Unlike cloud hosting services, cloud managed services leave the hardware at the customer site. However, many of the issues potential customers have are similar.
Written by John Ghrist
Last month's Technology Focus looked at cloud-hosting services for the IBM i and some of the issues that have impeded more widespread adoption of hosting services use. A strong alternative to cloud hosting providers is offered by managed service providers (MSPs), which also use the cloud or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for connectivity, but that instead offer administrative and other services for servers remaining on customer premises.
In general, MSPs provide IT-related expertise for a contracted periodic fee. This benefits smaller companies that perhaps can't afford to pay for that expertise via an in-house staff, and larger companies that want to augment IT operations without increasing head count. While there are companies offering specific services such as high availability, backup and recovery, storage, application hosting, and rental time for development and app testing, here we'll focus on companies that offer to take care of providing all those services on a customer's in-house equipment.
Logically, one might think that retaining all the servers, client workstations, network connectivity, and other devices in-house might assuage user hesitations about loss of control, a big concern for those considering cloud-hosting services. If you did, though, you'd be wrong.
"The stickiest and most common objection to moving to cloud services is still loss of control," notes Collin Lee, Principal at Manage, an MSP serving the IBM i community, among others. "Even so, most mid-sized companies have already adopted cloud or managed services in one corner of the organization or another. Whether it be Office 365, Gmail, or even outsourced maintenance and upgrades to a numerical control machine, it's becoming common practice to seek subject matter experts on a 'subscription' basis. Even small clients may have used managed services of a sort for years without thinking about it that way. For instance, when the owner of a small machine shop outsources their linen and uniform cleaning, this is by definition a 'managed service.' Delivering IT managed and cloud services might be viewed as more business-critical than providing unsoiled uniforms, but the parallels are clear. Whatever a company is outsourcing, they are weighing the cost of deploying their own labor and capital against the cost of renting someone else's, while evaluating the comparative qualities of service."
"I see loss of control as more of a misconception than a reality," Lee adds. "Providers like ourselves successfully compete down-market from the Accentures and IBMs of the world by being more flexible and responsive to specific customer requirements. No SLA is the same, and we readily tailor services to meet specific customer metrics at a price they (and we) can afford. In fact, we are often able to offer a client more control over their resources, rather than less. A cloud customer may have more flexibility to control specific jobs, instantly scale to address spikes in activity, and manage system attributes to maximize employee performance in ways they were not able to do themselves with on-premise systems."
Job Insecurity Concerns
Of course, a managed services model also has its own set of hurdles to overcome.
"Although the industry is in the midst of transitioning, system security and the lack of having formal planning and strategies are holding back the IBM i clients from more broadly accepting a managed services model," states Pete Elliot, consultative partner at Focal Point Solutions Group. "We have also experienced reluctance based on job security concerns, which is essentially an unfounded fear. In most cases, having a complementary 'managed services strategy' enables operations to achieve higher levels of productivity and establishes project task priorities, which tends to liberate staff to complete other tasks more critical to the organization."
"A secondary, but no less powerful, objection is the fear that moving to the cloud or engaging a company to provide managed services may make one's role in the organization obsolete," agrees Manage's Lee. "The fear of losing one's job obviously can be a powerful motivator, derailing a possible managed services engagement. But in reality, we are more often engaged in IBM i accounts because a company's only IBM i administrator and programmer is retiring or leaving. Finding new-generation IBM i talent to step in for an outgoing pro is a universal problem. From a service provider standpoint, this is a powerful driver for adoption of managed services or migration to cloud."
"There's also concern about a perception that there is no standardization of MSP industry pricing," Elliot adds. "MSP pricing models and value can swing between indicating the vendor is offering very little (underscoring that the MSP vendor has no idea of what they’re doing) to being unrealistically high beyond the reach of most mid-market clients. This generates confusing and wrong expectations."
Manage's Lee is in accord. "Providers like ourselves have in some ways lagged in delivering these IT managed services at a price that makes sense for everyone. Now, with affordable computing power and automation tools that didn't exist ten years ago, more and more companies — especially startups — look to cloud services first. They think 'why should I burden myself with hardware I'll need to maintain and replace, when I would prefer to write the next killer app for it instead?' I see this as a macro, generational change in behavior. When you think about it, the next generation of IT professionals and business executives may generally prefer leasing their homes to buying, sharing a ride in someone else's car, and renting a spare room in someone else's home. Services readily provisioned with a click of a mouse? To me, this is the mindset of the ideal business cloud-computing prospect and bodes well for managed services providers long-term."
"There are also two enemies within the IBM i community threatening the platform and IBM i managed services providers by extension. The first is a select group of IBM i ISVs that make it prohibitively expensive for customers to license their software on third-party-owned systems. The intent of the ISV is to use licensing costs to direct the customer to a preferred cloud vendor, with whom they have an exclusive business arrangement. Obviously, the ISV should be free to license their software as they see fit. However, customers are often left frustrated at being handcuffed to a single vendor they didn't willingly choose."
