Its More Than Just Looks

Providers shift focus to better interfaces, portals.

In the world of it management services, as in the world of fashion, to feel good, you have to look good.

MSPs (management service providers) trying to win the job of monitoring and managing key infrastructure are shifting their focus from management processes and operational structures toward better user interfaces and portals.

Nuclio Corp. said it hopes to distance itself from the large and growing pack of MSPs by offering customers an enhanced view into the health of their systems. Nuclio is preparing to announce the second generation of its Fusion Web Manager—the user portal that presents management data on systems the company manages for its clients.

At the same time, network MSP NetSolve Inc. earlier this month released Version 4.0 of its ProWatch Exchange reporting tool, which now provides Web-based access to management data, trouble tickets and more.

"The user interface and portal becomes the day-to-day interaction with the customer. That will drive customer satisfaction more than anything else," said Corey Ferengul, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

The portal becomes more important as MSPs pursue enterprise customers rather than the less stable dotcoms because they are asking operators to give up control over networks, servers and applications for which they are still accountable.

That requires a cultural shift that wont come easily, Ferengul said. "[Giving up] control is the biggest barrier most of the customers have to get over. And with portals, its not just about visualizing the data, but can they execute another response-time monitor to run, can they make a parameter change—or have it go to a request process?"

In Version 2.0 of its Fusion Web Manager, Nuclio sought to return some control by bringing customers into the design phase of the management application. Users could work with Nuclio to customize the reporting that the portal delivers.

"Well provide some upfront services for customers to help them build the application management tools into their application and use it as a delivery tool to the customer," said Nuclio Senior Vice President Mike Coffield, in Chicago. The company also offers infrastructure design and procedure development services.

"With 2.0, we can do some of the customization; we can set predetermined thresholds so there is more proactive monitoring. Its more user-friendly and easily tailored," said Nuclio customer John Jordan, senior director of e-solutions at Dynegy Inc., in Houston.

Flexibility is also key. "We have multiple people in the company that use it every day," Jordan said. "Within the IT organization, some groups are interested in the applications; others are interested in the infrastructure—the servers, routers, firewalls. Version 2.0 tailors well for those different roles, so an applications person doesnt have to wade through things he doesnt want to see."

Nuclio exploited the channels-based Fusion architecture to tailor the views that users get of the managed environment.

"We have roles we can deploy for the IT manager, the network infrastructure guy, the Web guy, the security guy," said Mike Manos, chief technology officer at Nuclio.

For network operators, the ability to create different views based on geography can help them stay on top of usage and decision making, said NetSolve ProWatch Exchange user Jeff Hansen, director of IT at Meritage Hospitality Group Inc., in Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

"If I see were having a problem in a specific area, I can use it as an argument to increase services," Hansen said.

The new version of ProWatch Exchange allows Hansen to centralize data on multiple functions to save time sifting through multiple reports, he said.

"In the past, Id have to go to multiple places on the usage side to get an update. Theyve combined installation, troubleshooting, monitoring and usage [data] in one place," Hansen said. "That information has always been very important. Now that its online and in one place, its a lot easier."

Beyond just the presentation of performance and operational data, the true test of a good portal may also be whether the customer can use it to request service changes or check on the performance of the MSPs themselves.

"Will clients be able to put in a service request, or can they monitor against an SLA (service-level agreement) how well theyre doing?" asked Ritu Raj, CEO at MSP Chapter 2 eservices Inc., in San Francisco, whose company is preparing to release a new portal. "Thats where the serious interfaces will come in."

For NetSolve and Nuclio customers, the answer to Rajs question is yes when it comes to viewing SLAs. Nuclio goes a step further by allowing users to request changes to the SLA through the portal.

"We keep all the SLAs on a per-device basis and put them all online," Nuclios Manos said. "So if a manager gets too many pages and thinks the threshold isnt meaningful anymore, he can then put in the request to change that SLA. Our back-end systems are automated to make sure the request is legitimate and it goes into effect as soon as authorizations come into play."

Meta Groups Ferengul, who has seen Fusion Web Manager Version 2, said he believes the enhanced interface "is a good step" but that most players have a lot of catching up to do.

"It is true that others are just now doing Version 1," he said "I asked many [MSPs] for a demo of their portals, and half of them didnt have a production version. Others were very rigid—you had to place a phone call to get anything changed."

At the end of the day, however, its still important to create good communication and trust between the customer and the MSP.

"Our assigned [NetSolve] engineer was a critical issue [in re-evaluating service offerings]. He knows our network very well and has always taken care of us very well. With our critical network, we trust them more than we trust ourselves," Hansen said.