Major outsourcing and business process reengineering companies are best known for offering managed services, but managed service providers (MSP) don't have to employ thousands of staff members and take over a customer's entire job to be successful. Far smaller organizations can get into the service provider market and offer an equal and arguably more agile and efficient level of service.
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Here I'll take a look at what services and tools you, as a new managed service provider, must deliver customers working in a managed desktop or server environment.
1. Management software
Keeping the number of management software packages you use down to a minimum is essential, as is the compatibility and integration of the software you choose. Products such as Managed Workplace from Level Platforms have been developed to help support MSPs who don't have the serious financial resources and time required to deploy and integrate Microsoft Systems Management Server, LANDesk, HP OpenView, IBM Tivoli and the rest of the applications from the first tier of vendors.
2. Server efficiency technologies
Smaller organizations sometimes don't want to take the leap, but as a managed service provider you can squeeze your and your customer's financial investment as much as possible. Virtualize as much as makes sense and, even if space is not a constraining factor, consider blade server technologies. Blades make much more sense than racks full of servers, especially if you are delivering the desktop from your server farm (see below. Combining a single model of eight-processor servers with VMware ESX for the email, database and other application servers, and a blade server farm for desktop services, you can you use VMotion to deliver high availability to customers in a way that they could never afford if establishing the infrastructure themselves.
3. Application delivery and licensing tools
Microsoft SoftGrid, formerly Softricity, is a hot although not necessarily new technology to control where applications are deployed and provide flexibility on where licenses are used. SoftGrid is a server-side application that streams a software package to a customer desktop in such a way as to only send the individual bytes required, when they are required. The initial executable for Microsoft Word (winword.exe) might only be 340 KB, but the DLL and other files it calls are much larger and more plentiful. SoftGrid takes only the parts of the files it needs and only when it needs them. This means that you can deliver applications to your customers from your own premises over much smaller network connections than you might imagine.
SoftGrid allows you to deploy different versions of an application to the same desktop since there is no local installation and no application dependencies. All those customers who have the myriad versions of Access no longer need to maintain Microsoft Virtual PC instances with the older versions of the application on them.
Finally SoftGrid lets you deploy an application to a user's laptop that you can time-bomb, so you can keep track of how many application instances are available on your and your customer's network, where they are and when they will expire, rendering them useless and returning the license back to your pool.
4. Thin-client technologies
Virtualize the entire desktop for the customer and deliver it to PCs and thin clients over the network using VMware VDI. Using VDI lets employees work wherever they want in a secure manner. The user can walk away from the thin client at work, go home and log onto the same desktop, seeing exactly the same desktop as they had when they left the office. All of the monitoring and desktop management solutions are valid because the user is simply running a standard desktop image over the network.
While it might be nice and simple to point to a set of servers and say that they belong to a specific customer, it's also very inefficient, especially when you are looking after small and mid-sizes companies. So while you have made every effort to virtualize and reduce the physical server count, you are still left with too many instances. Part of your managed service business should include a hosting arm where, at the very least, you offer Microsoft Exchange 2007 and use the HMC from Microsoft or DotNetPanel to allow the customer to control users and mailboxes as needed. It is far better for the human resource person or admin at your client's company to create an account than it is for them to send you an email and for you to employ lower skilled people to carry out mundane tasks.
About the author: Mark Arnold, MCSE+M, Microsoft MVP, is a technical architect for Posetiv Ltd., a U.K.-based storage integrator. He is responsible for the design of Microsoft Exchange and other Microsoft Server solutions for Posetiv's client base in terms of the SAN and NAS storage on which those technologies reside. Arnold has been a Microsoft MVP in the Exchange discipline since 2001, contributes to the Microsoft U.K. "Industry Insiders" TechNet program and can be found in the Exchange newsgroups and other Exchange forums. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.