Five Questions to Ask Your Managed Service Provider

Making the switch from hosting your servers and applications to letting a Managed Service Provider do it for you can reduce costs and improve productivity. But a mismatch with the wrong MSP can be a disaster. Here are questions you need answered before you tie the contractual knot.
MSPs are becoming more popular. Using an MSP can help an enterprise maintain existing service levels with a reduced IT staff, or provide a less-costly means of increasing services than hiring new staff. Since Michell Consulting has expertise in Internet applications, we can quickly bring them online. Also, increased regulatory complexity requires offsite storage, which can be provided by MSPs.
“Everyone is taking this stuff more seriously now, and managed services is a very common practice,” says Charles Weaver, president of the International Associated of Managed Service Providers, a trade group. “Larger enterprises have IT departments who are overtaxed and underfunded, and they are doing more with MSPs to offload certain segments of IT management such as e-mail management, server management, VPNs and security, log monitoring, and auditing.”
Even Dell, long the king of direct sales, has gotten into the MSP action by purchasing SilverBack Technologies and offering its own array of managed services.
Clearly, the pool of managed applications will continue to widen. So we’ve put together a short guide to help you choose the right MSP partner. Ask candidates these five questions before you decide.
1. Does the MSP have its own data center or does it rent space somewhere else?
Many MSPs don’t have their own data centers and rent space elsewhere, thus putting yet another intermediary in between your apps and your users. When considering an MSP that rents a data center, make sure that the MSP’s data center is at least up to the same level of integrity and reliability as your own.
2. Do you need .Net or Java? Windows or Linux?
Many providers are either/or and want to stay that way. Others are generalists and don’t have a lot of depth. Some are focused on Web-based applications; others say that they are Web-focused but don’t have much security expertise. Make sure the specific technology and programming expertise you need is what they offer. Ideally, you want someone who can do more than just bring up a new server when you need it. The MSP should also be able to do application optimization and maintain your applications to run at peak performance.
3. What kind of connectivity do you need?
Part of the MSP evaluation is how the company is connected to the Internet, how it prices its bandwidth, and how it measures its overall network quality of service. If your needs vary by time of day or month, or you need a partner that can grow with you as you offload more applications without escalating prices into the stratosphere, the MSP should understand what your usage needs are and scale up or down accordingly.
Also, while everyone promises redundant Internet backbones, check these claims carefully. Look for MSPs that have at least two and ideally three different ISP connections. They should have set up and actively tested failover scenarios with your particular applications portfolio to make sure you stay online all the time. Some providers take pains to route their connections through different paths and separate routers to increase redundancy.
Still, you can’t plan enough. A few years ago, a fire in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel knocked out all three Internet connections to a financial services company’s data center 50 miles away in Virginia. No one on the company’s IT staff knew that all of their Internet providers had lines that went through the tunnel; since then, the IT staff has requested network maps from providers to ensure better path diversity.
4. Talk to reference customers who are outsourcing the same applications portfolio.
It can be hard to properly vet an MSP, because, as Weaver says, “Even hairdressers have more government oversight today than MSPs.” Nevertheless, look for staffers who were former – and successful – IT managers at larger companies prior to joining the MSP.
A good warning sign is if the MSP is still charging time and materials for services, rather than offering a fixed monthly fee. Charging by time and materials shows that your potential MSP doesn’t understand its business model. Another factor to watch for is whether the ISP has the personality and people skills to handle relationship building. You want to be able to talk to your MSP about more than TCP/IP packet sizes and protocols, and have them become a true partner to your business and operations.
5. Does your MSP also provide service and support for your remote offices and users?
Some MSPs are just interested in housing your data and applications, while others are more full-service operations and offer desktop support for remote users as part of their services package, no matter where they are located. If you have many remote offices, it pays to find one place that can handle these offices as part of the MSP arrangement, so users have a single point of contact for support.