Five Questions to Ask Your MSP

By David Strom

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Managed service providers (MSPs) are becoming more important these days. A combination of more bandwidth for less money, increasing Internet integration with existing applications, and more complex compliance regulations requiring offsite storage have created a boom time for managed applications and services.

"Everyone is now taking this stuff more seriously now and managed services is a very common practice," said Charles Weaver, the president of trade group the International Associated of Managed Service Providers. "Larger enterprises have IT departments who are overtaxed and under funded, and they are doing more with MSPs to offload certain segments of IT management such as email management, server management, VPNs and security, log monitoring and auditing."

Clearly, the pool of managed applications will continue to widen to these other IT infrastructure components. So we've put together a short guide to help you choosing the right MSP partner. Ask them these five questions before you make any decisions:

Does your MSP have their own data center or do they 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. For those that do, you want to make sure that their ultimate resting place is at least up to the same level of integrity and reliability as your own data center.

"We have redundant battery backups, our own generators, and lots of remote monitoring tools as you would expect," said Rich Bader, the CEO of Portland, Ore.-based MSP Easystreet.

How many upstream Internet providers does your MSP connect to and is there a single geographic point of failure?

One of the ways you can tell whether or not an MSP has done their homework is how they are connected to the Internet and how carefully they have chosen these providers. The key is to eliminate a single point of connection failure, so one backhoe operator or traffic accident doesn't render your entire data center useless.

Look for MSPs who have at least two and ideally three different ISP connections and have set up and actively test failover scenarios to make sure that your applications stay online all the time.

"We have four upstream ISPs coming into our place, including three full 155 Mbps OC-3s, and usually one of these goes down once a month. The trick is that we have enough spare bandwidth on the other two OC-3s to handle the outage on the other one," said Bader.

Easystreet has set up their Internet connections so that each line comes into the data center on a different carrier and through separate entrances.

Still, all this planning can backfire. A few years ago there was a fire in the Baltimore Harbor tunnel that knocked out the three Internet connections to a data center of a financial services customer in northern Virginia, about 50 miles away. No one on the company's IT staff knew that all of their Internet providers had lines that went through the tunnel, and since then they have tried to obtain coverage maps from their providers to ensure better path diversity.

What kind of connectivity do you need?

Part of the MSP evaluation is how they price their bandwidth and how they measure their overall network quality of service. If your needs vary by time of day or month or as you offload more applications outside your data center, you need an MSP that can grow with you and not escalate prices into the stratosphere.

"We contracted with our MSP to a minimum bandwidth of 4Mbps with the ability to 'burst' to 20Mbps dynamically if demand grows," said Aaron Bazler, the head of infrastructure for the Manchester (UK) Airport Authority. "Cost was not a major factor initially. The real driver was the ability to provide a flexible bandwidth model to cater for unpredictable demands on our Web servers from the general public generally looking for information/updates."

Can you talk to peer reference customers who are outsourcing the same applications portfolio?

One place to examine references is with the International Association of MSPs. They check company credentials and make sure that providers have the necessary skill sets and experience.

"We have had a few self-proclaimed MSPs who are guys that were out on bail for IT fraud, so we have a vested interest in self-regulation of this profession," said Weaver. "Hairdressers have more government oversight today."

A good idea is to look for is those MSPs headed by former IT managers and staffers at larger organizations. What you don't want is someone that still thinks charging time and materials is the way to sell services. "This is antithetical to what MSPs believe," said Weaver. "An MSP wants scalable, efficient, recurring revenue and his interests and yours have to be aligned."

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 orientated and offer support for remote users. If you have a lot of remote offices, it pays to find one MSP that can handle them so these users can have a single point of contact for support.