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Online Help Desk Options

If you run an online service or SaaS application, an online trouble ticket and support management system is crucial. You can’t manage help requests with email, and your internal project management system is likely geared toward development, not issue resolution.

A number of Open Source help desk solutions have been released by development teams all over the world. Unfortunately, a good many of them are no longer available or no longer being actively developed.

Currently Available Help Desk Software

osTicket

Unlike many of the other first-generation Open Source help desk tools, osTicket has made the transition to the modern web and is a thriving project, under active development and support.

OsTicket is not a live help provider, but is primarily a help ticketing system. It allows users and customers to generate help requests, and then organizes those requests so that agents can act on them.

Features of osTicket include:

  • Custom fields — Specify what data customers provide in their help request
  • Rich text email — Communicate with style… and pictures.
  • Ticket filters — Route and manage rickets based on their content, subject, or any other attribute.
  • Help Topics — Allow customers to specify the subject of the problem, not the department to send it to.
  • Agent collision avoidance — Tickets are locked when agents are working on them, so that other agents don’t accidentally respond in duplicate.
  • Assign and transfer — Tickets can be assigned to individuals or departments, and transferred from one to another.
  • Auto-responder — Let customers know right away that you received their request.
  • Internal notes — All agents to keep private notes on customer tickets.
  • SLA Compliance — Tickets can be associated with a specific Service Level Agreement, allowing for easier prioritizing.
  • Customer Portal — Support tickets are archived. Users can log in and see the status of current and past tickets.
  • Dashboard reports — Get the big picture on activity in the system.

You can use osTicket in two different ways. The self-hosted option is free — you just have to download the Open Source software and install it on your server. There is also a Cloud Hosted premium solution available.

No longer actively developed

Crafty Syntax Live Help - CSLH was a popular, Open Source help desk solution. It was fully customizable, and featured a live chat. Other features included integrated analytics and reporting, transcripts, and push invitations.

Crafty Syntax Live Help was written in PHP and MySQL. It is not a mostly defunct project, with no active development or support. It is still available for download, and many hosting companies provide a one-click installation for it in their install wizard. However, due to the lack of ongoing support, this is not recommended.

Help Center Live - Help Center Live was once one of the most popular online help solution. It integrated several different types of help and support features into a single system:

  • FAQ
  • Forums
  • Live Chat
  • Trouble Tickets

HCL was community-driven Open Source and had an active development and user community. Unfortunately, like many software applications from its time, it hasn’t been under active development for a very long time — the latest release available for download is from 2008.

Help Center Live uses PHP 4.x, which is most likely not going to be compatible with modern hosting accounts that provide PHP 5 or higher. For this reason, and because of the lack of ongoing development and support, we do not recommend Help Live Center.

PerlDesk - PerlDesk was an Open Source help ticketing and email management solution written in Perl.

It is no longer under development, and the main website has shut down. It is still available for download from a few freeware sites, but it is not recommended that you use it.

PHP Support Tickets - PHP Support Ticket is another Open Source help ticket manager which seems to have fallen by the wayside. IT is no longer under active development, and it is even a little difficult to find downloads for the application.

Support Logic Helpdesk - Support Logic Helpdesk was a popular Open Source help system which ceased active development in 2006. 

Support Services Manager - Support Services Manager is also no longer available for download or installation, and the development company that originally released it seems to have dissolved.

Trouble Ticket Express - Trouble Ticket Express is a simple Trouble Ticket manager that features a focus on operator management. Unfortunately, TTE seems to not have been under development since 2010. A Cloud Hosted version, called Smart Answers, was made available — but seems to be defunct since 2011.

Alternatives and FAQs

If you do not want to run your help desk as a separate software system, you may be able to add helpdesk functionality to an existing website. The benefit to this is that there is a seemless user experience between your primary commercial website and the help desk.

WordPress has many helpdesk and customer service plugins, and Drupal does as well. Desk.com is also a popular service.

How does osTicket compare to Desk.com?
The biggest difference you’ll find is that osTicket is installed and hosted on your server, while Desk.com is a cloud-based service. With Desk.com, you don’t have to worry about expending your own resources or having all the necessary system requirements in place. You also won’t have to manage updates or system issues. 

