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There’s more to selling email than meets the eye

Providers, set out your stalls

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Cloud is a broad term for several different approaches to delivering IT services. There is currently much discussion about the role of managed service providers (MSPs) in delivering this type of offering to business customers.

MSPs could be pivotal to the long-term adoption of such IT solutions since most are acquired from channel organisations rather than directly from a website.

Cloud-based email along with its associated facilities such as diary management, task lists, contacts and so on, is already proving to be a buoyant market. Which types of offering will be most attractive for MSPs to build their business on?

At a high level there are effectively two architectural approaches open to MSPs looking to sell cloud-based email solutions: buy a pre-packaged solution provided by a software vendor or build your own, perhaps using open-source components.

As with all things in life, there are pros and cons to each of these.

The easy road

One highly visible option for MSPs is to simply resell a product from a major software vendor. Becoming a broker for a widely marketed cloud solution certainly eases, if it does not completely remove, the task of building awareness of the offering.

But some MSPs may question whether operating as a broker for solutions hosted by a vendor gives them enough technical and commercial control.

One advantage is that the vendor carries out all development of the solution and is also seen as the ultimate source of customer support issues, thereby relieving the MSP of significant workloads and risks associated with the development and testing.

And if solutions are also hosted by the vendor, there is no need for the MSP to invest in the physical infrastructure on which the applications run, reducing capital expenditure.

The downside for the MSP is that almost all solution control lies in the hands of the supplier. Fundamental issues such as the frequency of software updates, service quality and speed of support are all subject to the specifications of the software vendor. The space available for the MSP to add value to a solution or to tailor it to suit its customer base may also be limited.

The precise nature of the revenue model used greatly influences whether MSPs decide to offer such intermediate solutions. It also affects who ultimately gets to bill the customer and own the relationship.

Do it yourself

The alternative is to take the DIY approach: the MSP opts to create its own email platform, perhaps based on scalable open-source technology in the same way that service providers have broadly adopted the Lamp stack for generic hosting.

The advantages of such an approach centre on the high level of control the MSP has over specifying the precise details of the solution’s functionality, as well as over the infrastructure used to run the solution.

This allows the MSP to define at a granular level almost every aspect of service quality and functionality, and also allows much greater flexibility on the pricing models the MSP offers to users.

The MSP has to have the skills to build and service the solution

Another important factor is that the MSP is the clear owner of the customer as well as the source of most support and contact.

The limiting factors centre on the requirement to develop and test all aspects of the solution as well as taking on primary customer support, which the vast majority of organisations consider essential for mainstream business solutions.

This means the MSP has to have all the extended skills required to build and service the solutions it assembles, which may require it to put in place its own back-end support contracts with specialist service companies.

Variety pack

But MSPs do not have to make a binary choice here between hosting and brokering email solutions. There is little to prevent them offering solutions that combine both approaches, customised to suit different customer segments.

Where email and its surrounding collaboration functionality is concerned, this option is not always widely appreciated. Few people take time to consider that email is not just email but can come in many varieties, from the highly sophisticated full-function mail, calendar, notes, tasks and so on down to the most basic web access email message system.

Each functionality package will suit different types of user, and at a time when organisations are seeking to optimise their IT spend and keep things as simple as possible, the concept of one-size-fits-all for email or groupware may be at a crossroads.

MSPs, like their customers, have choices to make. Which they select depends on their targeted customer base, skills capabilities and the availability and pricing models of the email solutions they could take to market.

How do you see things playing out? If you are a customer of such MSP services, what are you looking for? And if you are an MSP, what, if any, solutions do you plan to offer?

Please let us know in the comment area below. ®

  • Tony Lock is programme director at Freeform Dynamics

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