By Paul Evans, Redstor CEO, Shortlistee of last year’s Cloud Awards for: Cloud Management Solution of the Year, Best Use of Artificial Intelligence in Cloud Computing, and Best Software as a Service outside USA

Managed service providers (MSPs) operating in today’s fast-moving data protection business face a unique set of challenges.

There is a lack of skilled staff capable of handling cloud-transformation projects, the ugly inevitability of inflation and a shortage of semi-conductors – all set against the constant threat of cyber-attacks.

As the global managed IT services market grows 11% annually and is forecast to be worth a whopping $296 billion by 2027, MSPs trying to cultivate revenue streams and recurring relationships with customers will be wrestling with three main questions:

  1. How do we become more competitive and profitable?
  2. How do we manage the risk of accidental or malicious data loss and ensure our customers avoid suffering at the hands of cyber-criminals?
  3. How do we attract and retain great IT professionals during a skills shortage and rising inflation?

The answers are out there for forward-thinking MSPs willing to seek them out.

Becoming more competitive and profitable

It’s no secret where the data is heading. A report by Spiceworks Ziff Davis (SWZD) predicts 50% of all workloads will be running in the cloud next year – and the money is following it.

Data previously kept on-premises is not only moving to the cloud, it’s becoming cloud-native. It can be found in Kubernetes, the foremost platform for managing containerized workloads, as well as popular SaaS applications like Microsoft 365, Google Workspace and Salesforce CRM.

If MSPs are to capitalize by becoming more competitive and maximizing profit, they require connectors for multiple sources and popular applications – now and in the future.

Analyst firm IDC predicts in the next two to three years, 55% of organizations will have migrated their data protection systems to a cloud-centric model in order to centrally manage core, edge and data protection. Securing and managing customer data alone is a time-consuming task, but it can take on a life all of its own when it resides in multiple sources, grows exponentially and is constantly moving between different environments.

For MSPs to access this $18 billion market, they must be open to data portability requests and have enabling tools.

Whether data is stored on laptops, servers, databases or in virtual machines (VMs) – in cloud-native infrastructure or in a rapidly growing range of SaaS apps – IT departments don’t want the complexity of switching between different solutions and consoles. Having the ability to see and manage data from one interface saves them valuable time.

The MSPs we work with are typically owner managed and technically strong. Some have half-a-dozen employees, others up to 100. All of them, though, are looking to save time, because as the adage says, time is money. In order to do that today’s MSPs require a smarter, light-touch control over critical areas like backup, recovery and management of data.

A growth machine, purpose built for MSPs

If a technology is meant for MSPs, it should be designed from the ground up to be completely partner friendly. It must be equipped to help them grow. Technology alone will only take an MSP so far. The combination of great intellectual property plus a fantastic buying experience is what makes a service world class.

For instance, MSPs may be excellent at what they do, but not so strong on marketing. Having an app that provides templates for mailers and works off their contact lists is hugely appealing. When that app also provides self-service training so IT teams can get up to speed at times that are most convenient, it can move an MSP onto another level.

Smart software that scales data management and protection rapidly – and comes wrapped up with all the functionality of expert sales and marketing assistance – will drive growth for MSPs and make their lives easier.

With more marketing and sales processes embedded in a solution’s app, it’s easier for MSPs to buy and transact more, just as consumers now easily buy from Amazon. The best solutions provide MSP partners with the ability to buy whatever they need easily and from one place, whether that’s protection for Kubernetes environments, malware detection for backups or data classification.

This e-commerce, digital approach to data protection enables an MSP to scale a platform efficiently and in a way that delivers massive value to their customers. It also offers a powerful, revenue-generating data management platform. The added benefit of a platform designed for multi-tenancy should be a high-level view of an MSP’s own usage and customer consumption, the type of data protected and where it resides. With full visibility an MSP can drill down and manage each organization in a smarter, simpler way.

MSPs want to minimize the risk profile of customers. That means providing protection against accidental deletions and malicious activity by disgruntled employees as well as cyber-criminals.

Given the complex nature of today’s multi and hybrid cloud IT environments, there’s every chance their customers won’t find out if all their crucial data is protected until it’s too late.

Keeping track of data on multiple different platforms and having visibility of it all is already a major headache for IT departments – never mind ensuring everything important is backed up.

AI-powered technology now exists that pro-actively highlights gaps in protection. This is crucial if you are to protect everything to maintain business continuity.

When a solution delivers value every day rather than only in an emergency, it enables MSPs to drive greater customer satisfaction and generate recurring sales opportunities. Solutions that offer such technology, while supporting the total partner experience, create the ultimate growth machine for MSPs.

Keeping customers safe from malware

MSPs hold the keys to customer systems and that makes them prize targets for ransomware.

Last summer’s attack on a key piece of network management and remote-control software developed by Kaseya underlined how the managed services ecosystem represents rich pickings for cyber criminals. Two flaws in Kaseya’s software enabled REvil hackers to infiltrate roughly 50 MSPs using the product, resulting in an attack that caused widespread downtime for more than 1,000 companies.

The coveted prize for any hacker that makes it into an organization’s network is to encrypt backups. Essentially, this prevents restores, so firms must pay up to get back to business.

Having backups stored securely in geographically separate data centers creates an air gap between live data and the backup. Encrypting data before it is sent to a data center means a malicious file is unable to execute and cannot compromise the backup platform. Many solutions tick the box of offline storage, but bandwidth limitations can mean they are extremely slow to recover or access vital data.

There can be another issue too. If malware has been dormant for a while, it will have been swept up in backups and a clean recovery can be virtually impossible.

