Rating The MSP Platforms


Engineers review four MSP vendors on key features and N-able comes up a winner


As big vendors move deeper into managed services, smart MSPs are specializing, customizing and collaborating to differentiate themselves in a crowded market.

With technology juggernauts the likes of Cisco Systems and Dell migrating to their market, many MSPs are finding they must evolve their businesses to respond to the changing landscape.

While some MSPs see the large vendors' entrance into the market as an emerging threat, others view it as a buoy for a market that sorely lacks end-user awareness and demand.



Scorecard: Quick Click Comparisons of All 4 Managed Services Platforms

Either way, those MSPs looking to differentiate themselves can do things like specialize in key technology segments, with IP telephony cited by many as the hottest area for MSPs in the SMB market.

"Voice-over-IP is definitely the biggest area of demand we see right now," said Rob Ross, president of ThinkSmart, an MSP in Gold River, Calif.

Another way they're going about differentiating their services is by providing highly customized reporting for their customers, and many MSPs say that solid reporting is essential for keeping customers happy.

"Every client wants a different take on the same information, and to get real meaningful reports you have to understand what they want and have face-to-face discussions," said managed services veteran Tim Hebert, CEO of Atrion Networking, Warwick, R.I. "Some people think good reporting is a checkbox you click and e-mail to a client, but the value of reporting is taking the time to review the information with the client."

This is also an area where solution providers have an advantage over their larger competitors, which may not have the local resources for face-to-face interactions.

MSPs are also taking a variety of other measures, including reducing their labor costs, offering a wider breadth of services, and increasing their availability by partnering with other MSPs, distributors and vendors.

"Once a medium-size management provider has reached those economies of scale, they can offer their services to smaller MSPs who have a more local footprint but who can't get to that scalability," said Gary Read, CEO of managed services platform provider Nimsoft, Redwood City, Calif.

One managed services vendor that capitalized early on this model is India-based Zenith Infotech, which offers low-cost hosted network monitoring and data-recovery services for MSPs.

"Ninety-five percent of the cost of managed services is manpower," said Akash Saraf, founder and CEO of Zenith Infotech.

Most industry watchers, however, say there's no question the managed services market will continue to consolidate in the coming year. "A company has to be wired with the right mentality to be an MSP. That wiring has to be a focus on delivering unique services, on being a service provider, which is different than being a reseller. Some resellers get convinced by someone to make an investment in a platform because it's easy or relatively cheap, but they never look at the people you need in place, the processes," Atrion Networking's Hebert said.

How We Got There, Who We Reviewed

Test Center engineers reviewed the top three MSP vendors on the market—Level Platforms, N-able Technologies and Kaseya. AdventNet was added into the mix as well, because it offers a comprehensive probe-based MSP solution at a highly competitive price. Test Center engineers either downloaded or accessed demo sites provided by each vendor to evaluate each solution.

Key features that were evaluated were automation features at the management servers, ease of deployment through automation, levels of remote management, integration with various business platforms, UI design, and overall capabilities of management server and reporting engine. Here's what we found.

NEXT: AdventNet OpManager, Kaseya Server And Framework, Level Platforms Managed Workplace, N-able Momentum

AdventNet OpManager

AdventNet's latest pricing structure is certainly enticing. To attract solution providers that are just starting out, AdventNet is offering three killer deals under Silver, Gold and Platinum partner programs. However, the various network capabilities in its MSP platform cannot quite match the other three vendors in this review.

Nonetheless, AdventNet's new starter kits start at $399 per month for aspiring MSPs. There are additional fees of $299 for help desk, asset harvesting and security. The pricing is worth noting because AdventNet offers a comprehensive OpManager MSP solution at a relatively small flat fee for each probe.

Like Level Platforms, only one AdventNet probe needs to reside at a customer site. What's more, the MSP solution is certainly more than adequate to manage the majority of small enterprises.

Solution providers hosting multiple customers can benefit greatly by simply segmenting the dashboards to separate customers logically and at the same time using a single probe to monitor everyone. AdventNet does not care if solution providers create segmented networks as long as they pay for each probe.



Scorecard: Quick Click Comparisons of All 4 Managed Services Platforms

AdventNet's remote access tool uses a centralized gateway to access remote machines. The tool works like LogMeIn. No Windows RDP or VNC is required. The remote access tool also eliminates the need for opening firewall ports. From the MSP central server, solution providers can quickly install a remote agent on a machine and start a remote control session.

Like the other vendors in the review, the OpManager software provides SNMP-, event- and WMI-based monitoring. In addition, OpManager can collect CPU, memory and disk utilization, and various ports.

