Managed IT 101

Last updated: November 27, 2019

Overview

In this introduction to Managed IT Services, we will discuss in detail what managed services are, how they work, what to look for from a provider, and how your organization can benefit from them.

What Is Managed IT

Managed IT Services are defined as the practice of outsourcing a wide array of technology services to a Managed Services Provider (MSP).  The MSP is typically responsible for providing proactive management of an organization’s technology systems and for implementing strategies which will improve and streamline operations, and potentially decrease costs. MSPs work proactively by focusing on prevention of network and security failures, providing ongoing systems monitoring, delivering regular maintenance of the Client’s IT systems, assisting with IT Security Policy development, and providing IT expertise for strategic planning.

The overall concept behind managed services is to improve service delivery and provide better IT outcomes by shifting the burden of IT maintenance and support from the Client to a single Managed IT Services provider. Placing responsibility for Client IT operations with an MSP provides direct benefit to the Client by allowing their internal IT staff to focus on core business functions and ensuring that they receive best-in-class support and strategic consulting delivered by a dedicated team with deep technical and strategy expertise.

Managed IT Services is an evolution of the 1990s “break/fix” or Reactive IT support model, where providers performed on-demand services and billed the customer for the work done on a task basis. In contrast, Managed Services is a subscription based support model in which the Client has a binding contract with the MSP. The service contract specifies service level agreements and a scope of work to define the terms of engagement.

Evolution of Managed IT

In the 1990s, Managed IT services primarily included desktop support and network administration. Often the MSP would send a technician to the client site on a regularly scheduled day of the week. This was largely because a typical organization’s internet connectivity and bandwidth was slow and remote access tools were limited in capabilities. These limitations required a technician to be physically onsite to provide end user desktop support as well as to maintain server and network systems.

In the 2000s, as high speed bandwidth became widely available and remote access tools improved significantly, Managed Services began to evolve toward a Remote Management and Monitoring (RMM) model. MSPs began to remotely monitor server systems, computers, and devices, as well as establish remote sessions directly into user computers for support. This allowed MSPs to become more proactive in their support model by providing 24×7 helpdesk coverage for clients. When a Client’s staffer had an issue, they no longer would have to wait for the day of the technician’s scheduled weekly onsite visit. Instead they could simply call into the MSP helpdesk and have a technician provide immediate remote support.

By the 2010s, as Cloud technologies became mainstream, the Managed Services model also continued to evolve. With Cloud Solutions came the concept of “as-a-service” model. MSPs embraced this new concept and expanded their service offerings beyond basic IT Support. Most MSPs started to provide their customers with Cloud Services, both Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS). This gave MSPs a new opportunity to not just provide support and administration of systems, but to deliver the actual hosting service itself. It also provided the client the benefit of having a “Managed Cloud” solution, with both hosting and administration managed by a single vendor.

This model has continued to expand into other areas with the convergence of voice and data services. As traditional analog PBX phone systems have become obsolete and on premise Voice over IP (VoIP) phone systems have become less economical, MSPs have expanded their service offerings to include Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS).

Today MSPs offer a wide range of services including IT Support, Network Administration, Cloud Services, Telephony, Web Development, and Cyber Security. The outlook for the 2020s and beyond indicates that this trend will continue, and MSPs most recently have begun to expand into Security as a Service (SECaaS). As Cyber Security threats continue to rise, and attackers become more sophisticated, it is essential for MSPs to provide advanced security solutions. While traditionally security services have been offered by Cyber Security firms, a convergence with MSPs is occurring in this area. All of these service innovations directly benefit the Client by having a single partner manage all aspects of their organization’s technology. We will look at these benefits in detail below.

How to Implement Managed IT

The key to a successful Managed Services engagement is defining the desired outcomes your organization expects from partnering with an MSP, rather than focusing on specific tasks you want them to execute. The scope of work with your MSP should be focused on the results of the services they provide rather than on how and what they do to achieve those outcomes. Emphasizing outcomes makes monitoring the value of the Managed Services much easier for the Client.

For smaller organizations, defining outcomes can be easier as often there are no in-house IT personnel. As such, the expectation of the MSP will be that it is responsible for most if not everything. For medium to large organizations with in-house IT personnel, defining the scope of a managed IT engagement involves determining which functions should go to the MSP so that the internal IT team can focus on strategic initiatives.

Whether your organization is small or large, a successful Managed Services engagement requires three key factors:

  1. Letting go of traditional roles and control
  2. A MSP that accepts responsibility for the delivery of outcomes
  3. Having the right person oversee the MSP

Often a client will insist on maintaining certain roles and responsibilities, either to save on costs or to retain control. This mindset is often counter-productive, duplicates work, and can ultimately result in additional costs. For example, a small organization may be insistent that a staff member (often a non-technical person) will handle account setups, mailbox management, or file permissions. This individual will most likely struggle to follow proper procedures to ensure correct configuration and standardization. In a larger organization, the internal IT staff may want to manage troubleshooting server/network issues, and only escalate to the MSP when they can’t resolve them. At that point, the MSP will have to troubleshoot the issue all over again from the start, delaying the resolution of the issue. Any time invested by internal staff prior to the issue being escalated is lost time.

