If you have found yourself in the position of looking for new or different support for your business computers, servers and network infrastructure in the past few years, you have most likely discovered several new options that you may not have been previously offered. In the information technology (IT) services world, these proactive solutions are known as “managed services,“ and virtually every IT service provider is on the bandwagon. Yet this concept is not necessarily new or cutting-edge; in fact, it has been circulating since the 1980s, across several different industries. It is one of those terms that has meant many things to many people, and the lack of a generally accepted definition has contributed to its slower-than-expected growth—until recently.
The companies that provide these proactive services are called Managed Services Providers, or MSPs. Typically, an MSP manages and assumes responsibility for providing a defined set of services to their clients, either proactively or as they (not the client) determine that the services are needed. Often these services include a software device, commonly referred to as an “agent,” that attaches to workstations, servers and other network devices and allows for system monitoring and remote helpdesk support. At varying degrees, these agents are also available to those companies that employ a full-time support staff. Since this approach is entirely contrary to the traditionally reactive “break-fix” support that has been the norm for most businesses, the managed services model can be a paradigm shift for those businesses looking for a more efficient means to support their technology.
As an example, when network or computer issues occur under the traditional break-fix model, the end user calls to notify support personnel of the problem. Most often, the issue is urgent, and it’s difficult to determine when it will be resolved, let alone its consequent financial impact. In the same scenario, but under a managed services plan, the MSP would contact the end user upon the first indication of an anomaly, and ideally before it becomes an issue that would result in system downtime. The IT service provider now has line-of-sight to the underlying issues, which expedites the resolution, and labor is often included within a fixed monthly fee structure, rather than charged by the hour.
So how do you tell if your service provider is just using the word, and perhaps “flat-rating” your service, but isn’t really managing your network? As is the case with almost everything, not all MSPs are created equal. Although each is different in how they deploy their services, most provide similar fundamental basics, which, in some form, typically include: remote helpdesk support, system monitoring, software patch management and fixed monthly pricing.
When determining which MSP works best for your business, there are a few additional considerations that you should add to your search:
- What will be monitored under this plan? Most MSPs offer monitoring and alerting tools that identify standard issues such as failing hard drives, low memory, low disk space, viruses and spyware. These tools will also provide a real-time inventory of your technology assets and, if applied properly, lengthen the lifetime of your equipment. These agents are often fairly expensive for the MSP, but they are a necessary expense and can be very powerful for your business.
- Will the monitoring agents affect the performance of my equipment or network? The tools used by your MSP are typically non-invasive and should not affect the performance of your network or equipment. They act as an auditing system that logs data to the service provider’s central database. In fact, end users may not even notice that agents have been installed on their workstations.
- How will the MSP handle my company’s confidential information? Inherently, your technical support will have access to sensitive business information, including your financials. While it’s difficult for some businesses to allow an outside firm full access to their data, MSPs should have no issue signing a reasonable confidentiality agreement—they will often even provide the document. The key is to understand how the MSP will audit their services, especially when they need remote access into your system.
- Will this solution scale with my business? Pricing for these managed service plans is usually calculated based on the number of workstations, servers and other devices that may be attached to your network. Many of the programs are flexible and can easily grow (or shrink) with the changes in your business. Often, there are contracts attached to these services, and some of them can be long-term. But there are service providers that invest in the long-term relationship with your organization without requiring more than a 30-day commitment.
- How will this plan impact my bottom line? At first glance, the managed services approach does not necessarily provide an immediate cost savings for your business, although in some cases it may. The true financial advantages of a proactive approach are how it addresses the hidden costs of running your business. Most MSPs bill a flat or near-fixed monthly fee for an “all-you-can-eat” solution; however, be aware that some may charge extra for project-based fees or services provided after normal working hours. Regardless of which plan you choose, the responsibility of keeping your systems up, running and available falls on the shoulders of the MSP. Any time that is spent fighting fires, rather than preventing them, requires added resources. This penalizes the MSP by decreasing the effective bill rate, and ultimately the profit margin, of the flat monthly fee that is charged to you.
The reality is that managed services are quickly becoming the standard for technology support. IT service providers have recognized that the managed services platform provides a recurring revenue stream for their business, while at the same time offers a predictable monthly expense to their client. But more importantly, MSPs have discovered that they can be more responsive to their clients’ needs than was ever possible in a break-fix support model. This proactive approach usually presents a reduction in overall support expenses and frees the burden of day-to-day tasks so the client can focus on strategic business projects—all without the fear that the proverbial meter is running. iBi