MSP strategy: Gear up for management

As the landscape of business applications becomes more complex, companies are turning to MSPs (managed service providers) to attain more effective, professionally supervised operations. But often they find that cost-effective, impeccable levels of service can be hard to achieve.

Translating the demand for continuous, flawless service into the legalese and technical intricacies of an SLA can be tricky. Even the best-laid SLA can result in an MSP fulfilling its contract without delivering the level of service the customer expects.

But by strengthening their telecommunications, making (or choosing) business and technical applications that are more management-friendly, and assessing the best balance between reliability and cost, MSP customers can improve their relationships with MSPs and achieve a level of service more attuned to their business objectives.

Communications are typically a point of failure for many managed environments. For example, controlling multiple distributed systems involves relying on the feedback from software agents spread across the systems. If the telecom line within the NOC (network operations center) fails, that software agent becomes as useless as an unplugged telephone.

Redundant communications paths are worth considering for optimal service, but even at its best, management software cannot corral an application that runs wild. Quite often, an application gets the first alert of slow performance or a malfunction but has no built-in code to handle errors properly, hence problems can go undetected, or worse, affect the end-user. Consider modifying the applications code to better manage errors and malfunctions. The improved manageability and resilience will almost certainly warrant the additional development cost.

Often companies overlook that fact that operations management can be approached from various points of view and can target different and sometimes conflicting objectives. Administrators look at how the system is performing and how it can be improved. Users and customers focus on reliability and availability; the system should perform as expected at any time. Company executives have an obligation to maintain cost-effectiveness, which can create divergent expectations.

For instance, even guaranteed 99-percent reliability opens the doors to days of poor service through no fault of the MSP. A company that fails to appreciate that simple math can incur customer dissatisfaction and may be unable to fulfill its contracts.

Moreover, managing the services from multiple providers, (Web hosting, telco, and in-house operations, for example) can create a ripple effect that affects company's operations for an unacceptable period of time, even if each provider delivers according to its performance ratio.

While waiting for management software to evolve, there is a golden opportunity for companies to re-evaluate their software portfolios (both business applications and technical components, such as database systems and applications servers) with a critical eye on manageability. Collecting performance metrics and creating a historical database of support issues can help a company discover unsuspected management burdens and prune components not worth maintaining. An MSP will likely be ready to help. After all, it's in the provider's best interest to make its customers' operations more reliable and easier to manage.

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