At the same time, if your organization is relinquishing roles and responsibilities, and ultimately some level of control to the MSP, the provider must also be fully willing and able to be held accountable for those functions. Furthermore, the MSP must have clearly defined expected outcomes in their scope of work. For example, 99.99% uptime of systems or reliability of data backups may be included in the scope of a defined support SLA. These results must be quantifiable and tracked. The client may request that the MSP provide reports on such metrics on a quarterly basis.

Finally, Clients must oversee MSPs, and having the right staff member oversee the provider is essential to a successful engagement. In many instances a technical person is given the responsibility of overseeing the provider. Instead, the ideal person should be a non-technical business-operations staff member who can provide insight about the organization’s ecosystem, it’s goals or mission, and work as a partner with the MSP. The MSP is already an expert in technical matters, or at least they should be. They shouldn’t need a technician to manage them. The relationship between the MSP and the internal point of contact needs to be a joint partnership where the two work together collaboratively, with the MSP providing technical guidance, and the internal staffer providing business input. For example, the staff member will be able to evaluate the business impact of a given solution on an organization’s staff, customers, members and other stakeholders. An MSP will not be able to provide this analysis in most cases.

Selecting the Right Managed Services Provider

Selecting the right MSP is critical to an organization’s overall success. Your MSP is there to support your people, operations, and ultimately your mission. If you make the wrong choice, the impact can have organization-wide effects.

Don’t shop for bargain providers with price as your primary criteria.  While the MSP industry is highly competitive offering varying flavors of providers at every tier, it can be tempting to rely on cost as key decision point. Remember the old saying that you get what you pay for.  When searching for an MSP, look for a provider that understands your business or mission, is familiar with your industry, and talks less about technology and more about long-term outcomes and their service approach. The provider needs to be able to deliver outcomes that will ultimately empower your organization’s business initiatives or mission. And they need to be customer-centric.

As you search for an MSP, look for firms that offer a wide range of services. Top MSPs expand their capabilities to meet market demand, and most CIOs looks for MSPs that provide advanced services. There are significant efficiencies to be gained by having a single MSP that an provide as many IT functions within their core competency. An ideal MSP should offer a service portfolio consisting of Managed IT, Cloud Solutions, Cyber Security, Telephony/Conferencing, Web Development/Hosting, and Technology Strategy/Consulting.

In the past, outsourcing IT functions to an MSP was looked at from a cost savings perspective, perhaps replacing internal IT staff overhead. That has now changed, now organizations look at MSPs from a cost benefit perspective, recognizing how a partner can help the organization become more efficient. Most organizations choose to retain their IT staff to focus on strategic projects. This also provides new opportunities for IT staff to move up within the organization, rather than being stranded behind the scenes in a server room.

Benefits of using Managed Services

As the pace of change in IT continues to accelerate, it has become harder for organizations to maintain current technologies, let alone keep up with the latest advances in technology and IT services. MSPs have the resources and expertise in various technologies, in addition to taking a holistic approach to providing IT services, often deliver outcomes to a higher standard than most organizations can achieve on their own. An organization can gain many benefits by partnering with an MSP, including:

  1. Efficient Utilization of Internal Staff

Most organizations have limited IT staff who are often overwhelmed with supporting backed end systems, complex technologies, or rapidly changing solutions. By outsourcing these functions to an MSP with the core expertise to support them, organizations can more efficiently utilize their internal resources towards implementing strategic projects to further core organizational objectives.

  1. Eliminating IT Recruitment Challenges

As the demand for skilled IT professionals continues to grow, most organizations struggle with recruiting qualified personnel or retaining existing staff. By outsourcing these functions to an MSP, organizations can eliminate IT staffing challenges.

  1. Increased Scalability

Whether deploying a new system or dealing with an increase or decrease in support staff, organizations can leverage MSPs to scale up or down as business needs dictate. In most cases this capability is practically on demand.

  1. 24×7 Support

With cloud based systems, mobile devices, and remote access capabilities, an organization’s staff can work at any time and any day of the week. Those capabilities also require access to support for staff at any time.

  1. Shifting the Responsibility

Systems and services need to be available 24×7. By shifting the burden of responsibility to an MSP, organizations can focus on improving processes and user training, rather than system availability.

  1. Predictable Monthly Costs

With an operational expense model, MSPs provide organizations with predictable monthly costs, often on a fixed per user basis or via a recurring monthly retainer for support. Subscription services also provide cost predictability as they are based on a resource usage or per user model. This eliminates large capital expenditures for infrastructure and equipment, as well as IT staff overhead.

In summary, Managed Services can have significant impact to an organization and help lower costs, increase service levels, and improve efficiency. By partnering with the right Managed Services Provider and organization can experience better support quality, enhanced services, expert strategic guidance, and ultimately improved IT outcomes.

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