OpManager's dashboards have a clean design, yet they are able to present a lot of information on devices. By drilling down on an alert, technicians can view the active indicators associated with the device that caused the alert.

In addition to network assets, OpManager also collects information on packaged software and some middleware servers. Engineers feel that AdventNet might be trying to add too much unnecessary functionality in the product. For example, OpManager can monitor logs from WebLogic servers.

While the information presented to technicians on some software packages can be useful, multitier systems are extremely difficult to troubleshoot. Finding the cause based on a log alert is often not enough to resolve a problem.

AdventNet also offers many software packages designed for IT monitoring. Some of these packages are integrated into the MSP product. For instance, OpManager comes with a complete ticketing system, which is designed to streamline communication between MSPs and customers.

NEXT: Kaseya Server And Framework, Level Platforms Managed Workplace, N-able Momentum

Kaseya Server And Framework

Kaseya's IT philosophy appeals to traditional IT professionals seeking to start a managed services practice. Instead of a product, the company offers a fully functional framework that is available online and has a 30-day expiration license. The framework can be downloaded without the bother of being contacted by sales reps.

Kaseya's Web-based framework for automating IT monitoring consists of a lightweight stateless agent and a Kaseya server, which is the main management console for the framework, and manages all the agents.

The Kaseya server was installed on a Windows 2003 server, running IIS and SQL Server. The server is simply a Web application that interacts with the framework. To secure communication between MSPs and remote clients, the Kaseya server uses SSL to encrypt the access to the agents and its Web page. The agents use a 256-bit encryption with RC4 rolling session keys. The agent communication is outbound to the server, so there are no ports that need remapping at a client side. Since the agents do not listen, they are not susceptible to attacks. All the traffic is managed through the 256-bit encrypted pipe.

Agents are distributed to every end-point PC and server that gets managed. The agents are also deployed on machines that manage network devices and appliances, such as firewalls, routers, switches and printers. Once deployed, agents operate through any corporate network, including the Internet, and communicate back to its original Kaseya server. Regardless of how many computers and locations a client has, the Kaseya server creates its own virtual managed network. No VPN or remote server is needed at any client.



Scorecard: Quick Click Comparisons of All 4 Managed Services Platforms

The Kaseya server can be deployed in a matter of 15 minutes. After installing the server, engineers were able to deploy agents on two networks over the Internet in minutes. The deployment was so easy that only remote access was needed temporarily to install the agents.

Because the Kaseya server is Web-based, technicians can access it from anywhere. The agents operate independently and in a stateless manner, so no input is ever required by technicians. The agents execute in unattended access at all times.

In addition, the Kaseya server requires no network restructure or reconfiguration. Conversely, Microsoft's System Essentials requires a structured and contiguous network because it relies on probes to monitor networks. Essentially, Kaseya builds its own secured network from the very beginning.

The server's dashboards are easy to use, because they maintain the same look and feel for all the features and functions. MSPs are able to have full control of what is displayed and what capability they need to make available to servers and end users. A configuration is based on a service agreement with clients.

The Kaseya server can be highly customized by MSPs to allow end users to access information about their PCs.

For instance, users can create tickets and view their help-desk tickets on a Kaseya portal. End users can send e-mails and chat with technicians. Through the end-user portal, users

can also remotely control their own desktops and transfer files.

The Kaseya framework provides group-level access to the agents, so technicians can roll out configurations to thousands of machines at the same time. The company also provides automated solutions that cover spyware, viruses and patches.

In addition, the framework provides IT service automation for asset management, proactive maintenance and remote management. The framework also integrates with Autotask and Tigerpaw Software.

About 80 percent of Kaseya's revenue comes from ISVs, VARs and systems integrators that are transitioning from break/fix services to managed services.

NEXT: Level Platforms Managed Workplace, N-able Momentum

Level Platforms Managed Workplace

Level Platforms' Managed Workplace is the most widely used managed services software on the market. Workplace's architecture is probe-based, so it requires a managing server to reside at each client site. The remote manager agent is called Onsite Manager, which must be deployed on a Windows machine. Workplace does not require any VPN connection to access Onsite on a remote network. Corporate firewalls do not need to be modified, so the agent probe is quick to deploy.

Onsite auto-discovers all the assets of a network by using ICMP, SNMP and WMI. The Onsite manager also performs asset discovery, so it will query all Windows devices and get hardware and software configurations. In addition, Onsite can monitor routers, switches, firewalls, UPSes and most other major SNMP-based devices on the market. The probe can also monitor machines with Intel VPro.

Workplace has one of the most thorough monitoring solutions on the market today. Workplace can monitor Web sites and, to some extent, applications running on those Web sites. Level Platforms is moving into Web-application monitoring because many of its SMB clients rely heavily on Internet and intranet applications to run their businesses. Workplace monitors the performance availability of Web sites and performs content validation.

