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Cloud Transforms PC Management

Managing desktop PCs was once the bread and butter for a typical solution provider. Break-fix services, help desk, service calls and upgrades were guaranteed revenue streams. The opportunity evolved over time to include remote control and management, or virtual support.” And, now, as with countless other IT services, the cloud stands to change PC management yet again, altering how solution providers interact with their customers, derive their profits and build long-term relationships. In some ways PC management is illustrative of the change wrought by the cloud on the IT channel.

In the past, a solution provider would set up a support contract, assign a technician to support a businesss desktop assets and schedule regular service calls, as well as provide onsite support. That approach proved to be effective and profitable for solution providers serving small and medium businesses. For large enterprises, solution providers would often sell and install PC support and asset management applications, then train an enterprises IT staff how to use those applications, deriving profit from the sale of the application and training services.

Today, the cloud has made those revenue and support models obsolete and has blurred the distinction between small, medium and large businesses. Solution providers find themselves driven towards hosted platforms or competing directly against large vendors all because traditional PC management has moved into the cloud.

The clouds dominance doesnt stop there; other traditional solution provider services, ranging from VoIP/PBX services to applications to network services, are also affected. All have been reborn in the cloud as platforms or layers of a platform.

The evolution of the cloud and the trend to move more and more IT resources into the cloud is not slowing down, which drives solution providers to find ways to leverage the cloud or perish. The silver lining to the cloud trend is that many vendors are making their hosted services and management platforms available to the channel, where partners can rebrand and resell those services for ongoing revenue. Furthermore, traditional software vendors are starting to embrace the cloud and offer their applications as hosted services, bringing their channel partners along with them for the ride.

The evolution in PC management also illustrates this shift.  A case in point is IT management software company ManageEngine, which recently launched its Desktop Central MSP product, which falls under the umbrella, MSP Center Lite. Solution providers can find network monitoring, server monitoring, remote control, asset management and many other capabilities integrated into the MSP Center Lite platform, which they can offer a la carte or as a package to their customers. The need for hands-on services and onsite technicians is greatly reduced; MSP Center Lite requires little more than an agent to be remotely installed on each IT asset. That lowers deployment costs and reduces a solution providers overhead.

 

ManageEngine is but one example; other players are looking to build hosted platforms and leverage the channel. Take, for instance, Kaseya International Ltd., which offers IT services solutions using a traditional onsite installed server application, but also is rolling out a cloud-based offering. Like many other vendors pursuing the cloud model, Kaseya uses agent technology to manage physical assets, while partners use a cloud-based service portal to manage those physical assets. Kaseya has been adding capabilities, such as antivirus, backup, endpoint security and so on, to create a platform that partners can build upon and offer hosted services solutions.

The list of vendors moving from traditional to hosted services goes on and on, but some have been at it much longer than others. Vendors such as Level Platforms Inc., N-Able Technologies Inc. and Zenith Infotech Ltd. are all deeply entrenched in the MSP market, delivering services via partners. The success of those companies has paved the way for new innovative services arriving from startups or other vendors transitioning to the cloud.

Cloud Risks. For solution providers, the cloud revolution does present risks. One of these risks is commoditization, where services vary little among providers and differentiation is based on cost per user and little else. Another risk is that many startups are taking their new services and technologies directly to market, eliminating the channel.

Specifically for solutions providers that have moved to hosted management of PCs, there are other threats chiefly, eliminating the need for IT asset management altogether by putting the complete PC experience into the cloud. That effectively shifts users to devices that need only run a compatible Web browser, rendering the PC disposable. Perhaps the best examples of this come from companies such as OS33 Inc. and Egnyte Inc., which are looking to offer hybrid services, such as file servers in the cloud, desktops in the cloud and so on.

OS33 has taken cloud services to the extreme and has created a hybrid offering that pushes virtualized applications into cloud-based virtual PCs, completely transforming PCs, applications, user management, application management, storage, e-mail and so on into a unified cloud-based offering. OS33 takes the traditional client-server model and turns the PC into little more than a Web access device and eliminates the physical onsite server by placing it into the cloud.

Egnyte takes a different path and focuses on offering traditional PC/network capabilities via the cloud, starting with file management, file sharing, communications and other elements. Egnyte is poised to replace the traditional physical file server with a hosted, virtual representation of that device, which integrates with e-mail and other services to handle the storage of data, sharing of files and routing of information. With the Egnyte model, the ideology of locally installed desktop applications and operating systems is still very much alive.

There are other companies, such as Desktone, which offers desktops as a service that means the desktop PC is moved completely into the cloud and runs as a virtualized entity, using VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) technologies, that meld a hypervisor based virtual PC with hosted applications.

Channel Opportunity. With these types of offerings arriving on the scene, it becomes harder to define where a solution provider actually fits into the cloud model. Luckily, there is a need for the channel in the cloud. Simply put, established and startup cloud services vendors do not have the staff to support and manage tens of thousands of desktops, users and their businesses. Whats more, businesses still prefer the tangibility of physical business relationships and often seek localized solution providers to meet their needs. Localization and relationship building is where solution providers can outshine a remote hosted solution purveyor.  Therein lies the true evolution of a solution provider into a managed services provider offering the hand-holding still needed by many businesses.

Ideally, solution providers may be able to integrate offerings from multiple vendors into a virtual solution. There are signs that may already be happening. Take for example professional services automation (PSA) vendor ConnectWise, which offers a hosted, portal-based PSA solution for solution providers. ConnectWise has spent several years creating an ecosystem of services that integrate across vendor platforms. The company has forged agreements with MSPs, software vendors and many others; this allows a solution provider to integrate multiple hosted services into a singularly managed offering.

For example, using the ConnectWise platform, a solution provider can bundle together asset management capabilities from N-able (or any other ConnectWise partner), software as a service (SaaS) offerings, storage as a service capabilities, remote access, security, hosted unified communications and almost any other hosted service into a cohesive offering that the solution provider can manage under the ConnectWise platform. At the same time, the solution provider can offer their customers proactive management, services and maintenance, regardless of the customers physical environment.

The lesson here is that the evolution of the cloud is accelerating and disruptive technologies are arriving on a daily basis. Solution providers need to prepare themselves for the onslaught of offerings and carefully calculate how those offerings make aspects of their businesses obsolete. The first dominoes are starting to fall, taking the form of hosted IT asset management solutions delivered by MSPs, with several other core solution provider technologies ready to come under attack. Ultimately, it will become the strengths of customer relationships combined with the knowledge of how to provide the best services that will define a solutions providers success.

Frank J. Ohlhorst is a freelance writer specializing in the IT channel.


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