No Time for IT? Try Managed Services

Small business entrepreneurs wear many hats, and if you’re reading this Web site, it’s a good bet one of those is that of an IT administrator. But once your company has grown past a couple of PCs and a Wi-Fi router, it’s time to think about a professional solution.

You can hire a part- or full-time IT guy, or contract with a local provider to deliver services as needed — to deploy an Exchange server, for instance, or to troubleshoot the problem should your network go down. But more small businesses are taking advantage of managed IT services that, for a monthly fee, give them 24/7 support, remote diagnostics and troubleshooting, on-site service when needed, plus planning and deployment services for major projects.

“With small businesses, most often there’s someone in the organization that is kinda-sorta in charge of IT along with his or her other duties,” noted Laurie McCabe, now a principal partner in the consulting firm SMB Group. “But at that point you’re big enough to have a few PCs, a network and a server or two, you’re probably big enough to look at managed services.”

In a recent report commissioned by Dell, McCabe and co-author Sanjeev Aggarwal point out that by offloading routine yet vital IT infrastructure duties to a managed services provider, business owners reduce IT operational costs while providing higher IT service levels to the business. Just as importantly, they can free up personnel to focus on more strategic business issues and less on day-to-day IT infrastructure management.

At least, those are the goals. To assess how well managed services live up to the hype, The research group Hurwitz & Associates fielded an in-depth survey of Dell Managed Services customers to gain a more detailed and quantifiable view of the time, cost and productivity benefits that customers achieved from the offerings.

Managed IT Services from Dell

Dell Managed Services comprises a full suite of IT offerings for small and medium businesses ranging from on-call support to remote network management. “Our services are highly customizable, so we can meet individual customer needs and take the day-to-day IT management worry away for customers, allowing them to focus on running their businesses,” said Michael Jalliet, director of global consumer and SMB services for Dell.

Dell Managed Services offers three tiers of service tailored to just about any business need. The Alerts offering provides remote monitoring of systems, software and applications through the Dell Remote Management Platform. Alerts let customers know when something is at risk to fail and notifies them (or a designated party, such as a local integrator or solution provider) before an outage occurs.

For businesses that don’t have an internal or external IT service provider in place, Dell offers the Resolution service level. This tier includes all the monitoring features of Alerts but goes a step further by offering problem remediation before issues become major disruptions. “The Dell Service Desk can resolve issues once they are found so they don’t result in downtime,” reported Jalliet.

For soup-to-nuts outsourced IT, Dell offers the Management level. It delivers all the monitoring and problem resolution of the Alerts and Resolution services, plus includes unlimited help-desk support for employees. This level also includes regular vulnerability assessments, patch management and asset tracking.

For more targeted IT needs, the company also offers Dell Modular Services. “These are for customers who are interested in a point solution to address a particular need,” explained Jalliet. “Customers can purchase as many or as few of these services as they wish, and they can turn them on and off on demand via a web interface.”

For example, Dell’s Email Management Services is designed to help eliminate the risks of managing e-mail, giving companies peace of mind that their e-mail system is always available. And the Dell Online Backup and Restore service offers always-on offsite backup for your small business computers and servers, eliminating one of the biggest sources of worry for IT-challenged businesses.

As for pricing, Jalliet noted that there is a wide range based on the customer need and environment. But as a starting point, the Alerts level of Dell Managed Services can be as little as $59 per month for a server.

IT Outsourcing Saves Time, Money and Sanity

In the Hurwitz & Associated study, McCabe and Aggarwal reported that nearly 70 percent of respondents said their toughest IT challenge was “to implement new solutions that the business requires to achieve business goals.” Interestingly, only 32 percent saw IT outsourcing as a way to cut headcount.

Instead, just over 70 percent saw managed services as a way free up internal IT staff to focus on core business initiatives rather than break/fix activities that consume so much IT time. Of course, cost was an issue, with 43 percent of respondents holding the perception that managed services was too expensive for their budget.

The study also revealed that, on the whole, Dell Managed Services delivered on its promises. For example, respondents reported that on-average annual downtime decreased by more than 50 percent after deploying the service.

The Hurwitz analysts estimate that this translates into 0.5 percent to 4.9 percent in revenue gains and decreased loss of revenues from an inability to perform critical tasks due to a system outage. Given that on average the survey found that respondents were spending only 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent of their annual revenues on managed services, the math certainly works in its favor.

But cost-savings wasn’t the only benefit. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said that the service was freeing up time so that they could concentrate resources on more strategic business requirements. And there’s no doubt that employees were better served: An overwhelming 92 percent of customers said they were achieving better service than with prior IT infrastructure management methods.

Other Managed IT Services Options

While they’re among the biggest, Dell isn’t the only player in the managed IT services game. HP, for example, has a range of offerings, including its HP PC Helpdesk service. This service delivers remote software support for all of your small business computers, regardless of manufacturer. And IT equipment reseller CDW also offers a host of managed technology services, including network management and systems and storage infrastructure management. There are also scores of regional and local IT service providers.

McCabe cautioned that not all local service providers are created equal. “Some local guys are simply ‘wearing a beeper’ and you call them when something goes wrong,” she said. “They’re reactive. They aren’t monitoring your systems 24/7 for proactive support.” She also noted that many smaller providers don’t match the breadth of services offered by a large company like Dell.

But no matter which provider you ultimately settle on, managed IT services are a good fit for many small businesses. “It comes down to one question: Do you have the ability to provide the same level of service with inside employees or local resources,” said McCabe. “If not, you should consider managed services.”

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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