What even is Jira?

So, this post isn’t direct to my usual audience. Usually, I talk to seasoned Jira Admins – the Jira Guys and Gals out there. However, today I want to talk to the people who are just discovering Jira.

Maybe you just started at an organization that uses Jira, and you need to get up to speed. Or you’ve been asked to evaluate it by your boss to see what the fuss is all about. Either way, I want to give you a crash course on What Jira is, the different flavors Jira comes in, and how to use some of its key features.

So what is this Jira thing anyways?

Jira is a project management software. That is, people use Jira to coordinate and track work their teams need to do. The basic concept works like this:

Let’s say you need to make a widget. So first, break down making the widget into the different steps you need to take. Can those steps be further broken down? Then do that. Repeat until you can’t break things down anymore. You now have a solid collection of individual tasks that all together makes your widget. Now record those in a central place, assign out the different tasks so each person knows what their steps are in Widget Making Inc., and then you can track how close you are to completing your widget by tracking how many of the items are done. 

Jira aims to be that central place where you can record, track, and report on the tasks your teams need to do to complete their goals. However, the key that makes Jira such a popular option is that it is entirely customizable. Rather than bend over backward to make your workflow match the tool, an experienced Jira Admin can customize Jira to match your existing workflow. If they are good at their job, they can also help you realize inefficiencies to help you streamline your team’s work.

Now, Jira is customizable enough to be the only use case the system has, but it is its most widely accepted use case. 

Next: Do you need a Jira Admin? Not at all! Most Jira Administrators start as something else. But, of course, it helps that there are many good resources online to help people learn the craft (hint hint.) But having a guide can help make your journey much more straightforward.

What Flavors can you get your Jira in?

So, Jira sounds like a good thing, no? But only a bit of digging can lead you to an avalanche of options. Cloud, Data Center, Server, Software, Service Management, Work Management!? Which do you choose, and what does all this mean?

Breath – I know it can be intense.

When looking at the different options available for Jira, it comes down to two questions: Where does Jira Run, and what features do I want out of the box?

Where to run Jira?

This is the first question you need to ask when you are looking at starting your Jira instance. Known officially as “Deployment Models,” there are currently two options available: Jira Cloud and Jira Data Center.  

Jira Cloud

Jira Cloud is Atlassian’s SaaS (Software as a Service) offering. That is to say, they worry about running Jira, so all you have to worry about is setting up the system to work for your team. If you are new to Jira, this is where I suggest you start. Why? 

Well, first, this is where all the shiny new features land first, so you will find features and functionality here that won’t be present on Data Center.

However, the second and most significant is cost. Look, if you are evaluating Jira, you have a small startup team, or trying to learn how to use Jira, you shouldn’t have to pay. Jira Cloud offers a free tier that helps exactly in these use cases. So try Jira out and make sure it’s for you before you put money on the table.  

On top of all that, Jira Cloud is available wherever you are, without having to log onto a VPN. This arrangement also means it’s also far easier to integrate with other cloud-based tools. 

However, if you have a regulatory need to maintain your data, take a real close look at their certifications. As of the time of writing, Jira Cloud is only certified for specific regulatory regimes. But what Jira Cloud is available for is a constantly changing landscape, so if I were to list what’s currently the case, this article would be outdated in a week. 

Jira Data Center

If you have a large workforce adopting Jira or have a regulatory or policy need to keep your data out of “The Cloud,” then Jira Data Center is the deployment model you will want to look at. Here you run a Jira instance yourself, which means you are responsible for upgrades, security, and ensuring the system stays up. To me, that’s half the fun, but I accepted a long time ago that I’m weird like that. Jira Data Center lets you run as few as a single server to large multi-node redundant systems, all depending on your organization’s needs. 

Because you can more closely control the configuration and hardware, people often find Jira Data Center faster than Jira Cloud. However, with a poor configuration, I have seen Jira DC also be plenty slow, so you shouldn’t get sloppy with your best practices. Another benefit of Jira Data Center is that it has a broader variety of add-ons (called Apps) that extend its functionality to fit your team’s needs.  

Software vs. Service Management vs. Work Management

While you are weighing where to run your Jira instance, you may want to explore what features your teams will need. As certain feature sets are only available for Cloud, this decision could also inform the previous question. I’ll talk about the three primary flavors of Jira: Jira Software, Jira Service Desk, and Jira Work Management. There also used to be a Jira Core – but as it’s not available by itself on Data Center, and is no longer on Cloud, we won’t discuss it here.

