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To keep pace with clients' growing compute needs during the pandemic, MSPs have had to invest in new technologies and capabilities. That has frequently meant building out their cloud computing practices.
Many MSPs said they have chosen to focus on Microsoft Azure due to client requests.
According to Shawn Mills, CEO of Lunavi, an MSP based in Cheyenne, Wyo., that rebranded from Green House Data in September, clients have asked for "lift-and-shift consulting services into the hybrid cloud" over the last few years. As Lunavi began transitioning to a cloud consulting service, the company started looking at the efficacy of building a Microsoft Azure MSP practice. "Clients we had were asking about Azure," he said, noting that Azure's strong growth also made the public cloud platform appealing.
Mills said another factor in Lunavi's decision to become an Azure shop was that he wanted his staff to become "experts at one thing before we considered another cloud shop. The skill sets of our team were primarily around Microsoft."
Synoptek, an MSP based in Irvine, Calif., has a client base that mainly standardizes on Microsoft technologies, a major factor in its Azure pursuit. "It was an easy decision to evolve as a Microsoft Azure expert in the industry," Synoptek director of cloud advancement Darren White said.
For 1Path, an MSP with headquarters in Smyrna, Ga., supporting its clients' business operations meant the company needed to understand and excel in Azure. With hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses across the U.S., "public cloud is now a logical and fundamental extension of their everyday business activities, with many of their associated activities dealing directly with Azure-powered solutions in SaaS platforms," 1Path practice manager of cloud services Lee Nappi said.
"The associated licensing benefits that resulted from wholesale migrations to [Microsoft] 365 naturally pulled our clients into the Azure ecosystem," Nappi added.
Investing in skills, capabilities
As Lunavi grew its Microsoft Azure MSP practice, it made enabling remote work security and facilitating clients' cloud migrations its top priorities, according to Lunavi vice president of Microsoft cloud enablement Drew Mellen.
"Many [clients] were on-premises focused," and the pandemic meant they had to immediately think about how to shift employees to working from home, Mellen said. As a result, Lunavi had to ensure clients had all the foundational concepts in place so they could move to Azure securely and apply "governance guardrails."
Lunavi's clients also needed to keep their costs down while doing a rapid migration, he added. Some of those costs were offset with incentives from Microsoft.
Additionally, Lunavi made a "big investment to retool existing employees to get them trained super-rapidly to add" to its Azure capabilities, Mills said. He noted that the MSP homed in on developing data and analytics team members.
Synoptek, meanwhile, has invested heavily in security and cost optimization tools to improve agility, streamline operations, reduce costs and improve service levels, White said. "Using our industrialized ... tools, consistent processes and knowledge management, we have developed 100-plus reusable automation assets that reduce human intervention and improve quality."
Microsoft Azure MSP practices in action
During the early stages of the pandemic, Lunavi migrated an Atlanta-based healthcare customer that had a "totally on-premises environment," Mellen said. The customer wanted to migrate to the cloud quickly with the hope of decreasing its costs.
"Everyone knows the initial move to the cloud is not inexpensive, but as we led them through the migration path, we were able to keep costs down," he said. Lunavi also educated the healthcare company's staff on how to use the Azure platform and cloud services. Lunavi became "an extension of their team at that point," Mellen explained.
From an Azure managed services perspective, Lunavi needed to put in the right services, such as Lighthouse, so the company could manage multiple customer environments while ensuring they were secure. Mellen said that also enabled Lunavi to plug in automation capabilities for implementation and incident response services.
Lee NappiPractice manager of cloud services, 1Path
"We had to build a layer of infrastructure as code so our team could manage those environments for customers as efficiently and reliably as possible," Mills said. "Once you build that layer, the machine is doing the building and ensuring correct network changes are happening. It makes us more efficient and minimizes any human errors that could occur in the process."
Lunavi built its own back-end proprietary tools as the MSP developed its Azure environment, Mills said. Mellen added that the company also built a dashboard that provides visibility into every customer's environment.
"We used Microsoft-native services like Power BI to present the data and their environments in the dashboards to enable our teams and our customers' teams to keep an eye on the environment," Mellen said.
Synoptek helped a client migrate from a SaaS-based operational system to a custom application for managing day-to-day operations and activities, White said. This created the need for a data warehouse and a business intelligence implementation, as well as building an analytical layer for reports and dashboard requirements, he said.
"Microsoft Azure has numerous native tools and services that will enable the transformation to the cloud to make your business more efficient and profitable," White said.
1Path uses Azure virtual machines for a custom-built Veeam failover environment that the company is using for its latest 1Path Backup managed backup product, Nappi said.
"Azure also acts as a secondary, geographically redundant infrastructure of our independently hosted 1Path private cloud," Nappi said. "1Path also manages all of its Azure expenses and reconciliation from a custom-built Power BI dashboard and data warehouse within Azure."
Mills stressed that partners that want to build Microsoft Azure MSP practices must invest in both people and tools. "You either have to retool [employees] or bring in people rapidly that have [Azure] skill sets. It's certainly not a short endeavor or a free endeavor. ... There's real investment in time and management and skills that need to be made."
Lunavi built its first version of Azure MSP practice in 2018 and became an Azure Expert MSP in 2019. The MSP is currently undergoing its second audit with Microsoft. Audits are "very cumbersome," Mills said. "It takes many hours just to prep for an audit. It's been a long journey, but we want people to know this is a real capability."
To remain competitive in the marketplace, White said, every MSP will need to evaluate Azure's ability to transform their service capabilities and operational efficiencies. "The MSP should consider their current and future service offerings, go-to-market strategy, and delivery capabilities as they lean in on the cloud-first strategy."
All levels of the MSP business must support its plans to invest in becoming an Azure shop, Nappi advised. "Start with small opportunities and grow. Once clients enjoy the excellent benefits of one service, it may be time to discuss the addition of more services."
Nappi noted that an MSP's sales and the product design group must also keep pace with the demands of its Azure offerings. "Avoid outpacing yourself in the effort to merely secure more revenue without having the back end to support the endeavors."
He added that it's also a good idea to establish a team that ensures "each solution you roll out covers concepts of profitability, support, security and functionality."