MSP Software: How to be a successful MSP in 2020

Managed service providers (MSPs) rely on software to perform their business correctly. You couldn’t run an MSP with just a pen and paper. An MSP requires a vast array of software to operate.
Remote Access Meaning & Definition

The MSP software needs fall into four categories

  • PSA – Professional services automation systems that include all of the support software to run the business and supervise technical staff.
  • RMM – Remote monitoring and management software, which enables MSPs and IT Professionals to monitor remote system, supervise its performance and fix any issue.
  • Remote Access - Access computers, desktops, servers, applications and files quickly and easily with Atera's remote access support software
  • Administration – Software such as accounting and HR systems that serve supporting departments.
Each of these MSP software categories includes a suite of programs. It is possible for a new MSP to provision each utility individually but the list of required tools is so long that comparing several candidates for each function would take a very long time. It is more common for new MSPs to look for bundles of programs that are marketed as part of an environment or “platform.”
The collection of tools in one interface has the benefit of putting all the assistance a technician or a management needs on one menu. This cuts down the time wasted locating each program and waiting for it to start up. Another great benefit of MSP solutions is that they work out cheaper than buying individual facilities. With only one supplier to deal with, the accounts department has just one bill to process, there is just one source needed for support and training, and the user has one consistent interface that breeds familiarity and makes learning how to use each tool in the suite an easier, faster process.
Let’s take a look at the three MSP software categories and examine the tools that each needs to include.

PSA - Professional Services Automation

Customer management

The software industry offers a comprehensive choice of customer relationship management (CRM) systems. However, buying in a standalone general-purpose CRM will cause you problems of data translation and won’t give you all of the specific needs of an MSAP’s customer management needs.

A customer management tool in a PSA is a repository of all customer-related data. This includes notes on all contacts with the customer, address book details, past bids and contracts with that client, and also contracts and service level agreements currently under negotiation with that company.

There is a lot of overlap in the customer management requirements with other essential PSA modules, including contracts management and billing. An integrated PSA can eradicate the need to duplicated stored data – linking through to a common data store in order to bring up the client’s contract information, for example.

An important feature that a PSA customer manager needs is a password vault. This contains all of the credentials needed to access the network, endpoints, servers, and protected software on the client’s site. Standard CRM systems don’t include this. The PSA’s password vault needs to be very tightly controlled. Not only should the password vault itself be protected by access credentials, but every access event needs to be logged.

Customer management platforms can be tied into the office (or cloud-based) digital phone system. This enables customer support technicians to raise tickets from incoming help desk calls. Such a configuration is also a great help for sales personnel who need to get all of the client’s vital information on the screen when they make an important call to them.

Contract Management

Customer management platforms can be tied into the office (or cloud-based) digital phone system. This enables customer support technicians to raise tickets from incoming help desk calls. Such a configuration is also a great help for sales personnel who need to get all of the client’s vital information on the screen when they make an important call to them.

Customer management platforms can be tied into the office (or cloud-based) digital phone system. This enables customer support technicians to raise tickets from incoming help desk calls. Such a configuration is also a great help for sales personnel who need to get all of the client’s vital information on the screen when they make an important call to them.

Helpdesk Interface

A self-service portal for the user community cuts down support calls and its confidentiality encourages users to seek advice on how to fix problems rather than trying to guess at a solution. The Portal ties together all problem-solving channels. This includes a knowledge base and communication methods for contacting a human support technician. Typical contact methods include a web form, a live chat window, email, and a telephone hotline.

Remote Access Software from Atera's Dashboard

Knowledgebase

The knowledgebase is a searchable store of troubleshooting guides and system definitions. This should be the first point of advice delivery for users who are experiencing problems. There are no off-the-shelf knowledge bases because the contents of the information store depend on the hardware and software used on the site.
The typical knowledge base package is formed by an online editor and publisher combined with server storage. Technical experts need to create the content of the knowledgebase. The requirement for expert knowledge as an input for the knowledge base means that these services can take a while to set up.

