What is a managed service provider?

Last Updated on May 30, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

Managed service providers have really taken off in recent years, partly due to the boom in cloud computing. But what is a managed service provider, and what are the advantages of using one?

Managed service providers and me

What is a managed service provider?
What is a managed service provider? A managed service provider’s job is to sell you an IT solution, help you integrate it into your environment, and help you operate it or even operate it for you. The result is usually a solution that works better and provides better results.

My career took a u-turn thanks to a managed service provider. A former coworker had just signed a contract with a large managed service provider to provide basic monitoring for his company’s computer security department. But he needed someone to deploy it. My previous employer had just lost a contract, and he needed someone reliable to deploy it, so he asked if I was interested.

I took the job. So I ended up working very closely with a large managed service provider for several months. As my contract wound down, they told me to call them if I might be interested in working for them.

I thanked them, but I had a better opportunity. That happens. A couple of years later, I worked with some managed service providers when I was working for a security vendor. The way the arrangement usually worked was that I sold the cloud services to the managed service provider, and then the managed service provider ran it for them.

While I worked at that security vendor, I found one of those managed service providers was really easy to work with. So when they had an opening, I jumped over to them.

Since I work for a managed service provider, I can hopefully provide some insight into them.

What a managed service provider can do for you

If nothing else, a managed service provider can provide you with expertise that you wouldn’t be able to find on your own, even with a recruiter. And there’s probably no better place to keep your expertise sharp than working inside a managed service provider. When members of my team learn something, they share it with the rest of the team. I also find that my clients have very similar challenges. If I help one client solve a problem and then I see another client with the same problem, I tell them what I know. I won’t tell them the name of the other company, but the rest is fair game. If nothing else, after I run a vulnerability scan and rank the results, I can drop hints. “Number one sure looks familiar,” I can say. And if the client asks questions, I’ll elaborate.

I’m more valuable now working for a managed service provider than I was when I worked for one company, because I get to see so much more. And if I see something I’ve never seen before, I can jump on a Slack channel and ask if anyone else knows anything about it. If I don’t know something, I can find someone who does. And sometimes I end up returning the favor.

You can expect a managed service provider to be able to recommend a solution for you if you don’t know which one to use. You can expect a managed service provider to architect the solution and provide a roadmap for deploying it.

Managed service providers’ relationships with vendors

The managed service provider often can work as a reseller, selling you the solution from the vendor in addition to the services and even bundling in hardware or multiple solutions from multiple vendors.

A good managed service provider can provide an additional layer of support beyond what you receive from the vendor. The vendor knows the internals of the product better than anyone else of course. But the managed service provider may have more operational experience. For that matter, it’s not uncommon for employees of the vendors to cycle out and go to a managed service provider. I did, and my predecessor had done the same thing. So the managed service provider may have some insider knowledge.

When I worked at a vendor, I encouraged my customers to use managed service providers. My MSP customers had fewer problems, got better results, and were happier overall. My management was perfectly fine with these arrangements. Their philosophy was that it was the MSP’s job to know client environments, to know what the clients had, and how to integrate everything together.

What a managed service provider won’t do

A managed service provider often won’t do the actual on-site deployment. You’ll be responsible to rack and wire the hardware. And if you have to load an agent on your systems, you’ll probably be responsible for that part too. The managed service provider can help with troubleshooting and with strategy, but often doesn’t do the actual installation. This can be due to liability, or due to not having local people to do the work. My clients are three states away. And when I was a customer of a managed service provider, their people were three or four states away from me.

What is a managed service provider and what are the benefits of using one?

If nothing else, a managed service provider can provide you with better talent than you’ll find on your own. Managed service providers are good at identifying raw talent, then hiring and developing it, to turn potential into results.

The quality of the questions they ask is also much higher. When I interviewed at companies for internal positions, they’d ask me to tell them the difference between inherent risk and residual risk. Or they’d ask me incident response questions when interviewing for a vulnerability management position, which is like asking a plumber questions about the National Electric Code, then judging the abilities of a plumber based on what they know about being an electrician.

When I interviewed at MSPs, they handed me a design for a vulnerability management solution that was failing. Some of the problems were evident, if you knew vulnerability management. Some key information was missing. They wanted to see what I would notice, and what information I would ask for. The exercise wasn’t just about looking for knowledge. The exercise gave insight into how I think, and whether the way I think matches what they found works in the field for them.

Using an MSP can be a way to get talent you wouldn’t find on your own.

So what is a managed service provider? It’s more than someone who sells you a solution. Providing a service means supporting it, not just selling something.

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