Like many technologies, the cloud marketplace changes and evolves almost daily. When you are a small or medium-sized business, it can be a challenge keeping pace with the latest offerings, especially when you do not have internal IT staff. With SMBs needing help, managed services providers have an opportunity to manage customers' cloud vendors.
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In fact, in its "IT Industry Outlook 2017" report, nonprofit trade organization CompTIA cited cloud vendor management as an "expanding opportunity for vendor management" in the channel. CompTIA defines a vendor manager as a liaison between an end customer and its cloud-based vendors and service providers. Channel partners -- managed services providers (MSPs) in particular -- are no doubt used to playing this role. However, offering cloud vendor management services can help partners "cement relevancy in the era of cloud," the report noted.
The value-add that partners can provide is in being the go-to when something goes wrong with a software as a service (SaaS) application or its performance. As the CompTIA report observed, "many SMBs have no idea whom to call, nor, frankly, the time or patience for finding out."
One of the many benefits of cloud computing is it enables SMBs to do their own procurement, and often they can be up and running on a cloud product in a day or less. However, that is only the beginning of the process and complexity often follows, observed Carolyn April, senior director of industry analysis at CompTIA.
Customers are realizing they need to integrate cloud products with other infrastructure and apps they have on premises, she said. A lot of small companies don't have the wherewithal to do that. "Also, with so many cloud solutions proliferating, how do you as a small company make the right decision that is applicable for your particular vertical?"
An MSP is "uniquely positioned to provide that vetting service," she said, "so [SMBs] don't have to go down a long laundry list to figure it out."
SMBs "can use all the help they can get with upfront services; who to pick and how to optimize the value of these services, and that is where these MSPs can be very, very helpful,'' concurred Jeff Kaplan, managing director of cloud consultancy THINKstrategies.
SMBs, he added, "don't have the expertise and not only need help selecting the right [cloud] services but in continually enhancing those services and optimizing their value."
Physical assets versus cloud services
There are distinct differences between cloud vendor management services and other types of vendor management practices. Traditionally, the channel has dealt more with physical assets. In the on-premises world, partners delivered PCs, servers, mainframes and storage devices, and deployed software that was acquired on a perpetual license basis, Kaplan said.
"In this new world, we are dealing with a wider assortment of virtual services, and the kind of tech skills and vendor management skills of course changed because you have to monitor the availability and performance of those services in a different fashion ... and negotiate with vendors in different ways to ensure you are getting what you paid for," Kaplan said.
That's what SADA Systems is finding in its cloud vendor management services work. Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate an issue in the client's environment versus the cloud provider's, said Chris Nazarian, director of enterprise support services at SADA.
Jeff Kaplanmanaging director, THINKstrategies
Right now, for example, SADA is working with a client it just migrated to Office 365. A C-level user was having issues with email at work. "They just moved over, so it is a new platform for them and maybe not all users have bought into using it," Nazarian said. But when it impacts a high-level user, he said, "it becomes more urgent and critical."
For about a week, the user did all kinds of troubleshooting and even rebuilt her Outlook profile, but no matter what she and SADA did, the issue remained, Nazarian said.
"We went over all the troubleshooting steps and agreed they were all the same things we would ask [the client] to do or we would do," Nazarian said. So SADA opened a ticket with the cloud vendor and provided all the troubleshooting steps they had taken. "The cloud vendor accepted that there was a specific issue with this one mailbox on the back end,'' he said.
The issue would probably have taken a lot longer to get resolved if SADA didn't act as middleman, he said. "With our relationship with the cloud vendors, we get support a lot faster and skip a lot of those tier one support issues."
It took three days for SADA to resolve the issue. The vendor -- Microsoft, in this case -- had to go in and repair the user's mailbox, he said.
"There are a lot of issues where the vendor only knows what the vendor knows, whereas our team knows experiences across the board," added Simon Margolis, practice director of Google Cloud Platform at SADA. "We offer not just expedited support but other support, whereas the vendor is only part of the picture."
Cloud vendor management services: Poor support from vendors
SADA has found that a lot of customers have tried going directly to the vendor "and then came to us because of poor management," Margolis said. Noting that he can only speak about experiences with Google, "Google is not a customer service organization or an engineering organization. They're concerned with solving the world's problems and building innovative technology."
When a customer goes to Google, typically they will work with an engineer who is not well-suited to respond to the emergency, he said. "In that scenario, having us as the middleman is really valuable. Otherwise, you get executives who are very frustrated because they are getting an engineering response instead of a business response with deeply technical information." The job of the MSP is to provide customer service, translate technology to the C-suite, and translate the business and C-suite requirements to the cloud vendors, Margolis said.
Skills needed for cloud vendor management
Because they constantly interact with cloud vendors, MSPs need to have a certain level of technical skills to understand cloud offerings, said THINKstrategies' Jeff Kaplan. They also need to have business analysis skills to understand customer workload requirements, as well as application performance management and security performance management skills. Those are the key areas of concern for their customers, he said.
"They have to have a really broad knowledge of the solutions out there, which ones work well and which ones may not, and have a really keen understanding of customer needs," agreed Carolyn April of CompTIA. Whatever outcome the customer is looking for, the MSP needs to have the capabilities to match them with the right cloud solution, she said.
"The biggest challenge with cloud vendors is keeping up to speed with their latest offerings," said Chris Nazarian of SADA Systems. "The cloud is a very competitive and very dynamic market, so having an understanding of the products and what's available and what's changing is a very important skill set. Our engineers and consultants are constantly training to keep up to date with cloud."
What SADA looks for in a support technician "is to be jack of all trades and master of none,'' said SADA's Simon Margolis. "We're looking for folks who are dangerous enough across all platforms."
They should also be involved in forums and social media platforms, he said. "It comes down to how well they can do research to solve a problem and ask the right questions. We're looking for folks with that base knowledge and are good at using Google to search for what they don't know."
The good news for MSPs is there is huge demand in the SMB market for cloud vendor management services, both Margolis and Nazarian said. Most SMBs are still looking to move email and/or infrastructure to the cloud, Nazarian added.
"The goal is not getting clients to the cloud. It's getting them to stay there and be happy," he stressed. He advises MSPs to build strong relationships with cloud vendors and then focus on SMB customers that might be candidates for migration.
Additionally, all of the major cloud players have made "sincere commitments to build and support their channel ecosystems, because they want to extend their reach into segments of the market they may not be able to reach,'' Kaplan added.
However, Nazarian cautioned, "It is not just a matter of migrate and forget about them. It has to be a successful migration ... ensuring [the SMB's] issues are being dealt with quickly and that end-user adoption and consumption are the focus. Make sure the client is happy with the change and getting the most out of the tools available to them and ... the cloud is as efficient as they can make it."
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