Ticketing System

The ticketing system is a work scheduler and team management tool that can automatically assign tasks to available technical staff. The tickets should be generated automatically by incoming web form or email-bound help requests with an auto response confirmation sent to the user by the ticketing system. Technicians should also be able to raise tickets, should they be serving a user request via live chat, phone, or in person.
The ticketing team management system should include the ability to enter prioritization rules in order to customize the work allocation routines. It should also be possible to manually override the automatic work allocation processes. Facilities to merge tasks, split a task, and allocate one ticket to a group of technicians is also a useful feature.
The manager’s console for the ticketing system should be able to give a live display of the task queue for each technician. The task screen for each technician should enable the worker to mark tasks as being in progress or completed. A nice feature for these ticketing user dashboards is the integration of notetaking and chat systems.

Service Scripts

The system that provides a knowledge base for the users can also be deployed as a training manual for technical staff. Another use for the digital document system is to input instructional scripts to enable each technician to follow the same investigation steps for each problem.
By creating scripts for staff troubleshooting, you can spread the expertise to junior, less experienced operators, thus filtering out the straightforward problem-solving tasks through the use of cheaper human resources. This tactic will remove the demand for highly-paid experienced staff and lower your wage bill.

Task Tracking

A good PSA should include task management features. These are closely related to the team management functions provided by the ticket tracking system and are often bundled into that utility. A task tracking function allows a team manager to automate certain tasks through workflows. These workflows act as checklists and provide a project management framework.
Each task within the workflow can be assigned a start and end date and the system should provide the team manager with an idea of whether the task is on schedule. Task tracking is also related to team management in that it contributes data to timesheets and productivity reporting.

Timesheets

As mentioned above, timesheets can be automatically generated from the ticketing scheduling and task tracking records. A PSA that includes team management and task management will certainly also have a timesheet generator. Essentially, this facility is just a report format that selects data out of the operations database.

Reporting and Auditing Functions

Every PSA will include a reporting module. The transactional data held by the system needs to be stored over time and archived for system security auditing. The reports should be available to run on a schedule to provide daily or weekly summaries of activities. These periodic management reports support planning and budgeting. That same information used for management reporting can just as easily provide source material for auditing.

When task and team management is entirely automated, all actions are logged, thus creating an automatic audit trail.

RMM

RMM systems include:

Remote Access

A remote access facility is the key element of a remote monitoring and management package. The remote access process requires two basic elements: an agent on the target device and a controller console on the monitoring system. The two parts of the system establish a secure connection across the internet and the private networks on either side.

The remote access system enables the MSP’s maintenance procedures to function without any on-site presence at the client location. Without this capability, MSPs could not function.

Remote Desktop

MSP technicians can manage software inventories on endpoints and servers on the client site both through automated processes and manually, using the remote access. Working at the level of the operating system is efficient, but it can’t provide all of the access facilities needed by an IT support department.
Help Desk calls can be difficult to deal with when working blind. Business users aren’t conversant with technical terminology, so descriptions of a problem can be confused and difficult to work out. Remote desktop systems enable the remote technician to actually see the screen of the user. So, working over the phone, or through chat, the user can demonstrate the problem effectively and the technician can demonstrate the solution.

Real-Time Monitoring and Alerts

The RMM system operates continually with the controller querying the devices on the client’s network for status reports. The information returned from this polling gets displayed as live performance data.

Network performance monitoring is usually based on the Simple Network Monitoring Protocol (SNMP). This is an industry-standard and all network devices, including switches and routers, are shipped from the vendor with an SNMP agent already installed. The system needs an SNMP manager to request status reports from agents. In a remote monitoring system, the manager relays commands and responses, communicating with the controlling software that is run by the MSP.

Under the SNMP system, device agents can send through a status report without waiting for a request if it detects a problem with the device that it runs on. This is called a “trap” and it appears on the management console as an alert, which requires immediate action.

IT Asset Management

The only function that an IT MSP cannot perform is the installation of hardware. The client company will either have to keep an IT manager on-site to perform this function or it can establish a contract with a hardware supplier that includes the provision, installation, and insurance of equipment.

