Cisco has launched a cloud-based managed services program, OnPlus, for channel partners seeking to offer remote network management and assessment to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).
“Small businesses need a lot of support -- financial, marketing, technical, etc. Managed services provide a heightened level of support for these businesses,” said Steve Hilton, principal analyst with Analysys Mason.
Cisco hopes that its cloud-based network management solution will enable smaller VARs to move in on the remote managed services business, said Dave Tang, director of strategy and communications with Cisco.
“The challenge is that small business VARS are typically small businesses themselves. They just don’t have the resources to invest in opening up a data center or network operation center of their own like some of the larger VARs would to provide these services. So they are looking for tools that are affordable and can make them more efficient in the way they can deliver those services,” Tang said.
Based on third-party research and discussions with partners, Cisco found that less than 10% of partners have a formal managed service offering for small business customers. Meanwhile, nearly all of them recognized the need to move into a services model to remain competitive.
Cloud-based managed services offer network visibility and communication
With OnPlus, partners have tools to remotely discover and monitor customer network devices, receiving proactive event alerts. It also enables partners to remotely connect to and manage devices in order to make remote configuration changes or optimize the network. Partners can also use OnPlus to provide routine maintenance on devices by downloading and pushing out firmware updates remotely.
The cloud service collects information through an agent that is contained in a lightweight appliance installed on the customer’s site. The partner would go to the customer’s site, make one connection between the router at the customer’s site and this appliance, and then the appliance immediately starts discovering the network environment and reporting that information up to the cloud service where the information is stored.
Cloud-based managed services focus on specific network areas
Going remote prevents network engineers from needing to go on-site and crawl through ceilings. Instead partners can focus on accelerating the development of the customer relationship.
On the management side, through automated alerts that can go out through email or text message, partners can be notified of and rectify a problem, even before a customer is aware of it. OnPlus also provides monitoring of warranty and service contract coverage of networking devices to provide better service to the customer and open up sales opportunities for the renewal of those contracts.
On the advisory front, OnPlus aims to provide more proactive planning and a more holistic viewpoint of the business, allowing partners to have conversations about networking devices, applications, UPS devices, etc. Since it is architected in the cloud, OnPlus offers a set of services going forward. While starting off in network management services, Cisco will be developing more capabilities in the future that enable partners to expand their security or wireless consulting practices.
“We can provide the cloud service and don’t require the VARs to invest in the creation of their own data centers. We can also provide the reliability for a managed service through redundancy and business continuance capabilities that are built in. It scales linearly so you don’t have these big chunks of investments that partners would have to put in with new servers or staff to monitor. It’s agile in that as we develop new features we can immediately push them out to the cloud service and make them accessible to the partners that are using the service. It’s available through browser interface and native applications for Apple and Android devices,” Tang said.
Cloud-based managed services save time and money in the enterprise
Without remote management capabilities, it may take an outage for the partner to become aware of an issue, which can result in taking the time to make phone calls and diagnosis attempts over the phone or on-premises by engineers. High-level engineers can be pricey, while lower-level engineers might not be able to solve the problem, resulting in higher costs or wasted time.
OnPlus provides proactive and programmable alerts that are sent immediately to the partner when something is detected. Partners log into the portal, identify the problem area and can diagnose it there. “We get to the resolutions faster, because the notifications are coming through faster, the diagnosis is happening faster, and the profitability of the partner is being preserved because the staff is being used more efficiently,” Tang said.
Also, with the increased popularity of mobile devices, OnPlus aims to fix network clutter and slowness. As wireless access points become saturated with devices, customers don’t always notice, usually requiring some sort of outage before they call their partner.
Partners reap cloud-based network management benefits
In terms of growing a services practice, partners want to move into that direction but can be fearful of how they manage their scale and profitability. OnPlus provides service that is both scalable and affordable.
“By accelerating assessment, partners win customers faster and easier. We can help them expand their market footprint. They can handle more customers with the same number of people. Since partners get into a more proactive discussion with customers, their stature as a trusted advisor is elevated,” Tang said.
These close discussions with customers allow for additional revenue-generating opportunities. “OnPlus provides partners with a reason to have a meaningful dialog with a small business owner about the quality and performance of his/her overall network. Finding an opportunity for a conversation is the first step in making a sale,” Hilton said.
The pricing model for the service is subscription-based and ultimately defined by the VAR. “Some VARs don’t charge their customers anything for the service, but it’s part of their service levels. Others roll it up into a monthly fee they charge their customers for a broader set of services. If you have three customers to start with, you buy three boxes, and as you move on from customer to customer, you buy another subscription and device. If a VAR was going to try and create a managed service on their own without a tool like this, they would typically set up their own network operation center, which would require larger investments,” Tang said.
Cloud-based network management may be the first step in cloud migration
Cisco is hoping that once VARs begin selling cloud-based managed services, it will open the door to a conversation with customers about moving more applications and infrastructure into the cloud.
“It’s important that VARs are involved in the conversation of cloud with their customers because they need to advise them how best to access the cloud,” said Tang.
This is especially the case for small businesses that can more easily move to the cloud and benefit most from the transition. “IT trends historically have been driven by larger enterprises because they have the technical staff to investigate and plan. Yet when it comes to cloud and mobility, we're seeing the adoption trends reverse, where smaller businesses are driving that adoption well in advance of enterprises,” Tang said.
For small businesses, the cloud could mean the ability to access hardware through the cloud.
“This is a logical step that we are providing with OnPlus towards more advanced services, in particular cloud services, which they can provide to their customers,” Tang said.
For more information, learn about Cisco’s virtual cloud router announced at Cisco Live 2012.