How to vet your managed service providers

Be sure to thoroughly review your SLA before signing on with an MSP.

Chances are, you've considered working with a managed service provider for some of your operational IT needs – if you haven't already enlisted the help of an MSP. As more organizations move to the cloud, they are increasingly looking to offload their IT demands onto third-party service providers, enticed by an MSP's ability to provide expert-level support, high functionality and consistent uptime – all on-demand and at a lower cost than building on-site infrastructure.

All told, the global cloud managed services market is expected to expand significantly over the next five years to meet that growing demand. MarketsandMarkets analysts predict a compound annual growth rate of 14.6 percent during that time, building out the industry value from $27 billion today to nearly $54 billion by 2022.

With that much industry growth in the works, the market is already beginning to look a little crowded with new players representing a more cloud-centric, virtualized and cloud-knowledgeable view of the world. Greater competition is certainly a good thing for MSP customers, but it can be difficult to distinguish the truly forward-thinking visionaries from the hardware-centric, cloud-ignorant old guard, soldiering on and stuck in their ways.

How can you navigate the increasingly crowded MSP market, assess potential options and find the best provider for your needs? Here are a few key considerations to make and questions to ask when vetting your MSPs:

What's their pricing structure?

Let's start with the most obvious driver: cost. Although it's not wise to get too hung up on price tags to the exclusion of other factors, you want to be sure that your MSP's pricing structure matches the type and level of services they provide. Additional services outside the scope of an MSP's standard menu, such as supporting custom applications or equipment, will likely cost extra. If those features are deal-breakers, you need to determine precisely how much more they will cost.

Beyond that, you should also ask how often services will be billed: monthly, quarterly or annually. It's also a good idea to inquire about any potential trial periods, so you can determine if a particular MSP is a good fit before getting locked into a contract.

"Determine if an MSP is a good fit before getting locked into a contract."

What assets can they manage?

Some MSPs claim to be a one-stop shop for all of your IT needs. You should be wary of any potential vendor who purports to do it all. Simply put, no MSP has the expertise to sufficiently handle every IT managed service. Consider what you really need from a managed service provider, and vet those that specialize in a particular area like network management.

From there, you'll want to determine if a potential MSP can manage all of your required assets, including routers, firewalls, servers and applications. This will require an assessment of your network topology to see what can and can't be managed by the third-party provider.

How secure is their NOC?

Working with a third-party service provider could potentially open yourself up to new security vulnerabilities and attack vectors. A good MSP will have measures in place to prevent this from happening, so it's always wise to thoroughly vet a provider's own security setup before getting into bed with them. Some key considerations to keep in mind include:

  • How secure is their network operations center, and do they have a security support team working 24/7 to quickly identify and remediate threats?
  • How secure is the VPN they'll use to connect to your network and assets?
  • Have they obtained key certifications like ITIL, ISO 9001 and ISO 27001?
  • Are they compliant with industry-specific data privacy regulations such as HIPAA/HITECH?

How is maintenance handled?

Even the most skilled MSP could leave a bad taste in your mouth if their maintenance schedule doesn't line up with your own operations. Nothing is more aggravating than losing network or asset access during your peak hours of activity because your service provider scheduled a planned outage for routine maintenance. It should be crystal-clear when these maintenance periods can be expected and they should occur only during off hours so as to minimize any operational disruption. If your MSP is unwilling to be flexible work with you on the best times to schedule these tasks, that's a huge red flag.

What level of support do they offer?

Whether during the onboarding process or later on in your partnership, you'll eventually find yourself in need of expert-level support from your IT managed services provider. Unfortunately, you may find out only when it's too late that your MSP doesn't offer the support you require. User training, on-site maintenance and custom application management are all services a company might expect, but not necessarily receive, from its MSP.

That's why it's so important to include any must-have items in your service-level agreement to guarantee you get exactly what you think you're paying for. This includes any promises regarding uptime and availability.

Ultimately, your IT managed services provider will be beholden to the terms of your SLA, which may detail any compensation they will provide if they fail to uphold those conditions. It keeps your MSP honest and transparent, and those are two characteristics you should always look for in a business partner.

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