Of course, all that comes for a price. osTicket is open source, so you can download, install, and modify the software all you want for free. Desk.com, on the other hand, is a paid Software as a Service (SaaS), which means someone else hosts and maintains the platform for you, but you pay a monthly fee for it, and you won’t have as much freedom in terms of customization or modifications.

In terms of features, as a paid service, Desk.com provides quite a few additional features. Along with all the standard help desk tools, Desk.com allows you to host a knowledgebase for your customers, includes mobile support, can be used to survey your customers, and can be easily integrated into an existing SalesForce account.

Do add-on help desks offer the same level of features as a dedicated help desk?
Features for add-on help desks vary considerably from tool to tool. Some, like Kanzu Support Desk, shoot for simple setup and management, and leave out many of the advanced features, such as automatic ticket filtering. JS Support Ticket, on the other hand, offers most of the same features you would find with a server solution like osTicket, and they offer a paid version for even more features.

The biggest advantage to an add-on based help desk is that it is much easier to set up and customize the appearance to match your website’s existing theme. On the other hand, you are more limited in terms of modifications you can make to the platform. Another important thing to consider is the reliability and support you will get with a plug-in version. osTicket has been around for many years and has built up a dedicated community of users that can be relied upon for outstanding support and assistance. Most add-on solutions can’t claim that level of experience or support.

What commercial help desk systems are available, and how do they compare?
Most modern commercial solutions are now cloud-based (like Desk.com). There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there’s more money to be made in monthly subscriptions than one-time installations.

Regardless of the sales pitch these companies give you, that’s the reason they based their platform in the clouds. The second reason (the one they’ll tell you), is that cloud-based solutions save you from having to maintain and update your software regularly. If a security flaw is identified, it will get patched automatically, in most cases with limited to no down-time. New features can also be rolled out much faster and easier.

There are a number of commercial solutions in active development. Freshdesk provides a more social feel than osTicket or even Desk.com, and comes with a smaller price tag than the latter. It even includes a free version, for use with small business that have up to 3 agents. 

Zendesk, one of the most popular help desks, includes several additional customer-interaction features, including a knowledgebase, mobile support, and social media tracking. Zendesk also makes a variety of other customer support tools, so you can easily merge all of your customer interactions. There prices are comparable to Help.com, except that they offer a very inexpensive packages for small businesses (currently starting at just $1 per agent).

SupportTicket, the cloud-based commercial version of osTicket, offers all of the same features as osTicket, but comes with better support, installation services, and additional security.

Can I use a help desk system with any hosting plan?
Depending on the system you are considering, it may not be compatible with some low-cost, shared hosting plans. osTicket, for example, stores and manages the request that come in using a MySQL database. This won’t be a problem with VPS or dedicated hosting plans, but many entry-level shared plans do not include database access. If you need a help desk system, make sure your plan does include a database, and make sure it supports the correct database for your program.

If you are considering a cloud-based help desk, such as Desk.com, it does not matter what type of hosting plan you have, as all the requirements will be taken care of by the SaaS provider.

Why shouldn’t I use a help desk program that is no longer being developed?
There are two major issues with using any outdated software. The first issue is one of support. Software that is no longer under development typically no longer provides any type of ongoing support either. In some cases, particularly with open source software, community support may still be available, but it can’t be counted on. If you are considering an outdated program, check their support forums for recent activity. Make sure questions are being answered. If not, you can’t expect yours to be answered either.

The second issue is much more important, particularly if you’re installing software that requires your site visitors to interact with you in some way or provide any level of personal information, as a help desk does. 

Outdated software is vulnerable to attack. Even if the last update was just over a year ago, hackers have learned a lot in the last year. If it’s been a few years (or several years for some of these), you can expect any number of vulnerabilities to exist in the current code, which could put your server, and your website visitors at risk.

Even if the only thing you ask your visitors to provide with a request is their name and email, a hacker can do a lot with an email address. If you require users to create a login and password, a hacker can use that information to access any number of other websites (because, despite being told not to, everyone reuses username and password combinations). Even if you’re okay putting your own server at risk, don’t expect your customers to come back if you compromise their information.

Stick to current, supported software.

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