Workplace also has one of the most extensive integration capabilities for some of the most widely used professional service automation (PSA) solutions on the market. Workplace can work with Autotask, ConnectWise and Microsoft CRM and uses its Web-services architecture to provide bidirectional information among the PSA products.



Scorecard: Quick Click Comparisons of All 4 Managed Services Platforms

Essentially, a PSA system provides a business platform for MSPs. With an integrated PSA, solution providers can manage client contracts, invoicing, time and materials, and projects. PSA can also help with tickets by automating help-desk procedures. When an alert occurs, Workplace can create a trouble ticket in a PSA system. When the ticket is resolved in a PSA system, it automatically closes an alert inside Workplace.

Workplace also integrates with OnForce, which is a collaborative service market for IT professionals. Whenever a service request is generated by Workplace to OnForce, service personnel can bid on the fulfillment of that service. OnForce can help solution providers drive down the cost of customizable tasks, such as setting up a firewall or even adding event-logging features to services or applications.

With OnForce, solution providers offer an additional service to their core network monitoring services. However, many services require on-site access and long-term service contracts. Solution providers also run the risk of failing to provide adequate services by relying on strangers in this marketplace.

In addition, Workplace has one of the most extensive and democratic policy-based solutions of all managed services vendors on the market. The software arrives with more than 103 templates, which define product configuration and asset information from 41 vendors. The templates are part of an ongoing program that is continuously expanding product capabilities and adding vendors.

Workplace can manage backups and it integrates with Microsoft's Windows Server Update Services server to collect and distribute Windows updates. The server also provides print services management and integrates with Microsoft's Baseline Security Analyzer to provide security management.

Unlike the other vendors in this review, Workplace does not lock solution providers into a backup software and hardware solution. As long as the backup vendor is supported by a template, solution providers can use the product within Workplace's dashboards. Online backup solutions are also supported.

Network services are automatically added when devices are discovered through various TCP ports. Solution providers can also monitor custom network services. For remotely managing machines, Workplace supports Terminal Services, Windows' Remote Desktop, VNC, Telnet and SSH.

Level Platforms also offers a hosted solution called Service Center. The hosted version is a multitenant environment capable of handling high-volume throughput. This version is currently being hosted by Ingram Micro.

NEXT: N-able Momentum

N-able Momentum

N-able's hosted N-central OnDemand portal wins first place in this review, beating out two of its fiercest competitors, Kaseya and Level Platforms.

Since last year, N-able has made significant improvements in its rollout features and procedures. When the improvements are combined with two new excellent support tools, N-able's solution provides one of the most comprehensive feature sets in the managed services market.

Under the hood, the portal's engine is essentially N-able's Momentum software. Now at version 6.5, Momentum has been reworked from the bottom up to dramatically decrease the amount of time required to roll out new customers by taking advantage of deployment templates. Version 6.5 is also addressing cost of ownership by significantly improving the time to train new technicians.

N-able's technology combines probe-based and agent-based architectures into a single product solution. While probe-based systems do not need agents, any mobile asset outside a network—such as a laptop—becomes unmanageable. N-able encourages MSPs to use probes inside a network and only place agents on mobile devices.



Scorecard: Quick Click Comparisons of All 4 Managed Services Platforms

N-able now provides a support tool specifically designed to administer Windows-based machines and devices remotely. Unlike terminal services, Remote Desktop and VNC, Remote Support Manager provides full remote management capabilities without having to take remote control of a machine. In addition to Windows, N-able supports Linux, Novell and MAC OSes. Furthermore, N-able offers a Remote Environment Manager, which is a policy-based desktop-management product.

For Windows devices, Momentum can do TCP port availability, WMI and SNMP-based monitoring, SNMP trap monitoring, Syslog monitoring, and can monitor event logs, including read text files, and execute ODBC queries. What's more,

Momentum uses WMI to filter any new software installed on machines. The only caveat to this process is that software must be registered with Windows.

When working with the Windows Remote Desktop, technicians have to disturb end users whenever they need to fix a problem on a PC. With Remote Support Manager, however, technicians can connect to a machine and start or stop processes, read event logs, install software and delete files without interrupting users. The tool also includes a chat Window to alert users whenever technicians need to gain complete access and reboot a PC.

Engineers found that Remote Support Manager is the easiest support tool to use in this review. Remote Support is an attended access tool that works like the LogMeIn Web tool. After downloading a plug-in, an SSL-encrypted tunnel is created, pointing back to NCentral. The technology requires no agent because the tunnel is only created when users request support. When technicians disconnect, the plug-in will be uninstalled or turned off.