Apart from physical installation, the MSP can perform all of the functions required for IT asset management. This includes recording the age of each piece of equipment and comparing that to its expected service life. The network monitoring software in the RMM bundle will also be able to identify faulty equipment. While recording alerts from device agents., the monitor is able to tally the number of problems with a specific device. Once the frequency of those problems passes a threshold, it can be deemed that the device needs to be replaced.

Network capacity analysis in an RMM will highlight bandwidth provision problems, enabling the MSP software to produce recommendations to the client for purchases to expand capacity. Extra capacity requirements can be predicted, giving the MSP time to manage the purchasing process for the client.

System Preparedness

The main task of system preparedness MSP solutions involves backing up data and recording configurations. Configuration management is easy to achieve remotely with the right software. A proficient configuration manager will take an image of the set up of a device and give the operator the opportunity to adjust that to create a standard for that device type and model. With that set, the configuration manager will roll out those settings to all similar devices. This also speeds up installation when a new device of the same type is added to the network. The configuration manager then monitors those devices and restores the standard configuration if it notices that unauthorized changes have been made.
The data backup process requires the services of a cloud storage server as well as the software to manage the backup and restore service. Often these two elements are bundled together in a package. Backup and restore systems should be able to rollback one element of a client’s system as well as having the option to completely reload all data, in the event of disaster recovery.

System Cleaning and Maintenance

Every systems administrator knows that system cleaning is an essential part of the job. The remote access feature in an RMM means that it makes no difference to the tasks that the administrator is far away instead of on site. The MSP solution’s RMM should be able to perform standard cleanup tasks automatically on a schedule. The tasks include removing temporary files and defragmenting disks.
Other tasks require human intervention before they can be performed. An example of this is the removal of abandoned accounts. The RMM can detect user accounts that have no activity. However, the system shouldn’t remove these accounts without manual approval.

Network Discovery

The ability to log the precise inventory on a client site is an essential part of the contract for service between an MSP and a client. The MSP needs to be sure it is charging a fee for each of the devices that it is expected to manage. This can only be carried out effectively if the MPS has a constantly updated record of the inventory on the site. So, network discovery is an important requirement of an RMM.

The network discovery feature in the MSP toolbox provides source material for IT asset management and creates service reports that can be presented to the client as a bill attachment and during the monthly review. The network discovery facility should be able to log the brand, model, and age of each device. That enables the sales manager to advise where replacement equipment is needed.

Onboarding Procedures

Onboarding tasks can also be automated and implemented across the internet, thanks to remote access. The RMM should be able to store standard configurations and software inventories for each device type and user group. This will enable new devices to be set up automatically. The creation of new user accounts can also be automated through the RMM.

Patch Management Functions

Patching is an important part of system security and every system administrator knows that this task must be performed in a timely manner. The RMM makes it possible to manage this task remotely.
Patches need to be trolled out on a schedule out of business hours. The RMM’s patch manager should be able to check on the availability of patches, download them from the supplier, schedule them for installation, perform the rollout, and report on task results. The patch manager interface should enable the systems administrator to choose to exclude some patches from being installed.

User-Technician Communications Channels

Communication with the users normally only becomes a requirement of the RMM system when there are problems. The requirements for notifications from the MSP to the user community arises if urgent systems maintenance tasks need to be carried out during business hours. In these cases, the RMM needs to provide a message to broadcast messages to all users, advising of system downtime or expected performance impairment. Automated notifications of privilege suspension is another type of message that will flow from the MSP to the user.
User-to-technician communication channels are closely tied with the ticketing system and the self-help portal of the user support system. Users should be able to communicate with the user support section of the MSP via web form or email as a minimum. Other options include live chat and telephone response.

