Man and woman both look at tablet in a network hard drive room

Tomorrow’s Managed Service Provider

20 Jan 2016 by Howard M Cohen

“Managed Service Provider” is actually a contraction in our industry, missing a few words. Fully expressed it would be “Managed Information Technology Services Provider.” It may seem like semantics, but Managed Service Providers (MSPs) don’t manage “services” per se. They manage information technology by providing the services required to keep it running efficiently.

For the past few decades, this has put the emphasis on the technology, with the earliest MSPs primarily managing the dedicated leased-line connections among various locations in wide area networks (WAN) and monitoring the performance of various servers, switches, routers and other equipment required to run them.

Focusing on the entire IT function

Most MSPs emphasize that they make sure networks keep working so their customers can focus on their core business. Especially since the arrival of cloud computing, the value proposition has centered on providing the operation of their customers’ information management networks.

As we move forward, this emphasis will expand to include the entire information management function of a given business. Data is now recognized by most businesses as being their most valuable asset, and managing that data effectively can yield tremendous business advantages and profitability.

The challenge for many businesses, especially midmarket companies, is that they are not in the information-management business and don’t necessarily have the expertise to recruit or select the right personnel, much less manage their data as effectively as possible.

This is causing an explosion of new offerings in the MSP marketplace, and it’s only beginning.

Big everything

Everyone talks about big data, which is one result of the “Internet of Things” experience. The “things” that are being attached to the Internet generally fall into two categories: things that help us measure things, and things that help us control the things we measure.

Measuring things requires collecting data about them over time. With the anticipation that tens of billions of these data collection “things” will be added to the Internet of Things — each collecting millions of data points — it’s easy to see how quickly the sheer volume of data explodes. There’s much that needs to managed:

Collecting all the data — This requires that we manage the billions of devices that are doing the collecting. These are mostly small, low-powered devices with minimal processing or memory capacity. MSPs will still need to keep them performing properly to maintain accuracy.

Storing all the data — This becomes more and more of a challenge. MSPs will not be able to address this challenge with larger capacity storage devices alone. Even now, new compression algorithms and techniques are being introduced to reduce the storage capacity required while increasing the efficiency of the input/output capabilities of the storage. All of this will be managed by tomorrow’s MSP.

Cloud computing resources complicate this challenge. MSPs will need to be able to make cloud services from varying vendors work well together to store, secure, backup, transport and work with all this data.  Interoperability will be key.

Security — This will continue to increase in critical importance as the value and volume of the data increase the desirability of stealing the data. It will be vital to encrypt and protect the data while at rest in storage, while improving the inaccessibility of the encryption/decryption keys. But it will be of equal importance to protect the data while in transit.

The network — This will rise to the level of fine art. With so much data to manage, the throughput of the network must increase more than we’ve already seen. It is said “information only gains value when in motion.” To achieve profits, every company will need to be able to move enormous volumes of data from place to place efficiently and securely.

Even now, we are faced with the need to completely replace the Internet, addressing space that was originally designed to accommodate 430 billion devices. The last available unique IP addresses were distributed in 2011. Since then, we’ve been playing technology games, like using Network Address Translation (NAT) to put hundreds of “fake” IP addresses behind each real one.

Even that temporary fix is becoming exhausted, and MSPs are being called to migrate customers to the new Internet addressing system, which provides capacity for 340 undecillion connected devices.  It’s an all-but-inconceivable quantity. To visualize the growth, imagine moving from 4,300,000,000 devices under management to 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 devices.

The applications — They will be required to manage this huge volume of data, and these huge numbers of devices are ever-increasing in complexity and resource demands. MSPs will need to be ready to manage these as well.

People, policies, processes and procedures — These are increasingly becoming part of the area of MSP responsibility. Many technicians and engineers have reminded us “the hardest segment of the network to manage is the one between the keyboard and the back of the chair.” Controlling all of the elements required to keep all of this data accessible and moving yet secure and uncompromised is going to be tough enough. Customers will turn to their MSPs to help make sure the uncontrollable human element doesn’t disable all other efforts.

Scale and interoperability will be two of the biggest challenges facing tomorrow’s MSP. This translates to more data from more devices stored in more places with the need to move them more, process them more and report on them more. More of everything. And if two points along the process don’t interoperate, everything comes to a halt until they do.

The most exciting prospect is that the MSP will indeed be managing services — a broader array of information management, processing, analytic and reporting — than ever before. As the time to step up approaches, those who begin preparing earliest will be those who prosper soonest and most.