Managing Network Diversity
EVERY YARD has at least one weed, and every network has at least one odd piece of gear attached. But networks have been sprouting more and more "weeds" lately, which makes monitoring and managing them more difficult and less efficient for the MSPs who have to learn many different products and maintain many different vendor relationships.
According to networking vendor Auvik’s 2019 Managing Network Vendor Diversity Report, the majority of MSPs are managing four or more network vendors per client. An unlucky 17.9% are managing 11 or more vendors per network.
"Every MSP has to deal with diverse networks unless you do a complete rip and replace," says Corey Kirkendoll, president and CEO of 5K Technical Services, an MSP in the Dallas area. That said, he tries to push customers toward a more homogeneous network and immediately replaces equipment that doesn't meet minimum standards. "If a firewall has no VPN or filtering, it has to go."
How "diverse" can some of these networks be? "Not long ago we found a 10/100 Mbps switch hidden in the ceiling," Kirkendoll says.
The sheer number of vendors makes it difficult to standardize customer networks, according to Alex Hoff, chief product officer at Auvik. For example, he says, there are “15 or so different switch vendors. MSPs don't want that kind of diversity, but they inherit it all the time."
Kirkendoll uses two main approaches to support a narrower range of devices. For one, he explains, "We make a plan with our new customers to get some of the equipment off their network in three to six months. That avoids the shock of a big bill for them right at the start.” He cautions that if you don't make a plan, “you'll be stuck with that stuff forever."
If customers balk at upgrading, Kirkendoll points out that putting old equipment back under manufacturer support often costs almost as much as brand-new equipment. That makes the argument much easier, he says.
Further, Kirkendoll will not engage with customers who refuse to upgrade in a timely manner, and walks away from "maybe 20% or more of prospects that don't want to upgrade their networks."
5K’s second option is to convert the customer to an infrastructure-as-a-service solution. "We tie all the routers and firewalls and so on into our MSP package, including the hardware costs of new equipment. They pay the leasing costs off monthly as part of the service plan," Kirkendoll explains.
For Eric Purcell, senior vice president of global partner sales at networking vendor Cradlepoint, an important question is not only what devices are on the network, but how many networks there are. For instance, he says, "We service a large retailer and there are seven different network use cases in each retail store."
Often, he sees some functions, like digital signage or Internet of Things support, on isolated networks that never touch the internal corporate network. That means additional time and resources are needed to monitor multiple networks.
Auvik's Hoff sees no end in sight. "It's easier to build network products now,” he explains. “So, a Wi-Fi company may start building switches to sell to their customer base."
He believes IoT is making the problem worse too. "Some IoT crap hides on the network and you discover them during sweeps." Finding strange devices such as network cameras steals time and profits from MSPs.
Hoff says deploying network products that work well with tools MSPs already use from vendors like ConnectWise and Autotask increases support efficiency. The products that don't integrate mean Auvik must take APIs from each vendor, or automate a procedure to telnet into the noncompliant equipment, pull what information it can, and feed that back to the client's PSA tool. "Sometimes, all the MSP can do is track whether a device is up or down."
For all the reasons stated above, Hoff strongly suggests his MSP clients standardize on one or two providers. "If you don't have a standard vendor, get one."
Photo of Corey Kirkendoll by Graham Hobart
Opening image: iStock
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