Jira Software

So, this is only for Software teams, correct? Click next and move on? WRONG!  

Jira Software got its start for software teams, but I have used it for a wide variety of teams given its feature set. And what is that feature set? Boards! Jira software comes with Agile boards baked in. However, Agile boards are a handy way of organizing tasks on a team, so I’ve recommended them for a wide variety of non-Agile teams. In addition, it’s a handy way to display who has what tasks and what status they are in. 

Jira Software also has handy tools for reporting on how an Agile team is doing.  

Jira Service Management

Do you need to interact with customers (internal or external)? Do you need to know when a request comes in, who is working on that request, and how long it takes to complete it? Well then, this is the Jira flavor for you!

Jira Service Management was previously known as Jira Service Desk and was initially intended for that – Service Desk. Teams that take in work from other groups, be they internal employees or external customers. That being said, the above description can apply to a lot of teams. Think HR. They often need to take in requests from employees at large, then work on those requests. Same with Legal, Facilities…this list can get quite long. 

One of the main features of Jira Service Management is it comes with a Website that users can use to make requests, then track and interact with those requests. Your team members, known as “Agents” in the terminology, can then access the backend and work on those requests. Meanwhile, you have access to reports to see how long requests take and where bottlenecks may be.

Jira Work Management

This is the newest offering from Atlassian and is currently only available for Jira Cloud. This version was made exclusively with the larger workforce in mind. That being said, this flavor also takes the best things from both Jira Service Management and Jira Software and makes those features freely available to more business teams.

One of the best things about Work Management is that it includes ready-made “Templates” that allow you to create pre-configured projects for various teams, so your teams can get up and running with a configuration close to their workflow out-of-the-box. This headstart takes away about 75% of the work you would otherwise have to do to customize a project for a new team. 

Additionally, it has features like a Calendar view, timeline, and list view to help your team fully understand what its current and future workload looks like. Jira work Management is one of my favorite new feature sets to come out on Jira in years, so I think it’s worth looking at. 

Why would you choose Jira?


One of the key features is that Jira is almost infinitely customizable. If you don’t like the way something is working, you can change it (for the most part). What’s even more powerful: Many configurations are done on a “Project” level, meaning you can host two teams with vastly different workflow, information requirements, and job functions on the same instance.  

A Jira workflow, ready to be customized
Custom Fields
Various Project Settings

Now, this level of customizability does come with some discipline requirements. It’s easy to see all the options and go overboard – I’ve had to clean up some messes that have resulted from people doing just this. But with a moderated approach, it’s easy to have Jira work naturally with your teams rather than force your teams to do something entirely new to use the tool.


One of the things you can do with Jira is set up custom fields to capture information relevant to your teams. The secret here is every field in Jira is searchable – even the custom fields. This fact makes it easy to sort and collate your data to help your team understand how it’s working and where there might be problems. Honestly, this is one of the reasons why I was drawn to Jira and why I honestly haven’t found anything else nearly as good in the niche.  


As I said, searching Jira is nice, but it’s nothing if you can’t then integrate those searches into solid reporting. And Jira can do just that! You can set up dashboards on Jira that take your searches and give you back reports based on real-time data. That way, you can see exactly how your team is doing right now. What’s more, if you can’t find a report you are looking for, one likely exists in the marketplace – which brings me to my next choice.


If you find Jira can’t do something, there’s a decent chance someone else had the same problem. Fortunately, Jira gives you the ability to add Apps to your system, which can greatly improve its capabilities. In the Atlassian Marketplace, you can find Apps to do just about anything – and I mean anything. Seriously, I once found an App that all it does is display affirmational quotes onto a dashboard. 

Let’s say your requirement is so niched that there isn’t an App for it. It happens. Then, if you are programmatically inclined, you can write a custom App and import it into your instance. I haven’t tried this *yet,* but I have an idea I am thinking about, so this might be an article I will consider soon.

But what do you think?

Are you ready to take the plunge and start learning more about Jira? I hope so, as next week I will be looking at standing up your first Jira Cloud instance and at how to use the different features on Jira as a new user. Like what you see? You can get this and more from me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. You can also sign up below to get new posts emailed as soon as they go live. But until next time, my name is Rodney, asking, “Have you updated your Jira issues today?”


1 Comment

  1. I am not sure I’d call Jira a project management software, since the “project” element is very lightweight.

    I’d call it task management software.

    Liked by 1 person

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