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The acronym MSP (Managed Services Provider) has taken on a
life of its own in the channel. There are those who associate the term with
little more than hosted management of PCs and Servers while others have no clue
as to what an MSP really is.

Many solution providers seem to assume that becoming an MSP
is somewhat limiting, transforming a business into little more than a provider
of boutique services that handle the maintenance and management of IT
equipment. However, that assumption is wrong. Today, becoming an MSP opens up a
wide realm of profitable services previously unimagined, even by managed
services pioneers.

So, what has changed? In a single word: cloud. Today, most
any service can be had via the cloud – from storage to desktops to enterprise
applications. What’s more, new services are popping up every day, including
platforms as a service, business social networking and even disaster recovery.

The interesting thing here is that all of those services
need some form of management or at the very least, federation, and no one is
better equipped to deliver that than a channel savvy MSP. Nevertheless, it is a
big world of services out there and a solution provider can only do so much.
So, how does one grow their MSP business to include additional services?

It all comes down to focusing on what you already know and
turning that into a service that yields a recurring revenue stream. In other
words, do not take on unacceptable risk. For example, the typical solution
provider has a core competency, such as networking or security or application
development. Expanding that core competency into a service can be a
straightforward process, simply because you are working with what you already
know, just with a new service delivery mechanism.

Security (and forensics) are a perfect example here. Many
solution providers have focused on the firewall and intrusion prevention
markets as a way to demonstrate expertise and derive profits – however, those
technologies prove to be very expensive for the end customer and in some cases,
a hard sell because of the sheer initial capital expenses involved.

And ironically, that is what creates a service opportunity.
How so? Well, there are multiple paths a solution provider could follow to turn
that into a managed service. The first path leans heavily on how things have
been done in the past, and that is to deploy a physical appliance to the
customer site and then remotely manage it – in itself, a managed service, but
not quite what an MSP delivers. The transformation on this first path comes
into play when the solution provider seeks to change the billing paradigm from
a capital expense to an operational expense – here, the solution provider can
perhaps turn to leasing to provide the equipment and then a service contract to
monitor, manage and maintain the solution.

Ultimately, that path could prove the simplest to get into a
managed services style of operation. However, there are a few caveats – the
first is to make sure the vendor you work with offers leasing, a “hoteling”
capable management console and policy based management. Vendors to consider
include Cisco, Palo Alto Networks, Sonicwall, Check Point, HP, and a few other
big names (and some little ones as well). Most, if not all, offer methodologies
to manage multiple sites as independent entities.

Nonetheless, that is only one path to pursue in the world of
managed security – several new companies are offering an alternative path –
namely, hosted security. With that paradigm, all of the security processing
takes place at a host’s site, and all traffic between the host and the customer
is encrypted. Case in point is Cloud
, a hosted service that falls under the moniker of security as a
service. Cloud Passage works by enforcing security policy on connected hardware
and keeping software patched, as well as examining traffic, all of which is
done via the cloud. With Cloud Passage, a solution  provider could build a security services
offering and spin that into a managed service. Of course, Cloud Passage is only
one example. More seem to pop up every day.

Security is only one of the possibilities out there for a
solution provider – even pedestrian technologies, such as PC desktops,
applications and backup are all now available for transformation into a managed
service. Take for example CharTech, a company that bills itself as a “hardware
as a service” vendor. Chartech offers their BDR appliance, which is designed
for backup and disaster recovery. The BDR unit is available under a monthly
contract and provides automated onsite backup, with a twist – the backup is
replicated to cloud storage – providing an offsite element, one that protects
in the case of a loss of facility or regional disaster. Chartech also
incorporates virtualization technology as well, allowing a backed-up server to
be transformed into a virtual server – either on the appliance or in the cloud.
The company is working closely with the channel and should prove to be an easy
way to move into the realm of cloud and managed services.

Other cloud services to consider include a newer category,
Desktops as a Service (DaaS), where a virtual desktop, with all of the customer’s
applications, is hosted in the cloud. Solution providers leveraging that
concept can build complete virtual networks, with desktops, applications,
security and almost anything else a business could need and then offer that as
a bundle to customers as a managed service. Vendors to look at include
Desktone, Wipro and yoodos.

Some solution providers may want to pursue the idea of
federating hosted services into a viable, centrally managed offering. However,
building federated services requires extensive integration and most
importantly, a platform that incorporates management. That is where PaaS
(platforms as a service) comes into play. With PaaS, solution providers are
able to deploy a hosted platform that incorporates other services, customized
to a particular client’s needs. Here, vendors such as OS33, SalesForce,
Cloudbees, Cloudfoundry and dozens of others offer hosted platforms that can be
customized and tuned for specific needs. Other vendors, such as IBM, Skydera
and Cloudswitch offers ways to integrate dissimilar cloud services into a
heterogeneous offering – which proves to be the key for building custom
offerings using readily available services.

Of course, any of the above-mentioned offerings or concepts
will require PSA (professional services automation) to keep costs down and meet
customer needs. Luckily, PSA in the cloud is now a reality for solution
providers, where all of the project management, support and even billing can be
streamlined to enhance efficiencies, improve services and build higher revenue.
The channel can turn to vendors such as Connectwise, OpenAir, Autotask,
Tigerpaw and dozens of others to wrap PSA around MSP services.

The lesson here is that transforming your solution provider
business into a MSP is not a business-limiting move, but a way to create new
services, revenues and solutions with the newest technologies, without having
to completely reinvent your operations.