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Should my organization consider systems management services?

IT staff have a lot on their plate, so outsourcing systems management to a third party might be appealing. But organizations must choose a reputable provider that meets their needs.

Systems management services provide a wide suite of critical services to the enterprise, but organizations must choose a provider with a proven track record of strong customer service and system integrity.

Systems management traditionally involves the centralized administration of an organization's IT assets, such as servers, storage, networking equipment, endpoint computers and so on. Systems management involves myriad different tools, practices and policies intended to support business goals, maintain security, monitor the performance of applications and services, track and plan resource capacity, meet regulatory compliance or business governance requirements, and troubleshoot and remediate issues.

Pros and cons of a systems management services provider

Systems management has long been approached as an in-house service performed by local IT staff using established and locally deployed tools, such as Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager or SolarWinds' Systems Management Bundle. But the internet has brought about the emergence of managed services that enable third-party businesses to remotely provide essential services to the enterprise. Systems management services are just one example of managed services that are available to modern IT organizations.

A systems management services provider can offer numerous benefits to enterprise customers by outsourcing routine management tasks, such as system backup and restoration; security tasks, such as user identity management and policy management; resource provisioning tasks, such as creating new VMs and monitoring VM lifecycles; application performance monitoring and reporting; and more. Engaging an outside systems management service provider can free in-house IT professionals from many mundane management tasks, allowing them to focus that time and effort on more valuable tasks or projects for the business.

A systems management services provider might also couple services with other value-added capabilities, such as consulting. For example, a management services provider might promote additional consulting services to help reduce infrastructure costs, handle new system rollouts, manage IT assets, assist with hardware and software procurement, build or enhance e-business capabilities, develop and deploy cloud applications, and so on. Consulting services can provide an organization with access to significant expertise without the need to hire dedicated employees.

But systems management services also pose some potential pitfalls. First, an organization must entrust systems management tasks to non-employees. This might also include access to mission-critical servers, applications, data stores and other assets. Organizations may have little -- if any -- insight into how and where systems and data are remotely accessed, possibly exposing the business to disruption and data theft or loss. Practices such as data encryption are usually required to safeguard sensitive information from unauthorized access or misuse.

Systems management service providers also deal with many different client businesses, so communication and interaction should take place through formal, established channels, such as a help desk type of interface. This means the provider must be responsive and deliver the requested services within an acceptable time window.

Even more importantly, the provider must offer a clearly established means of contact and support through common media, such as telephone, text, email or a web portal. Support requests must be addressed in a timely manner, and there must be a clear escalation path available when problems arise. Neglected requests and excessively long response times can quickly sour a relationship with a systems management service provider.

Consider the effects of service disruptions. A systems management service provider shares the same practical vulnerabilities as any other business operation. Power failures, network disruptions and the malicious effects of distributed denial-of-service or other attacks can prevent the provider from managing customers' systems, even if for relatively short periods of time. The amount of allowable downtime from a provider should be well-established and clearly delineated in a service-level agreement.

Engaging a systems management service provider also relies on the fundamental viability of that provider's business. Potential adopters must consider the implications of a provider that changes ownership, experiences frequent staff turnover or even goes out of business entirely. Determine how systems will be managed if the provider goes under, and consider the path to change providers or transition systems management back in house if the need arises. This prevents the possibility of vendor lock-in.

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