Road To Continuity

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The first entry in the Encarta dictionary defines continuity as: unchanging quality—the fact of staying the same, of being consistent throughout or not stopping or being interrupted. A good definition by any measure, but VARs have a better definition: Continuity equals profits. Case in point, Warren, N.J.-based solution provider Prevalent Networks has built a very successful business model around business-continuity services.

Prevalent's managing director, Jonathan Dambrot, credits the company's success in business continuity to a combination of understanding a customer's needs and integrating off-the-shelf solutions to build resilient applications. With double-digit growth, Prevalent proves that business continuity can be a profit center for VARs providing managed services.

What's more, the opportunity created by business continuity is not limited to just managed services. VARs can still profit from traditional margins derived from the sale of hardware, software and consulting services surrounding nonmanaged solutions.

After all, Prevalent is not the only company building profitable services around business continuity. Several solution providers are jumping on the Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery (BCDR) services bandwagon hoping to strike gold in a growing market.

The opportunity here is best defined by recent research from FrostSullivan, which finds that enterprise business-continuity and disaster-recovery spending totaled $15.1 billion in 2006 and is estimated to reach $23.3 billion in 2012 for North America.

With the stage set, the question remains: How does a Microsoft-centric VAR quickly build a BCDR practice? While there is no single answer, getting started can be surprisingly easy—it's just a matter of understanding the options available and leveraging existing technology.

The Background Of BCDR
Microsoft long ago realized the importance of business continuity and launched a campaign that stressed the reliability of Windows 2000 Server. The so-called five-nines campaign stressed that Windows 2000 Server could deliver near-perfect reliability for businesses by achieving the coveted "five- nines" (99.999 percent) uptime benchmark, which equates to just more than 5 minutes of downtime a year. While that sounded great in theory, VARs quickly realized that it takes a lot more than a reliable operating system to guarantee continuity.

Achieving the five-nines took planning, reliable hardware and a strong measure of third-party solutions—and even that did not guarantee continuity. VARs also had to understand how hardware failure, security problems, connectivity issues or loss of facility could impact operations.

What's more, the human element needed to be accounted for—what employee did what, where and when. That caused BCDR to quickly grow into a critical concern for the enterprise and VARs turned to their select vendors for answers.

Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun Microsystems and so on answered the call and built robust, but very expensive solutions for channel partners to deploy, yet all tended to lack critical elements to become a complete solution. This was especially true for VARs building on Microsoft-based networks, where the integration of Microsoft and non-Microsoft products proved to be a necessity to build business solutions.

Next: Getting There: Three Paths To Continuity

Getting There: Three Paths To Continuity
So, how does a Microsoft integrator become a BCDR powerhouse? The answer basically comes down to choosing a path to follow and how quickly one wants to arrive at that destination. Arguably, the quickest way to achieve success is to partner with someone that has already built a service. Many of the early BCDR players have developed managed solutions that are ripe for resale and are following up with channel programs and rebrandable services that could bring a VAR into the BCDR realm with very little investment and the fastest time to market. Integrators looking to follow that path have several vendors to choose from, and the competition between those vendors is fierce. Most VARs will find that selecting a vendor to work with can be almost as complicated as designing a BCDR solution from scratch.

The best advice is to plan ahead—in other words, determine your customer's needs before selecting whom to partner with. Building a plan around those needs starts with determining what processes need to be protected or, better yet, what applications need continuity. Regrettably, that process is much harder than it sounds, and volumes have been written on the steps involved. A simpler approach may be to start with just one or two critical applications and then do the transition to more continuity services as time dictates.

Either way, success comes from partnering with a vendor that can offer flexibility, scalability and a competitive price that leaves room for profit. The downside to reselling a BCDR service is that the VAR, along with the VAR's customer, must put their data in the hands of a third party. From the VAR's point of view, that situation diminishes control over the client, which in turn means that the client may be able to bypass the VAR to buy the service directly from the vendor. From the end user's point of view, the value of the VAR may be diminished if the VAR is solely passing the BCDR service onto a third party—after all, what is the function of the VAR in that case—perhaps, just a middleman? A simple rule here is to work with rebrandable services, which offer the VAR full control of the account and associated services. What's more, the VAR should make sure that value-adds are part of the service.

The issues surrounding partnering have driven many VARs to build their own hosted BCDR services, with the associated data centers and hardened environments. But two words temper the success of that approach: high costs. Not only does the VAR have to invest in a facility to house the business-continuity equipment, but also the associated applications, services and data backup solutions. One technology helps to reduce many of those costs drastically—virtualization, which allows a VAR to maximize the investment in servers and storage subsystems by using a single server to host multiple clients, each independent of the other. To guarantee success in becoming a BCDR managed service provider, VARs will also have to invest in training and partnering with vendors that sell the hardware and software that powers BCDR. Once again, the level of investment is totally dependent on the size of solution offered and the complexity of the environment to be protected. Those considerations will make many VARs think twice about becoming an MSP for BCDR services.

While some VARs feel compelled to choose from either of the above scenarios, there is still another alternative: building out the BCDR solution using the customer's resources. For large enterprises, that is usually the best way to go, where the VAR takes on the role of adviser and integrator. Large customers usually plan for redundancy and continuity from the outset. What's more, customers of that size tend to have multiple sites and data centers and are not limited by locality concerns. While BCDR solutions for those environments are massive undertakings, VARs profit from the planning and integration services associated with building the solution and, in most cases, maintaining and auditing the solution.

Does that situation leave smaller businesses and their VARs out in the cold? Absolutely not. In most cases, deploying a BCDR solution for a small business can be a very simple task. In some cases, technologies such as data mirroring and replication may be all it takes to provide continuity. In other cases, neartime continuity may be adequate, whereby data is replicated to a notebook or a home system and the business can quickly shift its data processing operations over to those alternatives. Of course, that solution may not offer regional protection beyond a business' commuting area, but most small businesses are tied to their regional locations and so is their customer base.

The Destination
There is an old saying: Getting there is half the fun. With BCDR solutions, getting there is where most of the profits can be made. It all comes down to understanding a customer's environment, prioritizing its business functions and then building a plan. BCDR will not be successful following an ad hoc approach—planning is the key. Once an adequate plan is created, the actual solution becomes straightforward to implement, regardless of whether it is a service-based or engineered approach. The real trick is for the VAR to select which path to follow to build a long-term relationship that guarantees long-term revenue.

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