Sunday, December 7, 2008

Choosing your Managed Services platform, part 1

Lately it seems the whole managed services industry has been turned upside down. Major vendors have suddenly changed how they operate - not so much changing prices as much as adding, changing, or outright removing key features. Frankly it's caused more than a little frustration for those of us who depend on those platforms for our managed services offerings. Computer Troubleshooters is in the midst of reviewing all our managed services partners, so I thought it would be helpful to share what we're looking for.

First, let me clarify and expound on one of my great pet peeves. "Managed Services" doesn't mean anything. Or, rather, it means so many different things to different people that the term is meaningless. It's like saying "IT industry", as if software developers and hardware manufacturers and network consultants were somehow a homogenous group. (I know, I know, most non-IT folks think they are, leading to the popularity of things like this.) Those of you who have been through CT's training on our managed services program (B.E.S.T.) have heard me talk about watching the video discussion among three people identified as the industry's top managed services gurus, and how midway through the discussion they began arguing about things like whether or not managed services as a concept even applies to desktops and notebooks.

For Computer Troubleshooters, our target clients are small businesses (another vague term which I'll probably expound on in another posting later), specifically those in the 5-25 seat area. That's not to say that we don't service smaller clients with 1-5 computers, because we do, and some CT's have been known to service networks of 100 or more. But as an organization we've always targeted the 5-25 seat business, because as a market those small businesses (which are most small businesses) have a high demand for outside IT support from people who understand their needs. So when we talk about "managed services" for this market, we're talking in general about a program that does 4 things:
  1. Provides a baseline for "best practices", showing our clients how their systems compare to our combined wisdom on how computers and networks should be configured for maximum productivity and minimum downtime.
  2. Provides proactive support via 24/7 monitoring, alerting, and management tools.
  3. Redefines the traditional financial relationship, where the service provider was only paid when their client has problems, to one where the service provider is paid to prevent problems from happening, and where the client's budget (and service provider's income) is more stable.
  4. Once the client's technology infrastructure is stabilized with parts 1-3, look for new technologies which can enhance the client's business. This means going beyond the basic recommendations like which anti-virus or backup solution to use, into more complex but more beneficial technologies like search engine marketing, IP Telephony, electronic document management, or hosted CRM solutions.
Now if you are targeting different sized clients, like mid-sized businesses or enterprise businesses, your definition of "managed services" will be radically different. And even among those targeting similarly sized businesses you may not agree with all four of our points. But this is the strategy Computer Troubleshooters adopted for our BEST program, and it's worked very well for us and for our clients.

But in order to make this work, we need vendor partners who can supply critical parts of the managed services strategy. In this post I want to look a the basic pieces of a managed services platform today, and in my next post we'll look at what new pieces might be added in the near future. At the moment, these are the pieces of our managed services platform which we look for from our vendor partners (including internal CT vendors/departments as well):

  1. Remote Monitoring & Management tool (RMM): This is the most fundamental piece of any managed services strategy. In theory you could sell managed services without RMM, but it would be like selling a car with no wheels - it sort of missses the whole point. A good RMM tool should be easily installable at a client site, and provide a good range of monitoring and alerts for all desktops and servers on the network, including mobile machines (laptops, and optionally smartphones as well). It should be easy for the technician to use, provide reasonable diagnostic & remote support abilities to allow the tech to quickly respond to any alerts produced, and it should generate easy to read executive reports for our clients.
    The RMM tool market is the most associated with managed services, and includes vendors like Hyblue, Bird Dog, Zenith Infotech, Level Platforms, N-Able, Kaseya, IT Control Suite, LogMeIn IT Reach, Paragent, and MSP Center Plus. (As well as others I'm sure I've forgotten to mention).

  2. A NOC (Network Operations Center) partner. As managed services has evolved, so has the dependence on a NOC for maximum support. Using a high-quality 24/7 NOC partner allows local service providers to guarantee high levels of service to their clients, without the high expense of hiring excessive technical staff themselves. Some NOC partners work specifically with one RMM tool, others may support a variety. Ideally you want a NOC partner who will not only help you manage the alerts which come in, but who can also accept work on-demand, particularly for work which is best done after normal business hours. NOC examples include Zenith, Seismic, MSPSN, NetEnrich, ITVista, and others.

  3. Integrated Anti-Malware. This was not originally part of the managed services model, but Zenith started it and it worked extremely well in our models (unfortunately Zenith no longer supports this in the small business market). And when CT started offering residential managed service plans, integrated anti-malware became essential. Including anti-malware (anti-virus & anti-spyware) with managed services is a great bundle for any clients, and can be done a la carte using hosted McAfee options, licensing Trend Micro on a monthly basis, or via vendors who integrate the protection directly into their RMM products (Kaseya, Hyblue, or Zenith for larger businesses).

  4. Integration with industry-leading PSA (Professional Services Automation) software, including Autotask or CT's own TOPS program. Having one ticket system which interfaces with the RMM system and the NOC is a great time saver and productivity enhancer.

  5. Helpdesk. Most MSP's include unlimited telephone support in one or more of their service plan offerings. In our case it's included with BEST Proactive and BEST Trouble-free. For smaller service providers it can be money well spent to hire an outside helpdesk to handle those incoming calls for you, thus providing your clients with faster access to qualified telephone support. Helpdesk vendors include Dove Helpdesk (my personal favorite), MSPSN, Zenith, PC Helps, and more.

  6. Advanced Management Tools. In this category I would include things like software deployment, employee activity tracking, internet traffic control, and desktop imaging. In the small business world these are nice to have, but not essential.

Those six make up the bulk of almost any managed services platform today. Individual service providers can "roll their own" solution by combining any of these, but in a franchise like Computer Troubleshooters we're able to do some screening and negotiating internally to make sure we're picking the best partners for our market, and to negotiate group volume discounts as well.

What's missing in this list? I haven't talked much about backup solutions, including NAS options or online backup. I haven't talked about virtualized environments or hosted (i.e. "cloud computing") solutions. There are also anti-spam options to be discussed, and even more advanced management tools. These aren't technically part of "managed services" today (although they're often added to or included with BEST plans), but they may play a larger role in the next generation of managed services. I'll talk about that more in my next post.

Agree or disagree with me? I'd love to hear your ideas on managed services, and how your implementation fits with (or doesn't fit with) the structure I've outlined here.


utilityware said...
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Anonymous said...

(unfortunately Zenith no longer supports this in the small business market)

News to me - We have over 300 small business units on Zenith - all using the excellent bundled Anti* tools privided with the RMM platform.

Chip Reaves, CEO, Computer Troubleshooters said...

Zenith still provides the anti-malware tools, but they've switched from AVG to Bitdefender, and their BitDefender install requires a server. The majority of small businesses (by entity) do not have servers, since most are 1-5 seat very small offices, and many are starting to use cloud-based services like hosted exchange instead of local server-based services. So Zenith's new solution does not work well in these environments.

Now in terms of total desktops, Zenith's solution still works in the majority of situations (since one 10-seat business with a server has more desktops than three 2-seat businesses without a server). And dozens of Computer Troubleshooters still use Zenith successfully for those clients. But right now if you want to use Zenith for all your clients, and you have any non-server sites, you have to find another anti-malware solution. This isn't necessarily a big deal, bit it adds costs, and creates inconsistency across your managed services client base - something that limits the potential advantages of managed services in general.

James said...

Nice blog and the post seems very informative about Managed Service Providers .
Thanks for sharing the post. Keep posting further....