What is a Managed Service Provider (and Who Needs One)?


A Managed Service Provider (MSP for short) in basic terms is a company that, at its most fundamental level, provides IT services to another company. Usually this takes the form of a help desk-esque service where a company can put in tickets and have their computers defragged or their printer mapped or whatever it is. MSPs are very appealing to small businesses, because it is financially the better move when you’re crunching numbers. Let’s talk numbers for a second.

There are varying pricing models that MSPs adopt. Some are a flat rate, and this seems to be the preferred pricing plan of 2016. By “flat rate”, I mean the company charges X amount of dollars “per seat”, where a seat is usually an endpoint and a mobile device, though they aren’t usually too picky about that. In speaking with five major MSPs in my area, they usually charged around $100-130 a person, depending on what sort of support you wanted. Some MSPs are even more flat rate than that, charging a fixed rate per month for the entire organization. This is usually done by rather scrupulous, newer MSPs who want a predictable cash flow coming in. From a client perspective this is much more risky, because there is a high chance that that MSP will target a small business and give them that flat rate to simplify things, but a single division equation will often reveal that price being much higher per user than, well, a MSP that offers a per-user pricing plan. Obviously the blanket fee is also the most rigid of the pricing models and as a client you have to be more careful than usual to gauge the projected growth of your business against the scalability of your MSP.

Focusing in on just the help desk function a MSP offers – the support itself is broken up into during business hours and not. When interviewing a MSP, you need to have them define their support, because it is not the same across the board. Your operating hours might be 8-5 but your MSP might be 7-4. You might get unlimited tickets during operating hours or they might accumulate towards a set quota in the contract. After hours is where it can get incredibly expensive and frustrating. The first item to note is that not all MSPs handle their own after-hours calls. Many instead elect to hire a MSP of their own so that they can sleep at night. You can bet that the client will be charged a mark-up when dealing with a MSP that doesn’t handle all their own support. Some MSPs (the ones who have decent staffing, I mean) will charge you extra per person and offer you that 24/7 support. The companies that do offer 24/7 support are going to work very hard to make sure your IT infrastructure is running well so they don’t have to keep waking up to field a call. For simplicity’s sake, the client is usually going to have to pick the operating hours support package or the unlimited, or some weird hybrid plan. You’re not going to get away with the CEO having 24/7 support while the lackeys get 8-5. It’s too difficult to manage when you have hundreds of clients (I asked).

Help Desk support is given mainly through a remote access client of some sort, and I think even if you don’t have a tech-savvy person in your company it’s still worth it to research what that software is. A proper MSP will have a powerful tool that they can use to not only log into computers, but to also deploy software and patches, run antivirus/malware scans, perform basic user administration, gather reports and go through logs – things like that. If your potential MSP is using individual RDP connections to manage an entire organization, it’s probably a good idea to look elsewhere. The reason I say that you should know what the software is is because the best ones are frighteningly powerful. Kaseya, for example, can be used to wake up and log into any machine it’s deployed on at any time without anyone on the other end ever knowing about it. Don’t you think it’s worth knowing what your MSP can do? A non-disclosure agreement will only get you so far.

It isn’t enough for MSPs these days to just do a help desk function, and their capabilities have to grow as their competition grows. It is now commonplace to see MSPs that are still at small business status providing hosting, web design, database management, cloud and virtualization services, staff augmentation, backup and restoration services, and other IT-related offerings. I would say as a client to just be wary of one company trying to do too much – if a MSP claims to do everything I just mentioned and only has 10 people then you’re likely going to be disappointed.

Speaking of disappointment, let me touch on the relationship the client should have with their MSP. There’s 2 ways I’ve seen this played out, really: The Finance department will say “we give them money so they better be perfect”, and if the client has IT/technical people already they will (hopefully) say “bringing a MSP on is like hiring an entire IT department at once to work for and augment us”. There seems to be a very gray area when it comes to managed services, and I don’t know that most companies treat a MSP like an extension of their company, even though that is far and wide the most effective way to view it. A MSP recognizes that, for example, X company doesn’t want to pay for an IT staff and no one there knows how to do IT stuff so they’re going to outsource it. That’s fine, but they need to also remember that if they want a truly personal IT experience, they’re never going to get it unless they bring on/keep IT people in-house. Their company is going to be prioritized, categorized, labelled, and managed like the bajillions of other companies the MSP handles. Support will not be instant. It will take time to understand the business and its employees – longer the more corporate the MSP is and the more clients it has. To most businesses, I’m sure that suits them just fine – they just want the damn scanner to work. For others, though, they might want someone on-site to help the elderly receptionist replace her mouse batteries.

So to answer the question “Who needs a MSP?”, it’s companies whose end-users are doing IT work themselves and either don’t have IT support on-hand or has IT support but it isn’t good enough for the direction the business is heading. It’s also for companies who need a relatively small technical thing done but it really isn’t worth it to hire an IT person specialized in that task – for example a company might have a MSP host their SharePoint site as opposed to shelling out the hefty salary a SharePoint expert makes. A company can also use a MSP to gain access to greater hardware and software capabilities – such as having email route through the MSP that can then use their mail servers and spam filtering software as opposed to Janice the Janitor setting up Exchange and Spiceworks.

Conversely, there is a time when companies just need to shell out for that IT staff. Dealing with classified data is a pretty big indicator in my book, as well as when they need that immediate response time. Also when a company is dealing with frequent IT projects – a MSP is limited in the project management area simply due to how much other work they have to do. There’s a lot that goes into this choice, and it (hopefully) involves HR and leadership input as well as finance.

If you’re thinking about interviewing a MSP for your company, here’s a list of the top ten questions I asked MSPs that can help you with your choice:

  1. How many people work for your company?
  2. What are your support hours?
  3. Do you do your own after-hours support or is it outsourced?
  4. How are backups handled?
  5. What software do you use for antivirus, spam filtering, and remote access (to include VPN)?
  6.  What is your definition of a project (usually this is defined in terms of man-hours) vs. what is considered general maintenance?
  7. When is server maintenance typically scheduled (sounds common sense but you’d be surprised at how often I heard MSPs say they reboot servers during business hours)?
  8. What affiliations/partnerships do you have with other vendors (Microsoft, VMWare, etc.) (You can often get discounts on hardware/software if you buy it through your MSP because they may get discounted rates for being a partner)?
  9. Do you have your own server room or is the hardware off-site?
  10. What are the specifications of the site the company’s data is hosted at (redundant internet/power connections, physical security, geographical location, etc.)?

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