Can Managed Services Enhance Your IT Operation?

Posted 2013-09-26
managed services

By Patrick Zelten

For many of us, the classic image of home ownership is lying in a hammock on a sunny summer’s day, sipping lemonade while a cooling breeze wafts over us. Of course, that image gets shattered pretty quickly once you sign the papers. As anyone who has owned a home can attest, the reality is a never-ending series of little tasks. It seems as if you never get to do what you want to do, because you’re always busy doing what you have to do.

When you think about it, it’s no different for IT departments. They are often so busy keeping the current technology running that it’s tough to find time to do the kind of brilliant work that builds personal brands and adds significant value to the business. In fact, according to Gartner, 65 percent of IT budgets are allocated for activities that keep the lights on.

So how do you get back to building rather than just maintaining? You do that by understanding which systems absolutely must be managed within the organization and which can be managed through alternative means: co-managing the systems, putting them in the cloud or hiring a managed services provider (MSP). This hybrid model allows both internal and external resources to be used more strategically and effectively.

Here are some considerations that can help you determine which option is best for your situation.

· Know your organization. It’s tempting to start with technologies when you’re anxious to rebuild your IT department’s structure, but the first step should be making a thorough assessment of your organization and how it works. Some technologies are mission-critical and cannot be entrusted to an outside organization.

At the same time, you have to understand the difference between what’s important and what has to be kept inside. For example, a firewall is very important to security, but it probably doesn’t need to be managed internally.

Speaking of security, the level of data protection required is another key factor in the internal-vs.-external decision. If there's little concern over the consequences of certain data being exposed, a public cloud becomes a viable choice. If the data is sensitive or proprietary, however, you’ll likely want to consider managing it internally.

The key is focusing on what you’re trying to achieve. Are you looking to add expertise without adding head count, or capacity without capital expenses? Do you want to offload some maintenance work? The answers to these and similar questions will help you determine whether a hybrid model works for you.

· Know your personnel. While a particular system may be mission-critical, you also have to determine whether you have the internal expertise to manage it effectively. If there are frequent updates to the knowledge base required to service it, you have to judge whether your IT staff has the bandwidth to keep up with the updates.

Conversely, the more proprietary a system is, the more likely it must either remain within the organization or be co-managed. If you opt for the latter, be sure the roles and responsibilities on each side are spelled out clearly to ensure that expectations are met and the model is successful.

It’s also important to know what your staff wants from their jobs. If they want to work on the latest high-value technologies but feel they’re stuck with routine work, it may be difficult to retain them over the long term. And spending time continually training new staff can get in the way of adding business value.

One other important factor is how well your IT organization works with others. Will your staff view an outside provider as an extension of your organization, or will they cast a wary eye at what they perceive as a possible threat? The answer to that question can be a major determining factor in which provider you choose and how you decide to engage with it.

· Determine the right model. In the IT world, three basic external provider models are available. The one that’s most similar to keeping systems in-house is a managed services provider. When using this model, assignments are divided between your organization and the MSP.

A good MSP should act as an extension of your own organization. It may have a similar culture to yours and be willing to adapt its ways of working to yours. You will maintain control over policies and service levels, although the MSP will normally advise you about them based on its broad experience working with multiple organizations. It’s a very close working relationship, but it may be viewed as intrusive or threatening by your staff if they’re used to having tight control.

The next level away from complete control is co-managing. This is a hybrid model in which some of the work is performed by your internal staff while other elements are handled by an outside provider. Unlike the MSP model, you’re not turning certain portions of IT over to the provider completely; both your staff and that of the provider work together on the designated applications.

Co-managing keeps the internal IT staff more directly involved with the day-to-day operations. It can be a good solution when extra arms and legs are needed for applications that must remain in-house.

At the same time, it’s important to understand that the co-managing partner will likely be less invested in your business than an MSP would be. But if you’re looking for flexibility in staffing—especially on standard technologies, with an ability to scale up or down quickly—co-managing has a lot to offer.

The third model is the public cloud. One of its greatest assets is the ability to get up and running quickly. In some cases, where you’re purchasing a standard software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, you can start using it almost immediately. With others, such as storage or backup services, it may take a few days to set up the application and migrate the data over.

Another well-documented advantage to the cloud is the ability to shed responsibility for managing the equipment, and, in most cases, the software. The cloud provider will have its entire technical staff focused on keeping hardware and software operating within agreed-upon specifications.

Should an outage occur, the provider will handle it all behind the scenes. If your goal is to completely remove the burden of certain low-value IT operations from your staff, the cloud offers that capability.

The downside, especially with a public cloud, is that you may be sharing the environment with other customers. That configuration is obviously going to be less secure than keeping your data in a dedicated environment.

In addition, you don’t have any say in the hardware being used. That’s not really an issue for a SaaS arrangement, but if you are replicating data between your internal site and a cloud site being used for high availability, it could become a concern.

There is a fourth model: completely outsourcing the hardware, software and management of all of IT. This model was popular in the mid-1990s as a cost-cutting move, but has fallen out of favor as organizations have come to realize the significant role IT plays in driving business value.

· Know what success looks like. You would be amazed at how often success measures are not clearly defined. It’s more than a matter of setting service-level agreements or other metrics. It’s understanding how your IT organization looks, what it’s working on, how its time is being spent and whether you are actually succeeding in driving more business value. The better-defined the end game, the better chance you have of getting there.

It’s no secret these days that IT departments are being asked to do more—in many cases, much more—with fewer resources. On top of that, big data, mobility, bring your own device initiatives and other new challenges are forcing more conversations about what to leave in and what to leave out.

If you’re not looking at your infrastructure and determining what is core versus what can be handled on the outside, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to deliver the best value to the business.

It may take some time and effort up front, but making this determination will ultimately help you use your resources more effectively. It may even get you out of the office and into your hammock.

Patrick Zelten is the vice president of managed services for Forsythe, a North American IT integrator headquartered outside Chicago. He can be reached at