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Adam Stahl

By: Adam Stahl on April 13th, 2021

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What is a Managed Service Provider (MSP)? (And if you should use one)

Managed Services

You’ve probably seen or heard the term “managed service provider” or “MSP” in conversations or articles.

“Isn’t that just a techie way of saying IT firm or IT consultant?”, you may have asked yourself.

I hate to say it, but the short answer is “kind of”. Some companies will use the terms, “managed service provider”, “MSP”, “IT firm”, and “IT consultant” interchangeably. I get that it can be confusing especially because each of those terms has a different set of expectations that comes along with them.

Part of the challenge is that while every company that calls itself a managed service provider may share a similar goal of serving their customers, the way they each go about it and what services they’ll be managing for you can vary.

It used to muddy the waters for me too and I work at a managed service provider!

That’s why I want to help you shine a spotlight through those muddy waters. After reading this article you will feel confident in what a managed service provider or MSP is, what managed services are, some things that an MSP manages, and if an MSP is right for you.

Though Kelser at its core has always served the goal of leveraging technology to help our clients crush their business goals, we didn’t always do that through managed services. When I first started at Kelser almost a decade ago, we were in the earlier stages of our transition into the managed service provider we are today.

I already spent the time fumbling around in these figurative muddy waters, learning and refreshing my understanding of the different types of companies that offer help with your business technology, so you don’t have to go it alone on your path to discovery.

The definition of a managed service provider (MSP)

At its most basic level, a managed service provider (MSP) is a company that provides ongoing, proactive support and management of your technology under a monthly agreement or subscription.

Based on that boiled-down definition, it’s easy to see why there’s some gray area to what does or doesn’t constitute an MSP.

Gartner, the world’s leading research and advisory company, further refines that definition:

“A managed service provider (MSP) delivers services, such as network, application, infrastructure and security, via ongoing and regular support and active administration on customers’ premises, in their MSP’s data center (hosting), or in a third-party data center.”

While that’s a precise definition, in some ways that leads us back to, “isn’t that a techie way of saying IT firm?”.

Isn’t an IT firm the same thing?

A clearer way to go about it is by learning more about what a managed service provider does and then performing the “duck test”.

You may be familiar with the duck test in concept but not in name.

It’s some form of, “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck”. Coupled with the definitions provided above, this can give you a pretty good idea when you’re checking out an IT managed service provider’s website whether they’re an actual MSP or an IT service provider that has some managed services.

Staying in the realm of the duck test, think of it like this: a goose shares many characteristics with a duck. They both walk on two webbed feet, swim, and have bills, wings, and look kind of similar. But geese are not ducks (have these comparisons become fowl yet?).

What does a managed service provider do?

IT managed service providers can handle a wide variety of services, tasks, and maintenance for your business depending on their specific specialties and offerings. At a base level, most IT managed service providers will have a few of the same services or features.

These typically include at a minimum:

System patching (for operating systems)

This service typically includes applying the operating system (usually Windows or macOS) updates and patches for your desktops and laptops.

The benefit of having these patches and updates applied by professionals is that it keeps your computers safe, efficient, and running at their optimal performance.

Beyond that, if something were to go wrong when those important updates were installed, you have an entire set of IT resources with the MSP that ensures your systems are back online in no time.

Some MSPs take this service further with features like automated centralized patching, the inclusion of other covered hardware such as servers, mobile devices, and network hardware, or analyzing the health of these covered devices to stay ahead of hardware end of life planning.

Monitoring and alerting

This service typically includes the MSP using software to remotely monitor the status of your hardware covered by your agreement (usually at a minimum your desktops and laptops) for issues or errors and alerts the MSP about these issues.

The benefit of monitoring and alerting is that you'll know ahead of time if something is off or wrong with your managed hardware and you can promptly address the issue before it worsens.

Your agreement will specify what happens with different types of levels or severity of these issues. Many times that could look like the MSP alerting your in-house IT employees about issues, or the MSP proactively handling them for you.

You may also see notations like “8x5” or “24/7/365” in reference to coverage in this service. These aren’t tailored measurements but rather indicate the coverage of services like monitoring/alerting and sometimes referenced in other services like help desk availability.

  • “8x5” or “8/5” usually means that the service is available 8 hours per day, 5 days per week. The MSP may further refine which hours and which days are covered specific to your agreement or you may be able to pick and choose those ranges.
  • “24x7x365” or “24/7/365” usually means that the service is available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days of the year. You can also generally interpret this as “all the time” or “always available”. That said, make sure to confirm with the MSP that their listed services are actually always available. Sometimes there are conditions that apply to that availability level. For example, a common one may be that technical support is available 24/7/365 for priority issues but not for lower severity ones.

