Best practices for providing managed backup services

If you're interested in providing managed backup services, make sure you've got the right message and can execute both backup and retrieval well. Learn best practices for providing managed backup services, including sales pitches, customer communication, services branding and retrieval testing.

By Yuval Shavit, Features Writer

If you're providing managed services, clients will often look for coverage of all their vital IT functions. Services like network or systems maintenance are the lifeblood of many managed service providers (MSPs), but providing managed backup is a good way to round out your line card. Many MSPs resell an established managed backup provider's services so they don't need to build their own network operations center (NOC). But even with that partnership, selling and providing managed backup services takes work. In the final installment of our Hot Spot Tutorial on managed backup services, we'll share some best practices to help you get started.

Backup is often described as a sort of insurance policy, but you should pitch it as more than a component of a disaster recovery plan. Clients usually don't use it to recover from a total disaster, said Jeff Danos, CEO of Data Protection Services LLP (DPS), a Hammond, La., managed backup provider. More often, a client will just need a deleted or previous version of a file, he said. Clients also frequently use backups to recover corrupted application configuration files, Danos said.

Natural disasters do raise the question of backup in board rooms, though, so they can be a good opportunity to remind clients that they need to have a good disaster recovery procedure in place. Compliance issues are also major selling points with backup; many regulations require businesses to keep data on hand for several years, so you should consider providing managed backup as part of your regulatory compliance talk, too.

It's relatively easy to retrieve data files, although your client may also need an archiving tool to find files without knowing their exact names. Configuration files can be tougher, Danos said. One of his clients had eight servers that were tightly integrated, so no one server would work without the others. The client needed to roll back one of its servers to find an old email but didn't want to have to restore all of the other servers as well. Instead, DPS restored all eight servers to a virtual environment in its own NOC and used those servers to restore the email. Providing advanced retrieval services like these takes more time and expertise than simple backup, but you can also charge more.

You should always test your or your provider's backup restoration process, but this can be especially important if you plan on providing more advanced managed backup services, like virtualizing your client's systems to restore a piece of them. It's important to remember that things won't always proceed without glitches, but the question is how often glitches happen and how well your provider handles them, said Michael Halsey, president of Profile Technologies Inc., a managed service provider in Littleton, N.H. Your clients are paying you for the service, not your back-end provider, and they'll only be so patient if you try to explain why their problems aren't your fault.

Communicating with your clients is a key part of running any MSP, but managed backup is a bit different. Some MSPs struggle with being too much in the background; they keep systems going so well that clients think there are no problems and start wondering why they're paying for the services. So the MSP has to walk the thin line between working too transparently and bombarding clients with unneeded communication. That dilemma doesn't usually exist with managed backup, Danos said -- clients know they're paying to ward off possible problems in the future, so most won't drop you just because they haven't had a disaster yet.

Hot Spot Tutorial: Managed backup services
Learn more about managed backup services in our Hot Spot Tutorial for service providers.

On the other hand, a managed backup provider isn't like a utility company, which clients usually don't notice unless there's something wrong, Danos said. You should keep clients regularly informed about the status of their backups by emailing a confirmation whenever the backup succeeded or a warning when it didn't. Make sure to include contact information so that clients know how to reach you if they need to add a computer or change their service in any other way.

If you're partnering with a backup provider, look into whether you can rebrand its services. Many MSPs have found that the "managed services" buzzword doesn't resonate with clients, especially smaller businesses; they're more interested in their systems than the industry's lingo. Providing managed backup is just one element of managed services, so rather than pitching it (and every other managed service you offer) separately, try to come up with a comprehensive, uniformly branded package. Many companies focus on the trusted advisor approach for this branding. For instance, MJ Shoer, president of Jenaly Technology Group Inc. in Portsmouth, N.H., brands his company's managed services as a "virtual CIO" that takes care of a client's IT operations in full.

Also make sure to talk to your client about protecting its data as it's being backed up. Many providers allow clients to encrypt the data on the client's end, before it's even transferred to the NOC. This is the most secure method, because only the client can decrypt the data. But make sure your client keeps the key safe -- not even the backup provider will be able to access the backup's information if the key is lost. For less sensitive data, you may want to consider keeping a master key or some other mechanism that allows you or the back-end provider to retrieve the encryption key if the client loses it. A backup key is an extra potential point of failure, though, so it's not usually a good option for highly sensitive data; it means someone other than the client can access the data. A disgruntled employee, or someone who somehow knows that you have the ability to retrieve clients' sensitive data, could target you as an easy way of getting many companies' information. Highly sensitive data should have exactly one key, and the client should be the only one who has it.

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