS solutions will alert dealers and end-users. MPS Monitor’s dashboard, for example, clearly shows when DCAs have failed or have become disconnected. Users can then drill down into the DCA page and find out probable causes. Dealers and customers have the option to receive automated emails when DCAs fail — these can be delivered immediately or after a pre-configured time-lag.

Once a DCA failure is identified, it’s a case of ascertaining if your customer can carry out the reinstallation themselves, whether you could guide them through the process over the phone or if you have to set up remote access to their network and carry out the reinstallation that way.

Sadly, there are no good options here. DCA reinstallation is a very time-consuming job and — even though failures aren’t usually the dealer’s fault — they typically get the blame. Unfair as it sounds, they’re the organisation that installed the software so — as far as the customer is concerned — the buck stops right there.

At that point, unfortunately, the dealer’s customer service and satisfaction rating starts to fall. Dealers would be wise, therefore, to give some serious thought to the amount of redundancy in the MPS solutions they’re installing on client networks.

But it’s not just about damaged customer relations. One of the principal goals of device management software is to streamline dealer operations and improve profitability. If you’re forced to carry out regular DCA reinstallations, then your MPS solution is actually contributing to inefficiencies and costing you money.

Building Redundancy and Flexibility into DCAs

Fortunately, there is an answer. Companies like MPS Monitor have developed a device management solution with in-built redundancy in its DCAs and more flexibility in terms of where DCAs can be deployed. These device management solutions support several DCAs across multiple machines using clustering technology and nodes to create redundancy across an IT network. Clustering has been used for many years at a server level to strengthen IT system resiliency, but the same principle can protect software from failure.

Set-up is still very straight-forward. Clustered DCA nodes are installed on several devices and connected to the MPS solution. Once activated, the MPS solution reaches out to establish contact with the primary DCA node. If it cannot make contact, the software has sufficient intelligence to reach out to a secondary DCA node to gather the data.

Each active node holds current system data and has the capability — if called on to do so — to deliver up-to-date information to the MPS software; even if one of the DCAs has failed. There’s no need for the immediate manual reinstallation of the faulty DCA. Customer operations can continue to run without risk of running out of critical consumables, and the software will continue to function until all the nodes fail. Unresponsive nodes simply rejoin the cluster when the machine they’re on is reconnected to the IT network.

Clustering is most effective when there’s more flexibility in the kind of devices that can host the DCAs. Classically, DCAs could only reside on Windows machines, which limited their use, even when clustering was possible — and certainly aggravated situations where DCAs with no redundancy were in play.

Today, however, DCAs belonging to the most advanced MPS solutions include cross-platform support. So, as well as running on Windows machines, they can operate on Linux, Mac and Raspberry devices too. Some device management solutions also provide DCAs that can run directly from printers.

MPS Monitor’s embedded eXplorer DCAs can deliver device data directly from MPS solutions from Kyocera, HP, Lexmark, and Samsung printers. This is possibly one of the most accurate and reliable ways of gathering device data to support consumable replacement, page volume measurement and billing — all without any need to use customer PCs or servers. Adding this flexibility like this at the DCA installation stage gives more options to dealers and their customers — which should pay dividends further down the line when it comes to keeping site maintenance visits and call outs to a minimum.

DCAs Driving Consumables Management

DCA redundancy, however, is only part of the story. The quality and granularity of information provided by DCAs — and the way MPS solutions action it — can also have a profound effect on the efficiency and profitability of dealer operations.

Some MPS solutions will use information gathered from DCAs to alert dealers to send toner to one of their customer’s printers. But there still won’t be any information to explain which products need to ship — or any option to automate the process. This means the dealer has to check and then place the order manually. As contracts get bigger and more complex, this becomes a much more challenging task. There’s also a greater risk of inaccuracy at each stage. Whether that’s selecting the right part number, getting the delivery shipped on time or billing the client at the end of the month.

Other systems do slightly better at using the information delivered by DCAs. They might provide toner part numbers, but no further information — and no integration or automation. Dealers are left asking themselves: Does my client need other supplies? Can we bundle this order with other consumable replenishments that might be due around the same time? There’s still a degree of manual checking and coordination required.

By contrast, solutions like those offered by MPS Monitor can extract that level of detail from its DCAs and intelligently apply automated dispatch and invoice processes. This sets dealers on the path more seamless end-to-end logistics. In this scenario, the dealer pre-selects on the part number for each printer and enters it into their MPS solution. Then, when the DCA alert comes through the exact part number is ordered automatically — and with no human intervention — on either internal or external systems. The consumables are then shipped directly to the customer.

This enables dealers to hold only minimal consumable stocks (with some electing to have zero consumables on site). As such, they can remain agile while scaling their business quickly as new clients and contracts come on board — all without compromising customer service or dramatically increased overheads.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has illustrated the vital role that DCAs play in maximising the effectiveness of service management software — and explained why it’s so crucial for dealers to check DCA redundancy and flexibility. They may be invisible to your customers, but DCAs have a direct impact on the quality of service you deliver to them and the efficiency with which their infrastructure functions.