Where and how that monitoring and alerting is performed, will vary by MSP and even by what things are being tracked.

For a behind-the-scenes example, here’s one of Kelser’s SOC (security operation center) monitors in our office. Green on that monitor means smooth sailing!

SoC Rough

Technical support/help desk

This service, sometimes also called “help desk” or “tech support”, typically covers the MSP resolving day-to-day issues with your technology: hardware, software, etc.

Typically, this at a minimum covers your desktops and laptops as well as the more common software found on them (operating system, word processor, spreadsheet and slideshow presentation applications, and internet browser, for example).

The benefit of technical support/help desk is that if something goes wrong with your hardware or software while you're using it, you simply send a service request to the MSP and they handle the troubleshooting or repair for you.

Each MSP may handle the way technical support requests are submitted, tracked, escalated, resolved, and followed up on differently.

Think of it like when someone takes an order at a restaurant and submits it – some places use the same paper order pads that I did when I was a waiter at a coffeehouse café back in the early 2000s while others have fully contactless online ordering. Some have a hybrid model blending aspects of both so clients can reach out in whatever way works best for them at the time.

Between the definitions earlier in the article and the rundown of the core base services of most providers, I think we have a pretty good handle now on what constitutes our MSP “duck”.

Can I use an IT managed service provider if I already have in-house IT staff?

What you’ll notice about these base-level managed services that all MSPs should provide is that they’re all focused on keeping the figurative technology lights on at your business proactively. They cover the necessary, daily, non-glamorous work that typically isn’t celebrated but is crucial to keep your business running in the roaring 2020s.

What you may have also noticed, is that these quintessential services are also ones that businesses can use whether they currently have any internal IT personnel or none.

  • If you don’t currently have any dedicated IT people on staff, an MSP can perform those services in a way that acts as your outsourced IT department. 
  • If you have some in-house IT personnel today, an MSP can still perform those same services as an extension of your IT department. In this case, the MSP will handle those day-to-day tasks which then frees up your internal IT department to focus on other more strategic ways that technology can help your business achieve your goals.

Many managed service providers also feature additional premium services as a part of their managed service offering beyond the base level of services above. Depending on the specialties and focus of the MSP, these may include services like centralized anti-virus, mail support, managed networkcybersecurity trainingdata backupdisaster recovery, and others.

Should I partner with an IT managed service provider?

“I don’t have ‘IT’ or an ‘IT’ department.”

“I already have an IT staff.”

“I just call up my buddy Martin when something breaks.”

“My nephew takes care of all that computer stuff.”

…are a few of the thoughts that may have come to mind after reading about IT managed service providers depending on the size and scope of your business. Heck, I used to be one of those nephews that “takes care of all that computer stuff”.

At their core, a primary goal of the managed service provider is to proactively decrease or eliminate your business downtime and reduce the costs associated with that downtime and technology/IT in general.

There are a number of other potential benefits that an MSP can bring to the table but if you’re comfortable with your level of downtime, its associated costs, and your spend on technology and maintenance, then an IT managed service provider may not be a good fit for your organization today.

However, if you:

  • Are losing an unacceptable number of working hours to broken hardware, frozen software, network outages, updates that seem to take forever or constantly error out.
  • Have in-house IT personnel but they’re stuck in the above loop of putting out figurative (or sometimes literal) technology fires just to keep things running until the next day so they can start putting them out all over again.
  • Find yourself having spending hours outside the office researching any number of technical issues popping up in your environment so you don’t have to spend any in-office “working hours” on keeping your technology running or replacing that old desktop that’s still running Windows XP.

You may want to consider taking a closer look at IT managed services as these are some immediate pains you could see relieved with the services provided by an MSP.

Even if you don’t choose to sign on the dotted line with one, many will be able to provide you with some areas at your organization where you could make improvements on your own to alleviate some of those issues.

Find out if your business is a good fit for managed services

If you found yourself nodding your head in agreement with some of the painful scenarios in the section above, take a few minutes to find out if and how managed services could help you put those issues in the rearview mirror.

This free, 5-minute online quiz breaks down some of the major areas where Kelser has seen businesses like yours struggling with their technology and where those same businesses have seen the most relief from IT managed services.

You’ll get instant insights into where you’ve got technology and support covered today as well as areas to consider shoring up, and what you can do next about it.

Take the quiz now and ensure your business is better supported in tackling future business challenges and goals.

Are IT Managed Services Right For Your Organization?

About Adam Stahl

Adam is Kelser's Digital Strategist who invites boundless creativity to achieve outcomes that inspire confidence.

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