Changing Connections: A Challenging 2020 Accelerated Radical Changes To The Core Functions And Role Of MSPs

Connections. Ultimately, that’s what both business and life are all about. Connections between people — and the devices they use — create the pathways to exchange ideas, money, products, services, and data. Connections create the fabric of business, enabling a group of people to collaborate toward a shared goal and to reach customers with the value of their products or services. We have sought and expanded our connections since the dawn of man; the entire evolution of our species can be defined by the methods we’ve developed to connect to one another, from language and transportation to printed text, email, the internet, and social media. Put simply, as Sir Richard Branson said, “Succeeding in business is all about making connections.”

MSPs In 2020 Were Tasked To SAVE Small Business.

It’s perhaps most fitting then that the most lasting effect of the 2020 pandemic may be the ways we have collectively shifted to digital connections to substitute for our inability to connect physically. The tools have been there for years, but some were scarcely used until 2020 necessitated that EVERYONE adopt them. From online food delivery to telemedicine, the pandemic accelerated and demanded our adoption of purely digital connections. That placed a new burden on MSPs, who were tasked to enable those new connections rapidly. To make the shift more challenging, it comes on the heels of an explosion in the number and diversity of devices and tools we use to connect. The result is that MSPs in 2020 were tasked to save small business by enabling new connections across an ever-expanding universe of devices and online services. Oh, and if you could do that while maintaining your own business as an MSP in the face of an economic crisis, that would be great …

If you’re among the elders of technology, you remember when connections meant the ethernet-tethered, company-provided workstations of a typical office. Today, the breadth and diversity of devices has expanded to include not only laptops and servers, but also thousands of personal devices, cloud services, and connected “things.” For years, MSPs have dealt with the ever-expanding range of connected things to manage, layering new tools into their software kits to deal with the expanding definition of “endpoints.” The RMM (remote monitoring and management) solutions always served as the core platform to manage clients’ devices and connections, but traditional RMMs weren’t built for a world where the device might be a mobile phone, tablet, cloud server, firewall, or smart light switch. 

Vendors that supply software to MSPs have had to choose between expanding the breadth of their RMM or offering additional tools to manage each new layer of connected device. Adding breadth to an RMM is a more challenging development task but is ultimately the better approach. A unified RMM platform should allow MSPs to manage everything — from traditional endpoints like laptops and servers to network devices, mobile, cloud, and IoT from anywhere. The alternative approach, which is having multiple tools to manage different types of endpoints, is much less desirable. This approach creates a tax upon the MSPs, who’ve been forced to buy new tools, add-ons, and niche solutions to deal with the complex range of environments they face. Each of those solutions creates not just a new bill to pay, but also another relationship to manage, interface to learn, and potentially, person to assign. Each new tool decreases the efficiency of every technician, resulting in the need to add staff and the associated costs, or be unable to meet customer demand. With resources among MSPs already scarce, adding more tools, on top of more endpoints to manage, isn’t a recipe for success.

MSPs prior to 2020 were already dealing with this explosion of connected devices and the negative impact those devices placed on their efficiency and profitability. But then came 2020 and a pandemic that turned sometimes remote activity into always remote activity. Almost overnight, the task was dropped in the lap of today’s MSPs to help their small-business customers transform themselves into digitally connected businesses. A physician who had previously met 100% of his patients face-to-face was suddenly demanding that his MSP equip him to conduct examinations/consultations via Zoom. This wasn’t as simple as acquiring a license to a web-meeting platform. It meant updating hardware and software, providing training, and ensuring that network bandwidth was available — all asking for near-instantaneous support if there were problems. Billing a patient wasn’t as simple as physically scanning their credit card at checkout anymore, which introduced entirely new security risks and concerns. Scheduling had to be managed by the office manager remotely, without ever seeing the doctor or the patient, all facilitated by computing connections. 

The Global Economy Wouldn’t Have Survived The Pandemic Without MSPs.

This same pattern took place in every business: Office workers retreated to their homes to work remotely, dine-in restaurants shifted to online order/takeout and delivery services, and schools had to adapt to online learning, just to name a few. Every connection shifted from in-person to virtual, and MSPs were the driver enabling the transition. It’s not an overstatement to say that the global economy wouldn’t have survived the pandemic without MSPs. While we cherish and revere the heroism of front-line health care workers who dealt with the brunt of the crisis saving lives, MSPs, IT departments, and technologists in general were the enablers of business survival for the connections of our lives. The burden placed on MSP owners, technicians, and IT teams to help their clients adapt instantly to an unprecedented change event was enormous. Most MSPs were already under-resourced heading into 2020, so suddenly being forced to keep the world connected took a personal toll on those dealing with the details.

Managing and securing the devices and data of this new world means rethinking what an RMM platform exists to do. “Remote” no longer means just down the hall, but instead, a universe of mobile-connected, home-based, and cloud-provided endpoints to manage. “Monitoring” no longer means just data exchange, but a jungle of security threats, privacy concerns, and data intrusion points to cover. ‘Management’ no longer means just allocation and occasional patching, but a constant need to update, backup, and protect. A traditional RMM is no longer sufficient as the core tool for a modern, post-2020 MSP. Today’s MSP needs an RMM engineered for the new universe of device types and connection scenarios. 

What should the modern, unified RMM for today’s MSP look like? Here are three requirements: 

1. Comprehensive: A unified RMM needs to be able to manage every type of “endpoint,” including workstations, servers, virtual machines, routers, firewalls, VoIP, IoT, storage, mobile, and cloud, as well as adapt to whatever tomorrow brings.

2. Automated: With MSPs already overworked and stretched thin, a modern RMM would be able to manage that universe of endpoints with integrated and automated workflows and give technicians a single interface for visualizing, alerting, and remediating issues across the entire IT infrastructure. 

3. Cost-effective: Budgets didn’t magically expand to meet the new demands, and I’ve not heard from a single MSP who feels they have just too much cash on hand. A modern RMM must be cost-effective and drive a significant return on investment (ROI). This is not just about the cost of the solution but also the many ways that it can reduce IT operating costs. These include IT efficiency gains and cost savings on point solutions no longer needed to manage the IT environment.

Ultimately, It’s About Doing More With Less.

To stay connected in 2020, the entire world had to adapt quickly, and MSPs led the charge. In 2021, tools for MSPs must rise to meet the challenge and respond with them, beginning with the RMM.   

The modern kit for MSPs must be built in a manner adapted to the new world MSPs serve — a world with a massive breadth of things to manage and not enough time, people, or money to manage them. If they hope to stay profitable, an MSP can’t invest in specialized tools to meet every change in the technology landscape, nor can they afford to hire the staff to manage those specialized tools. Software for MSPs must be built with the breadth of functionality the MSP encounters, more so than the depth of functionality a specialist’s application enjoys. The RMM especially must be expanded to provide a single, comprehensive console for the management of ALL connected endpoints, even those that defy conventional description.  

The world has changed, and the tools you use must change with it.