AI in data management and protection

The best way for MSPs to keep customer data safe is to take a proactive approach to data protection. This includes taking advantage of new advancements made possible by emerging technology like artificial intelligence (AI). The following are a few areas where AI helps MSPs make a difference.

  • Malware detection and removal: If malware has remained dormant for longer than a company’s retention policies, backups will likely be infected, too. In the event of an attack, restores must come from backups known to be safe. Using AI to isolate suspicious files for removal when backups are first performed enables a clean copy of data to be created and makes it possible to later perform a malware-free recovery should you need to do so. With a machine learning (ML) model delivering fast community feedback on zero-day threats, customers also benefit from an extra layer of protection and an additional chance to identify malware earlier.
  • Delivering data classification: When MSPs use AI to organize data around type, people and places, they can set up data classification policies to ensure customers are compliant.
  • Predicting cyber-attacks: With AI, deletion or access of accounts from unusual places or unusual times can provide an early warning that cyber-criminals are active in a network.
  • Spotting trends: With the right AI insight, MSPs can identify gaps in data protection, point out what may no longer need to be guarded and open upsell opportunities.

Relieving MSP pressure and delivering value during a skills shortage

More businesses than ever are enlisting MSPs to run their IT, cyber-security and compliance programs. This is because many organizations lack the capabilities to get projects off the ground and find it a huge undertaking to recruit, train, manage and retain an effective team.

But MSPs need their best people delivering real value to customers, not tied up fixing problems or delving into the intricacies of different interfaces. It all comes back to time savings and being able to do more with the same or fewer resources. Recruiting and retraining skilled people in a tight IT market is increasingly challenging and MSPs need tools that enable them to rationalize all the different software they are using so they can stop wasting valuable time.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is by automating as many mundane and repetitive tasks as possible, using risk mitigation, monitoring and management tools. This avoids MSPs having to hire and train loads of people.

MSPs should be able to take immediate advantage of innovations with simple, weekly or monthly updates, all on the same revision, and not be forced to download multiple patches to a multitude of boxes. There should also be clear visibility of future developments, which the MSP should be able to influence. Improving time to value is also crucial and the best way to do that is to go for a solution that streamlines the whole sales process.

Dealing with data digitally

Digital distributors like MSPs recognize the value of supplying a made-for-the-channel product through online marketplaces. But there’s no point getting on a marketplace with an outdated solution that is no longer fit for purpose or bolted together like Frankenstein’s monster with different technologies following multiple acquisitions. It must be purpose-built for today to be fulfilled digitally if it is truly going to work as an e-commerce platform. That entails making it simple for MSPs and their customers to consume data management and protection in a digital way.

For a start, pricing needs to be transparent so MSPs can sell services easily with clear, attractive margins, while rolling out self-service marketing collateral to customers.

Complex solutions that require several meetings to convince customers of the benefits are going to be resource intensive. By the end of the first conversation, an MSP should be in a position to offer a proof of concept and deploy data protection to close deals swiftly. After all, seeing is believing.

It’s vital to get customers onboarded rapidly and in a frictionless way, too. Ideally, this should involve no more than a few clicks and a password. By giving MSPs a hassle-free, armchair ride, they can stop worrying about having enough skilled employees and concentrate on what they are good at – looking after their customers.

Providing that customer support need not be a huge drain on staffing resources. When getting onsite during the pandemic became problematic, many MSPs whose data protection services involved hardware wondered how they might fix or swap out boxes. Those MSPs should now be asking themselves if they want to continue relying on hardware.

Many of our customers no longer want boxes on site because they’re hard to come by due to supply-chain issues and can be ransomware magnets. Hardware-reliant solutions also face inflationary pressures with the cost of boxes rising due to shortages and the price of storage increasing by more than a third in some cases.

It’s far easier if all relevant information on every customer environment can be obtained anywhere, at any time – and all from one digital interface. That’s especially true now that everyone is rarely in the same office at the same time and key employees may work different hours and need access from multiple locations.

If an MSP can perform tasks remotely instead of on site, it frees them up for more business discussions with customers.

Solutions to seek

Today’s MSPs require purpose-built solutions. With this in mind, they should consider simple, smart, cloud-native platforms that protect data residing on infrastructure, in the cloud and containerized environments, as well as an array of SaaS applications such as Microsoft 365, Google Workspace, Salesforce and Xero.

Activity should all be manageable through a single, intuitive and multi-tenant app. AI should be utilized throughout any solution, particularly to highlight data risks and protect backups against malware. Machine learning models with the benefit of shared community insights will continuously improve their detection capabilities and ultimately provide better protection against zero-day threats.

Accelerated recovery of backed-up data is seen as the last line of defence in cyber security, so this should be a focus. Lots of organizations think that to have a fast experience with the cloud they need multiple boxes on site to pull down data quickly – but this does not have to be the case.

The technology exists that instantly prioritizes data during a recovery, meaning users can access important data in seconds while full recovery continues in the background. This also allows for data to be streamed direct from a cloud for instant access testing. A solution that does not require hardware but still provides rapid, customer-driven recoveries of whatever data is needed to carry on work is far better than the alternative of having to wait to recover everything.

Migration of data should appear as if it occurs almost instantly. This allows MSPs to give customers immediate access to critical data from a new location, while the migration continues, eliminating the need to wait until files have fully transferred.

MSPs can enhance their reputation as trusted advisors if their selected solution helps customers defer hardware costs by allowing them to understand what data is redundant, obsolete or trivial, and can be archived in the cloud to save on compute resources. Customers will be even happier if the solution not only dramatically cuts their primary storage costs, but also ensures archived data remains instantly accessible.