Support Manager also provides basic support for Intel VPro and plans to add complete support within 12 months. In addition to turning power on, Intel VPro can provide asset management information even when devices are off. The technology will improve the way devices are discovered and managed.

Environment Manager's policies are assigned to users, so MSPs can define complete PC configurations once and apply them across entire enterprises. Configurations are enforced, so PCs become self-healing. For instance, if a drive mapping is deleted, Environment Manager will restore the correct mapping after a certain time.

In addition to mapping drives, Environment Manager can recognize printers, maintain security and group policies, change backgrounds and e-mail signature files, and institute power settings.

Because Environment Manager can automatically remediate many settings, MSPs can allocate fewer resources to PC support, which also equates to having more junior staff working on PCs.

N-able is somewhat weak, however, in providing a knowledge base or links to connections to information located at external knowledge bases. The company feels that System Essentials will be providing this information in future Windows OSes.

N-able claims to be 100 percent channel-focused—even in all of its enterprise deployments. NCentral can be rebranded and it is specifically designed for those MSPs that are not in a position to make up-front financial commitments to fully host a licensed product and are only interested in servicing small to midsize enterprises using a managed services environment.

Momentum is sold on a per-customer, per-month basis with no up-front commitments. MSPs get access to technical training and Q&A sessions with N-able's solutions architect. They also get access to a partner center, which includes programs and tools to help them go to market.

NEXT: The Bottom LineThe Bottom Line

While not perfect, N-able is clearly moving in the right direction and demonstrating deep network features that are essential to enterprises. In addition to further improvements in IT monitoring, N-able showed that its PC help-desk support is the way of the future. However, don't discount Level Platforms and Kaseya. These two MSP platform vendors are not far behind.



Scorecard: Quick Click Comparisons of All 4 Managed Services Platforms


COMPANY: AdventNet
Pleasanton, Calif.
(925) 924-9500
www.adventnet.com


PRODUCT LINE:
ManageEngine OpManager MSP Edition has a probe-based client that works on multiple operating systems. OpManager has a comprehensive list of actions and alerts.

CHANNEL POINTS: Offers sales tools, such as presentations, price calculators, comparison documents, customer deployment scenarios, sales pitch and cross-selling options.

COMPANY: Kaseya
St. Helier, Jersey
(+44) 1534-832-534
www.kaseya.com

PRODUCT LINE: Managed Service Edition is a framework with many comprehensive monitoring features. Highly secured servers and agents are easy to deploy, even on remote, unsecured locations.

CHANNEL POINTS: Offers a comprehensive set of tools and templates to aid in the transition to an MSP business model, including SLAs, pricing, collateral, e-mail, Web, and other templates and calculators, as well as a variety of educational materials developed by MSPs for MSPs.

COMPANY: Level Platforms
Ottawa, Canada
(800) 418-0881
www.levelplatforms.com

PRODUCT LINE: Managed Workplace has a comprehensive set of templates from which to configure devices from 41 vendors. Workplace uses an open Web-services architecture to connect to many backup vendors, including PSA vendors, such as Autotask and ConnectWise. Workplace integrates with Microsoft WSUS and BSA.

CHANNEL POINTS: Offers free comprehensive, unlimited technical and business training, including everything a partner needs to know to build an MSP program. Partners are also assigned a lifetime Partner Development Manager to help them evolve their businesses to create differentiated MSP offerings. Unlimited technical support from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST, including weekend support.

COMPANY: N-able
Ottawa, Canada
(613) 592-6676
www.n-able.com

PRODUCT LINE: Momentum System combines probe- and agent-based tools, which can cover intranet, as well as mobile devices. Momentum has one of the best remote tools for configuring environments and technical support.

CHANNEL POINTS: Self Service Portal contains a dynamically searchable knowledge base; online support includes partner forums, online support requests, e-mail support, telephone from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST Monday to Friday with 24/7 emergency support; ongoing one-on-one training with partner-development specialist and N-able University.

COMPANY: SilverBack Technologies
Billerica, Mass.
(978) 670-9944
www.silverbacktech.com

PRODUCT LINE:
DataCenter Enterprise arrives with a unique policy-based engine that simplifies customer installations. Other MSP vendors are using a similar template scheme to reduce setup time. DataCenter can serve enterprise devices, such as Cisco routers, Check Point firewalls and Canon printers, including environmental facilities.

CHANNEL POINTS: Offers policy-monitoring templates, which allow partners to automate the process of deploying and changing service offerings to their customers; technology templates, which include best practices for alert, log file, performance, asset and security monitoring, and management of hundreds of classes of technology devices and applications.