MSP's Unix Opportunity Compels Platform Switch


The decision -- not to mention the process -- of changing a managed services platform can cause an MSP to have a few sleepless nights.

You have to worry about choosing the right vendor, retraining your sales and engineering staff, and migrating your customers over in a seamless fashion.

But for Ex-Cel Solutions, it was an easy choice. The Omaha, Neb.-based MSP came across a big opportunity to capture up to 400 new customers through a relationship with a software company that makes applications for credit unions. The problem was that most of the credit unions run Unix servers and Ex-Cel's MSP platform at the time, N-Able Technologies, did not offer the Unix support that the MSP needed, said Glenn Stenger, president of Ex-Cel.

Rather than give up a potential windfall, Ex-Cel executives started researching other MSP platform vendors for Unix support. Stenger and Larry Regier, vice president of IT services, said the cupboard was pretty bare.

Ex-Cel executives remembered that one company they had met at a trade show about a year earlier might hold some promise. Ex-Cel called NimSoft, and the two companies talked. Ex-Cel didn't have a lot of money to invest, so NimSoft agreed to let the company test its solutions for free.

"They were convinced of the long-term business opportunity that existed for us and#91;in the credit union spaceand#93;. They made it much easier for us to test and decide to move than we possibly could have without that help," Regier said.

The two companies worked for a year and Ex-Cel made the decision to migrate all its managed services customers completely over to Nimsoft and to brand its services toward the credit union industry under the name UltraWatch.

The choice to move to a new platform was especially hard because Ex-Cel had made a significant investment just four years ago on its N-Able platform. Like many VARs, Ex-Cel made its name by servicing clients in the break-fix world. The company was founded in 1974 and started offering managed services about four years ago to legal clients in the Omaha area, Stenger said.

When the credit union opportunity came up, the combination of less up-front costs with Nimsoft, enhanced support for Unix customers and the potential business increase with credit union customers which would give the MSP a national presence for the first time, the decision to switch from N-Able made sense, Stenger said.

"I remember very well the money and#91;spent on N-Ableand#93;," he said. "and#91;The migrationand#93; took quite a bit of effort. Once you know a product, now you have to learn a new one. But our people have come through it and we're pleased where we are at today."

Added Regier, "We did some pretty serious ROI numbers. It's not something that was taken lightly by any stretch. It's still an ongoing process. Some guys knew the and#91;N-ableand#93; platform quite well. We had to continually cross train. There definitely has been some resistance. They say, 'We used to be able to do it this way, now we can't do that.' There is a difference but we will figure out the way to do it. There are different GUIs, different clicks. They're out of their comfort zone."

One thing that has helped get Ex-Cel associates excited about the migration has been to be open about the business opportunity, Regier said. "We've discussed that since Day One. Growth locally is a longer sales cycle and the potential here allowed us, in the credit union space, to be dramatically larger. That makes it easier to fight through the challenges of changing technology."

For its part, N-Able said it hasn't seen demand for Unix variations like AIX and HP-UX to warrant full support, but it supports Linux and Apple's Mac OS, according to August Wehrmann, vice president of research and development at the vendor.

"The majority of our partners work within the mainstream OS' such as Microsoft's Windows, Apple's Mac OS X, and Linux," Wehrmann said. "We haven't seen a lot of demand from our partner base for other Unix platforms outside of Mac OS X and Linux so there's been minimal support efforts placed there when it comes to N-central. That said though, the other Unix platforms out there and#91;such asand#93; AIX, HP-UX and Solaris, usually have some form of SNMP capability that can bridge the gap if need be, but as Ex-Cel states -- some additional legwork is required to set this up, especially if you want to match the functionality provided by our mainstream agents."

After becoming familiar with Nimsoft, Regier was surprised at the reporting available for monitoring and managing Unix devices.

"The tools for HP-UX and AIX have not been there historically with most of the and#91;MSP platformand#93; players. Now C-level and#91;executives at end usersand#93; through IT level people can see the dashboard and get reports. Nobody else had the modules and the internal support for Unix. and#91;Nimsoftand#93; has internal support to understand the critical components. To be able to talk to the the tech support people that understand Unix."

Nimsoft's support for Unix is no accident. The company's technology was built by a development team that has been together since the 1980s, a unit that specializes in monitoring applications for about 15 to 20 flavors of Unix, said Ken Vanderweel, director of product marketing for the vendor.

For Nimsoft, the team developed a series of monitoring probes for the various subsystems of the OS: CPU utilization, memory and disk utilization, he said. "What we also have is little software probes that look at all the processes running on a Unix box. We have an extremely powerful log monitoring probe that looks at any log file. You can point and click to see all the processes running. It's very versatile and it's all pre-packaged," he said.

The company has 160 MSPs, most of them serving larger customers, Vanderweel said.

"Ninety percent of our MSPs have grown through various monitoring platform companies first and ended up in our camp. Many of them have tried open-source monitoring solutions. A lot of those products simply don't scale for that growing client base," he said.

Thus far, Ex-Cel has won deals with about 15 of the 400 credit unions that the software company, Harland Financial Services, also does business with. But that's expected to change this fall when the MSP showcases its services at credit union trade shows and when Harland officially endorses Ex-Cel for all its customers.
Only about 20 percent of Ex-Cel's existing client base has Unix servers but the overall opportunity is great, Stenger said.

"We expect to be extremely busy in the fall. and#91;Harlandand#93; is going to tell everybody to get it into their budget. With our software company telling credit unions you need to do this with and#91;Ex-Celand#93;, Larry is running hard just to keep up."