"The second internal threat to the IBM i platform is the embedded 'NO' employee. Sometimes, the person tasked with supporting the IBM i for an organization doesn't advance their skills and fails to embrace the interoperability and flexibility of today's modern IBM Power Systems. As a result, software languishes, new capabilities aren't added, and the 'NO' person instead spends their comfortable days writing Query/400 reports. Eventually, after staring at the same green-screens for years and being told the platform does not support this or that, executives make the decision to migrate to a different environment that 'can.' "
A Bright Future
Despite the misconceptions and pricing difficulties, both managed service providers are optimistic about the future of their market segment.
"We believe the trend to embrace the use of more managed services will increase," predicts Elliot. "There are a number of reasons for this. The industry is clearly undergoing a 'skill transition' and there is a lack of skilled talent to support the i community as it continues to mature. There will always be an 'in-house' team whose responsibilities will be to 'keep the lights on' but will need additional help to address critical areas like security, systems availability, self-service analytics, cloud application enablement, and so forth. As clients experience success and a general comfort level using cloud and MSP solutions like email and software as a service, there will be less overall resistance."
"The modern IBM Power System running i5/OS is about as far as you can get from a 'legacy' system, unless it is held captive by 'legacy' thinking and practices," agrees Lee.
Below are listings for managed service providers that include IBM i shops as part of their clientele. Each entry provides a brief description of available services with a hot link to each company's applicable web page. Please be aware that the descriptions are simply summaries and that more complete information can be found on each service provider's website.
Managed Service Providers for IBM i
Abacus Entry i Cloud is an entry-level service that provides infrastructure support during normal business hours. Standard services include network management, 400-750 GB of storage, one LPAR, and daily backups but no continuity services.
Abacus Enterprise i Cloud provides infrastructure support 24/7/365 with level 2 automated network management, unlimited concurrent users, redundant 16GB RAID5 storage with daily backups via IBM BRMS, continuity services, and additional services.
Abacus Enterprise Plus i Cloud offers infrastructure support 24/7/365 with level 3 automated operations management, level 2 automated network management, unlimited concurrent users, redundant 16GB storage with multipath RAID5 and hot spares, continuity services with 12-hour guaranteed recovery, and additional services.
Abacus provides cloud computing and remote IT infrastructure management services that include assessments, maintenance, consulting, data center relocation, audits, hosting, maintenance, hardware and software updates, and equipment leasing and rental.
Abtech can remotely administer IBM i and other servers via four levels of escalating costs and service options that range from simple monitoring to complete operations administration.
UK-based APSU administers IBM i servers via the cloud on an up to 24/7/365 basis to provide monitoring, backup, workflow control, storage and preventative maintenance, and management services for performance, changes, and security concerns.
CAS Severn administers IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS services in public, private, and hybrid cloud environments for IBM i servers, as well as security and compliance, storage management and backup, and systems integration services.
CMA Technology Solutions
FastCloud for Power i provides secure hosting and remote managed services for IBM i servers. Features include system operations and administration, automated alerts, disaster recovery, OS updates and PTF installations, and functional testing.
Data Storage Corporation
Data Storage Corporation provides IaaS services for Power Systems and iSeries servers.
First National Technology Solutions
First National offers remote hosting, backup, software upgrade, change management, performance monitoring, system administration, and other managed services via the cloud for companies with IBM i servers.
First Option IT
IBM i Monitoring is a cloud-based 24/7/365 centralized management service that watches servers installed at client sites and alerts designated client personnel to problems.
Focal Point Solutions Group
Focal Point Managed Services are available for IBM i servers at any location. Services include monitoring of system performance and security, managed backups, high availability and disaster recovery, storage area network services, error reporting, and cloud environment monitoring.
IBM Cloud Managed Services are available for Power Systems servers running AIX. Service options include disaster recovery, integrated PCI- and HIPAA-compliance, security, flexible network and storage configurations, and some third-party application hosting.
IBM offers numerous cloud-related services, including hosting, remote management, multiplatform management, helping enterprises establish themselves as managed service providers, and marketing of cloud-based applications.
Infor System i Business Cloud offers a spectrum of cloud-based services for IBM i servers, ranging from backups and high availability through management of servers at customer sites to complete systems hosting.
Key Information Systems
KeyCloud offers IaaS, hosting, disaster recovery, and backup services, primarily in Arizona and California, on its Power Systems and Intel servers running i5/OS, AIX, Linux, and Windows. Options include virtual and dedicated machines, HIPAA and PCI compliance, 99.999 percent uptime, and network security features.
Logicalis administers IBM i servers at remote locations on a short- or long-term basis. Services include capacity planning, multiple-location support, server and network monitoring, problem resolution, and hardware repair.
Logicalis UK provides computing-as-a-service, remote hosting, system monitoring, cloud-migration readiness assessments, and support for AIX and Linux environments on POWER7 systems.
Manage offers managed services for IBM i servers at client locations, disaster recovery services, hosting for selected third-party enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, and managed services for Windows clients.
OnX Managed Services
OnX hosts and manages IBM i servers in their data center or in remote client centers on a 24/7/365 basis, which includes meeting a range of government and regulatory compliances, high availability, monitoring, alerts, auditing support, and ITIL best practices.