OPINION: You’ve got a friend in MSP

9 Feb 2011

Managed services providers and cloud technologies are reinventing how the CIO operates, argues Matthew Richards.

Who hasn’t sat down on the couch to watch Toy Story on a Sunday afternoon? The tale of how Woody’s tranquil life, helping the other toys, is transformed by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, the new toy that turns Woody’s life upside down but who eventually becomes a close ally.

Away from the silver screen, in the technology arena, managed service providers (MSPs) are having a similar impact on CIOs. Except this time the CIO is the one in the cowboy hat, and the service providers are in the space suits.

Before MSPs arrived on the scene, life for the CIO was typically straightforward. The CIO got on with doing what he or she did best: delivering IT services on behalf of the business. Whether it was mainframe or distributed, virtual or physical platforms, IT was pretty much the sole source of technology development, deployment and innovation. The business relied wholeheartedly on IT and the CIO made these services happen.

However, the business struggled to understand the nuts and bolts of technology. All the business saw was a request for a new business service being issued – and then an inevitable wait for the new service to go live. And that wait was often prolonged. So was any request for customisation: the business would often be turning the calendar page to the next year to find out when the go-live date would be.

Speed limit

About the time of the new millennium, that all changed. The first of the pioneering software-as-a-service (SaaS) cloud providers, like Salesforce.com, arrived on the scene. They demonstrated to the business that it wasn’t necessary to wait six months for a new service to be delivered. That service could also be customised at will; if the business users wanted to do the customisation themselves, they could in the cloud. It wouldn’t cost nearly as much to develop and the risk was way lower that what they were used to. They could buy a service on a credit card and watch it being launched hours later if they wanted.

These SaaS providers were the DNA of the MSPs we know today. But SaaS solutions were just the start. The MSP model quickly expanded into infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS) solutions, and other cloud models we’re now familiar with. Who would ever have imagined, for example, that Amazon, an online book dealer, would end up providing services on demand? The MSP ultimately demonstrated to the business that speed is possible. That good enough is good enough. And IT was no longer perceived as a black box of acronyms and jargon. Words like agility, transparency and reduced risk became common language throughout the business as it launched cloud services – often without knowledge of or intervention by the CIO and his or her team.

So where did this all leave our CIO? Initially, his or her response was similar to Woody’s retort to Buzz: “It’s all your fault”. Life was cosy before the MSPs turned up. The CIO (and the wider IT community, generally) ignored the MSPs at first. But soon enough they could no longer ignore it, the MSPs had exposed the fact IT took a long time to deliver services. The MSP model had drastically changed the role of the CIO. In this new era, their role is no longer to simply take an order and deliver services in four, eight, or 12 months; or to just monitor the day-to-day IT operations; or to just scrutinise the IT quarterly budget.

From CIO to business partner

All of a sudden, MSPs had helped change the role of the CIO from manager of the nitty-gritty to that of a business partner. For the first time, the CIO could move away from tactical tasks and focus on innovative work, like creating new services. In essence, cloud computing has the potential to accelerate the transformation of the CIO’s role into a strategic leader, focused on bringing IT capabilities to bear on critical business challenges.

To remain relevant, IT – and the CIO, in particular – need to continue to manage internal IT operations. Simultaneously though, they need to enable the selection, deployment, and ongoing management of external services like Salesforce. For example, IT needs to plan, assemble and provision elastic cloud services on the basis of what makes the most sense for the business. It must be at the vanguard of securing, assuring, and supporting mixed services. IT also has to measure and compare internal and external service choices. And it needs to do all this across public and private cloud services in diverse virtual and physical platforms.

As MSPs – and by definition cloud computing – accelerate the path to agility and efficiency, successful IT organisations will transform into a broker of IT services delivered on a mix of resources from a variety of sources. And successful IT organisations mean successful CIOs – to infinity and beyond.

Matthew Richards is senior director of product marketing for the Cloud Customer Solutions Unit at CA Technologies