So You Want to Be an MSP?

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print


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Managed services are all about supporting the customer, and that is something VARs know all about. After all, VARs have been providing services since the dawn of IT, and those services have always needed an element of management.

From the start, the big question about services has always been, "Who does the management?" Is it the VAR, an internal IT department or a combination thereof?

While that may seem an over­­simplification of the managed services concept, one point is clear: When you put together the words "managed," "services" and "provider," the whole market dynamic changes and tends to evoke an easy feeling that an MSP is just another term for outsourcing IT functions.

Read the latest research on MSPs and what they think of the state of the market

That perception drives some IT managers to view managed services as a threat to their staffing and service levels, especially when one considers the economies of scale offered by those services. But small-business managers can be persuaded more readily of the model's benefits. Yet, for VARs, some mysticism remains on how to become an MSP.

In its most basic form, a managed service consists of the tools and services to manage a customer's network assets, ranging from servers to switches to desktop PCs. Those services can include operating system support, software patching, hardware configuration, security solutions or a combination of these. That support is executed via both automated and manual processes administered remotely by the MSP.

For the VAR, the foundation of those services is the most important element and consists of a simple formula that integrates a platform (hardware), tools (software) and expertise (the VAR). The net effect results in the VAR having a happy customer, an ongoing revenue stream and an easily sustained business model that offers growth. To accomplish that level of nirvana, a VAR will have to make the services viable and affordable.

But VARs looking to plug into the managed services market still have a major hurdle to leap over—buy-in from customers, which must agree to monthly support costs and allow that third-party connection into their networks. Luckily, business continuity, compliance and budgetary controls are forcing businesses to re-evaluate how to support their systems.

Here, managed services can offer real-world solutions to those concerns. Uptime is accomplished by system monitoring, and compliance is aided by controlling patches and automatically auditing security, while budgets can be better estimated and controlled due to the fixed fees associated with the services. What's more, important changes in the basic technologies used will bring enhanced flexibility to MSPs and their customers.

New Technologies

While the basic principles of managed services have changed very little in the past year, many of the underlying technologies have become more robust. Take Intel's vPro technology, which is a hardware platform that brings out-of-band management to the desktop PC. Intel launched the vPro platform to fuel IT management solutions and bring better manageability to desktop and notebook PCs. vPro is poised to make a major impact on the MSP market that supports desktop PCs, servers and notebooks, and all the MSP platform vendors are quickly implementing controls for vPro-enabled systems.

To truly understand vPro, one has to understand Intel's AMT (Active Management Technology), which brings the true management aspect to vPro systems. AMT stores hardware and software information in nonvolatile memory and offers built-in manageability. With a vPro-AMT implementation, IT administrators can discover and manage IT assets, even if those PCs are powered down.

AMT also enables re­­mote consoles to manage assets without a local software agent. Each vPro PC can be assigned a separate, static IP address, which eases identification of the target PC and allows administrators to create subnets of managed PCs. Using that static IP address, the system can be booted remotely and even have BIOS changes accomplished remotely.

Those capabilities allow administrators to diagnose troublesome PCs and load or install them from a remote CD image.

Some may wonder why any of that matters and how it affects VARs considering parlaying managed services. Simply put, vPro allows MSPs to offer off-hours support. Normally, a PC would have to be left on for an MSP tech to remotely perform tasks on it. In many cases, those tasks would have to be performed during normal business hours, disrupting the user's productivity and potentially interfering with business processes. Leaving PCs on during off-hours for troubleshooting means wasting electricity, time and money. What's more, sometimes the user would forget to leave the system on, and that would disrupt the MSP's plans.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com