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During a Ziff Davis eSeminar on May 10, one of the audience’s first questions was about ceding control of IT systems to a managed service provider.

The audience comprised hundreds of end users, who naturally have concerns about what it could mean to their business should a provider they engage under a managed services contract mishandle their data or fail to properly maintain their networks.

The eSeminar consisted of a panel to discuss the benefits of managed services and whether Microsoft’s Vista operating system is likely to facilitate the adoption of the model, through which providers remotely take over some or all of their clients’ IT systems and charge them utility-like fees for the services.

Fundamental to the managed services model is the concept of prevention. Rather than getting involved when something goes wrong, providers focus on ensuring that nothing breaks down. Whenever they have to switch to remediation mode, their profit margins take a hit.

But the customer sees it differently. No matter how poorly an overburdened in-house IT department may maintain a network, any business executive in full control of his or her mental facilities would have to question the wisdom of transferring oversight of their computing environments to a third party.

Considering the rash of network security breaches in recent years and the stiffening of federal and state regulations in regards to data management and storage, any healthy skepticism from the customer is perfectly understandable.

At times, trying to figure out how to manage data must be downright terrifying because government regulations and privacy rights are either in competition or working in tandem.

Following the corporate scandals of the turn of the millennium, the government enacted a number of regulations that effectively gave birth to an industry that we now call “compliance.”

But while the government has passed laws to protect the privacy of data with one hand, it has sought to infringe on the privacy of the citizenry with the other. Search engine companies, telcos and online retailers have at one point or another been at the center of controversies over how much personal information the government should be allowed to get its hands on.

And now auction sites such as eBay and are feeling pressure from the government, as the U.S. Department of Treasury pushes to collect personal data from brokers and customers of these sites for tax purposes.

Opponents are balking, of course, because this is another attempt by the government to weasel information with little effort, in the process creating the potential for increased theft of personal data and phishing scams.

So not only do IT managers have to worry about thieves but also about the government. Is it any wonder that they fret about handing over control of their networks to a managed services provider?

This paranoia is justified, and it puts the onus on the provider to reassure end users that managed services are an efficient, secure way to handle IT. Providers should persuade users to first try one service, such as e-mail filtering or patch management, and then decide based on the outcome whether to add more.

If the provider does a good job with that first service, the customer should have no real reason to shun managed services. The issue of control should then take a backseat to performance, uptime and the provider’s accountability.

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