Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are like the Tablets of the Covenant to a good Managed Service Provider (MSP). They live and breathe by them, and customers will hold them accountable. Normally, meeting these agreements won’t be a problem – until suddenly, the unexpected happens, and the Tablets of the Covenant are broken.
The problem for MSPs is that they are being asked to do more every year, expanding out to provide more comprehensive services. It can be hard to monitor and maintain SLAs across an entire portfolio, said Thomas Lee, a technology consultant and administrator of the Spiceworks community IT forum.
“If the MSP is running the mail system totally on behalf of the customer, then the real worry is can they actually achieve the SLA?” he said.
“Specific concerns are around hardware reliability (how much redundancy do you really need?), disaster recovery (what happens when an entire rack goes down?), and do they have the processes in place to actually fix the stuff that goes wrong and still meet the SLA?” he continued.
Could a continuity ‘wing man’ help? A third-party organization to help take the strain with low-cost services that both add value to services and make them more available?
Managed Service Providers these days must be agile to grow and thrive. Pure-play MSPs concentrating on hosted services alone are relatively rare these days, as many have branched out to differentiate themselves. They will frequently offer remote support for endpoint devices, handle mobile device management, and focus on particular high-margin offerings like security as a service.
Hosted services like email have therefore become just a small subset of what they offer. They are low-margin components that must nevertheless be offered as part of a comprehensive package.
Many of them have bought in products from other vendors as a means of solving this problem. Reselling Office 365 has become big business. It’s a good way for MSPs to get into cloud-based services if they haven’t already. It offers a low barrier to entry, and lets them test the water without buying in expensive expertise.
One thing is constant in the challenging world of managed service provision: customers always want more for less. This is the case with service continuity as with anything else. Brandon Ansell from Pittsburgh Computer Solutions said that his company regularly directs clients to Google Apps or Office 365. “You really can't match their uptime for an SMB that wants five nines for the cost of two,” he said.
Mail continuity can be difficult enough for an MSP that is hosting its own service, but it can be doubly hard if they are reselling a third-party offering like Office 365.
Microsoft typically does a good job with online email continuity, but there have been some major hiccups, including a nine-hour consecutive outage in June 2014. The company also maintains a certain fuzziness around its availability figures, as the terminology that it uses for outages remains unclear.
All this can make it difficult for MSPs to provide a solid, reliable SLA for their customers around email continuity. If a third-party service goes down and an MSP has promised a certain amount of uptime, it leaves the firm on the hook.
MSPs can mitigate the email continuity risk by working with multiple, complementary third parties to enhance and protect their service offering at the same time. SolarWinds Mail Assure provides a useful addition to existing Office 365 deployments, for example, improving the security and archiving capabilities within Exchange Online.
The service, which is available as a cloud-based offering, also enables an MSP’s customers to continue accessing the email should Office 365 suffer a prolonged disruption to its email continuity service. Diversifying email services between two distinct companies with their own infrastructures is an effective way to remediate risks that could otherwise result in financial losses.
Email continuity isn’t the only area in which MSPs may be able to work together with third parties. Backup and disaster recovery is another popular service that MSPs sometimes outsource altogether, handing it off to a specialist company with expertise and economy of scale, and leaving the MSP to concentrate on higher-margin services in areas such as Desktop as a Service, for example.
Sometimes, it makes sense not to build everything yourself. Just make sure that when you do contract with a third party to bolster your email business continuity, you get clear SLAs from them so that you can be confident the availability promises that you make to your own customers.