Guest Column | April 11, 2022

How Should MSPs Approach Building A Strong Integrated IT Operations Management (ITOM) Tools Ecosystem To Power Their Services?

By Sreenivasan Subramanian OpsRamp

Three 3 key questions

With the acceleration of digital initiatives fueled by the pandemic, emerging technologies such as containerization, virtualization, and edge computing are becoming more mainstream while coexisting with incumbent technology solutions to power businesses. As enterprises rapidly digitize their business operations, the role of traditional service providers has expanded and grown more complex. 

But with on-premises solutions still prevalent in most organizations, enterprises are looking to their service providers for flexibility and diversity in their service engagement models. 

A number of factors are pushing MSPs to innovate and create more value and differentiation in their solutions: Increased competition; growing technology proliferation; customer expectations of agility and a simplified IT experience; the need for large-scale rapid deployment of solutions; and pressure on margins. At the core of MSPs’ innovation is their increased adoption of ITOM tools to power their service offerings. MSPs’ challenge is to integrate these tools seamlessly, creating a powerful ecosystem. 

In this two-part series, let us begin by looking at the key capabilities MSPs should build as part of this tool ecosystem.

The Foundation - Discovery: The first order of business is to be able to inventory all the resources that MSPs are contracted to support. One of the biggest challenges for MSPs is running blindly into service steady states or discovering resources that were not previously inventoried as part of the due diligence. The discovery solution should allow MSPs to uncover infrastructure components, cloud components, application technologies, and application services, along with the ability to create detailed topology diagrams to indicate relationships. While achieving this, MSPs should ensure that these solutions are not a disparate set of point tools but can share data and have the capability to represent an integrated view that is meaningful for the operations. 

Monitoring: In today’s hybrid IT environment, the ability to monitor disparate resource types is the key to conducting effective operations. MSPs should build the capability to monitor not only on-premises-based infrastructure and application components but also cloud components and services, SaaS-based applications, business service transactions happening from different customer interaction points, user experiences, and customer sentiment, e.g., Twitter. Digital operations demand greater and granular visibility of the technologies that power them. This necessitates the solution to be capable of observing metrics, logs, and trace data, enabling the representation and contextualization of availability, performance, capacity, and change-related insights that are critical for MSPs’ services.

Managing the Chaos - AI/ML-Driven Event Management: The management of events has evolved from functionality to monitor and notify to much more. The solution should enable the MSP’s operations team to be able to detect anomalies, aggregate, enrich, correlate, and contextualize business-impacting related events, all the while leveraging AI/ML methodologies. 

Integration to ITSM, collaboration platforms, and automation solutions is a key driver of operational efficiency, not only for the traditional ITOps teams but also for the more modern ones like the SRE, DevOps, and CloudOps teams. MSPs typically have multiple monitoring tools of their own plus have to manage their customers’ tools. A key capability that MSPs should have is to ingest event data from these different monitoring sources for correlation and contextualization. The solution should be able to consume metrics, logs, and trace data as well as drive a business-centric contextualization of events. At the end of the day, MSP operations teams should be able to drive improvements in their key performance indicators, like Mean Time to Detect, Mean Time to Resolve, Mean Time to Engage, and Reduce Noise to Incident ratio that is critical for achieving their service level agreements with their clients.

The Collaboration and Interaction Layer: How MSP service teams interact among themselves and with the client organization is critical in creating a great user experience. The traditional approach of conducting eyeball monitoring and swivel-chair operations to create an incident in the service management tool is no longer acceptable. The solutions should have the ability to conduct bi-directional integrations between the monitoring and the incident management systems to enable and ease incident management throughout the service life cycle.

Be it auto incident creation and closures, updating diagnostic data into the tickets, being able to intelligently determine support groups based on the possible or root cause of the incidents, MSPs should look at simplifying and reducing the manual touchpoints required, enabling them to focus more on the return to service actions. Other interactions like the ability to turn off monitoring for resources under preventive maintenance, correlating active events to known changes executed, auto-creating and/or updating problem records with a detailed chronology of the events from the event layer are other capabilities that can improve the operational efficiency of teams. 

Since SRE, DevOps, and CloudOps personas are much different from traditional IT teams, MSPs should consider the ability of their solution to interact with a diverse set of collaboration platforms, like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. This includes the ability to have a mobile interface that allows MSPs to interact directly with the problem instead of waiting for an incident ticket to be created and managed. User-friendly interactions with minimum touchpoints should be the goal.

Analytics: With the advent of data science and the application of AI & ML methodologies, investing in analytics can be a differentiator for MSPs. MSPs should integrate their monitoring ecosystem to an analytics layer that would allow them to add monitoring events to the business events to generate powerful business insights. Predictive analytics is at a much more mature state and can enable MSP operations teams to conduct preemptive actions to avoid potential business impacts, thus moving from incident resolution to incident avoidance. The art here would be to decide what data is important and relevant to their operations and their clients' business availability and ensure there is no data overload. At the end of the day, we must remember that “garbage in garbage out.” With analytics, MSPs can create a differentiated value-added service by seeing and acting on what is relevant to the client’s core business rather than just their IT systems.

Automation, More than Shift Left: Gartner expects that by 2024, organizations will lower operational costs by 30% by combining hyper-automation technologies with redesigned operational processes. This shift will be the key factor for enabling enterprises to achieve operational excellence and cost savings in a digital-first world. MSPs are not new to automation; they have been at it for decades now. However, MSPs should recognize that automation is more than merely reducing manual tasks benefiting their operations. It's also key to improving user experience and a core differentiator in their service offerings. The automation solution should be based more on a connected automation strategy than a set of loosely coupled tools. MSPs should employ solutions that allow them to create viability to map business processes, manage data ingestion, and orchestrate complex workflows across multiple systems. Solutions that employ AI/ML methodologies will be needed to automate the digitization and structuring of data and content which are critical to differentiating MSPs’ service offerings. 

Visualization: The digitization trend is creating tons of data that become overwhelming to process and represent in a way that helps teams to conduct their job efficiently. While the analytics, event management, monitoring, and discovery layers do their job, the transformation of data into insights actually happens at the visualization layer. MSPs should make sure that the aesthetics of the data visualization are available at all the layers of the solution as it is key in driving a great user experience. Some of the key aspects for the solution to include and adopt are:

  • Flat two-dimensional user interfaces for a more streamlined user experience
  • Mobility
  • Wireframing to create an information hierarchy of the visualization
  • Dashboards offering actionable insights 
  • Inclusion of icon-based representation of data where possible.
  • Ability to integrate well with a wider range of the tools ecosystem
  • Hyper-interactive
  • Ability to automatically recognize and display geographically categorized data.

At the end of the day, MSPs should be able to conduct business reviews with clients by simply opening their dashboards and leveraging them to navigate the conversation.

About The Author

Sreenivasan Subramanian is director, partner solutions at OpsRamp.