Cloud Computing 365: Most Managed Services Providers have forgotten their roots in Internet connectivity

By Claranet’s UK Managing Director, Michel Robert.

Things were so much simpler in the 1990s. Back in those heady early days of the web, businesses usually needed a technology “service provider” for one thing only – Internet connectivity. They were spoilt for choice, too, as a plethora of ISPs sprang up to take advantage of the new market demand. The 90s were boom time for ISPs; yet cast your eye around now and you’ll see that few of these providers still exist as independent entities, and still fewer position themselves as mere “Internet” Services Providers.

What happened? Clearly, it was not that the demand for connectivity or greater bandwidth declined. Rather, it was that network technology enabled services to be remotely delivered over an Internet connection. If the 1990s were all about connectivity, the turn of the century saw the emergence of dedicated hosting and colocation services, which ushered in new business models for end-users and service providers alike.

Rather than simply providing the pipe and keeping Internet downtime to a minimum, service providers now found themselves hosting their customers’ data, documents, databases and line-of-business applications. Just as this removed the burden of hosting from the customer, it also gave providers the opportunity to sell a new range of “managed” services. These could include managed hosting, managed applications, security or IP telephony; in many cases, in fact, these were “cloudy” services long before most people had even heard of the Cloud.

Enterprises could suddenly shift a large proportion of their technology management onto a third party provider, saving money and freeing their IT departments to focus on other priorities.

The new breed of “managed service providers” (MSPs) prospered and datacentre operators, which provided the infrastructure and physical server space on which these services relied, found themselves at the very centre of the boom.

The new business of Managed Services seemed to be that rare and happy thing – a mutually beneficial arrangement of technological expertise that met a genuine business demand. End users were able to outsource much of their costly IT infrastructure to MSPs and free their IT staff from time-consuming management tasks so they could concentrate on higher-value, more strategic projects instead. This has been only been further accelerated by the huge impact of virtualisation on improving efficiency of infrastructure and making Cloud services mainstream.

So far, so Cloud. And in fact many MSPs were quick to take on the mantle of Cloud Services Provider, or CSP, when the market began to take notice of the Cloud revolution.

But somewhere along the line, these providers forgot their heritage in connectivity, and they forgot about the importance – indeed, the fundamental necessity – of the network to any managed services offering.

Cloud providers now offer any number of services, from hosting, backup and data storage to managed security, CRM and Software as a Service (SaaS). All these services, like those provided by MSPs, fulfilling genuine business needs and bringing real benefits to end users. But as the “Service Provider” tag evolved from ISP to MSP to CSP, the focus became less on providing an holistic, end-to-end service, and more about offering the widest variety of services and capabilities to end users.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; but consider the reasons why organisations went to MSPs in the first place: it was to remove the stress, burden and costs of IT management. Today, however, many end-users find themselves managing contracts and relationships with multiple service providers; for example, with their cloud hosting provider and their network provider.

It’s now rare to find a “true” MSP that provides an integrated network component to its hosting and other managed services, like application management. The result is that responsibility for uptime is split between two or more service providers, leading to unnecessarily complicated contract management and, more worryingly, to a lack of clear accountability in cases where service is disrupted.

Relying on multiple providers inevitably leads to “blamestorming” in the case of service downtime, where network, hosting providers and developers pass the buck between them. None of this is of any use to the end user, who stands to lose critical working hours and revenues during an outage.

I believe that the customer has lost something important in this process of evolution. The raison d’etre of Managed Services Providers used to be to shoulder the burden of IT management across the organisation. Now, most self-proclaimed MSPs are supporting aspects of their customers operations on a piecemeal basis but failing, in my view, to provide the holistic service that “managed services” implies.

This is no mere nostalgia for a simpler time when connectivity was the be-all and end-all of Internet service provision. On the contrary, providing a complete and network-integrated service has never been more important. With the rise of Cloud computing, we are rapidly entrusting more of our data, our compute power and business-critical software applications off-site and into the Cloud. And these services – whether described as “managed” or not – are only as reliable as the wire down which they are delivered.

Although the first Managed Services Providers evolved from ISPs, the connectivity aspect has been forgotten by many of today’s MSPs. In doing so, they leave their customers with little choice but to employ a separate network provider. They then end up with two points of contact, two contracts, two sets of SLAs, two helpdesks and so forth – which hardly represents a move to simpler IT management.

The MSP sector needs to look beyond the different Cloud services that they offer and instead focus on how they can help their customers with the burden of IT management across the whole of their operations. That, after all, was the original remit of the first generation of MSPs.

It’s obviously not possible for every Managed Services Provider to invest in their own UK or European MPLS network – although the performance and security advantages over the public Internet are enormous. But there is nothing stopping MSPs from partnering with network providers, to provide an holistic service where network provision forms an integral part.

As the world becomes ever-more reliant on Cloud services the importance of network reliability and accountability has never been greater. If they are to play their part in helping customers overcome these issues, Managed Services Providers need to reconnect with their heritage in connectivity. While we cannot hope to return to the simplicity of the 1990s, MSPs can still fulfil their original purpose: to take responsibility for the management and operations of its most critical IT functions.

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