Reporting and Analytics

The reporting functions of an RMM enable managers to view the operational transactions of the MSP in a meaningful format. Reporting is closely tied to auditing. Both of these functions require that every action performed by the staff of the MSP is logged. Once those records are in the database, it is relatively easy to select search results, metrics, and individual performance records.
Operational data is necessary for billing, for SLA goal proof and for compliance with data security standards.
Analytical functions in an RMM should be able to identify system inadequacies on the client site and pinpoint a service bottleneck. Stored performance data can be run through a trend analysis software package to plan for future capacity requirements.
Acronis Real-time backup​

Administration

Administration MSP software includes:

Invoice Composition

No MSP can afford to overlook work performed by staff on behalf of a client. Every action needs to be recorded and charged for. As well as the hourly charges, MSPs have standing charges to bill for. So, an MSP’s invoice will be composed of many different elements.
Invoicing MSP software should provide templates to enable the MSP to set up a standard corporate invoice layout. This may need to be adapted for each client if the MSP offers different types of services or a bespoke package to clients. However, clients prefer a standard, comparable invoice month-to-month.
The invoicing package part of an MSP solution should enable all of the charges to be written into an invoice automatically. Automatic invoice creation removes the danger of human data entry errors. Invoices then need to be manually checked and approved before they are sent out. The invoicing package should facilitate the delivery of an invoice by printing, by email, or be a digital transfer through an API.

Accounting Software

Automatic data exchange between the PSA system and the accounting package used by the MSP is very important. If all elements of activity are automatically translated into account entries, then auditing the accounts becomes a whole lot easier. Automated data flows also eliminate the possibility of insider fraud and reduce the potential for the accountant to make errors.

HR Systems

The staffing requirements of MSPs are very dynamic. There is often very little time between the signing of a contract and the service start date. The bidding process and the negotiating phase before a contract gets signed can drag on for a very long time, or it might all happen within a day.
Taking on new staff and deducing team size need to be quick processes in order to account for the MSP’s variability in demand. This work environment lends itself to the use of freelancers on short-term contracts. The HR responsiveness in this environment is a lot more demanding that the staffing tasks in more stable businesses.
The complexities of HR staffing for an MSP mean that it has to be supported by software. That MSP software needs to be able to estimate staffing costs as an input to bid costing as well as being able to store resumes for candidates, manage the accumulating charges of deployed freelancers, and record the different tax positions of each type of human resource on the site.

Property and Asset Management

As with staffing, property management and asset management for an MSP needs to be flexible. The question of expansion for a new contract requires new staff on the site quickly, but also requires that those staff will have desks and PCs to sit at, fully provisioned with all of the necessary software. Added to that, the MSP hacking tool needs to have enough space for all of those new desks.
The property and asset issues that MSPs face need to be managed by competent management software.

Workflow

Disjointed software puts extra stress on the management of an MSP to replicate instructions in different systems and calculate operational offsets to cater to the differences between the input requirements of unrelated software packages. This MSP solution scenario is inefficient and prone to errors.
The necessity to create working procedures and manage projects effectively means that an MSP needs a complete and comprehensive software support system. This is why MSPs need PSAs and RMMs. Running an IT department is complicated enough, running one on behalf of another business is even more difficult.
A PSA offers an MSP all of the workflows it needs to run its business. RMMs include automated procedures that reduce the staff requirements of the MSP, thus cutting costs and making the business more competitive.

Data Flow

Oversight and errors in data entry can ruin a business. Given that MSPs only make money by charging for the work of their staff, billing should be simple if all activity records can be consolidated and translated automatically into an invoice. This is what PSAs do. The data flows between operational modules of a PSA remove the errors of human intervention and also close off opportunities for fraud.
Work schedules flow into team management and task management functions. The data from those systems enables performance analysis and goal achievement. Effective team management creates cost tracking information, which flows through to pricing intelligence needed for bidding. Data on the throughput and cost capabilities enables the MSP to price competitively.
Reconciling the promises made during sales meetings and the prices written on a bid translate through to a contract. Operational data proves compliance with the contract and its SLA. That operation data also automatically provides system security and financial audits automatically.
Performance data feeds through to capacity planning, billing, profit analysis, bonus planning, and accounts filing.
The data flows from RMM to PSA to HR, account, and asset management systems create a closed loop that makes running an MSP a lot easier.

Security Considerations

Business security is under attack from many directions: hacker destruction attacks, data theft, financial theft, identity theft, competitor spying, insider sabotage, and government agency surveillance. MSPs have the obligation to protect the security of their own IT system and the systems of other companies that it manages.
These security requirements rely almost entirely on software to provide:
  • In house password management
  • Client password vault
  • Technician activity logging
  • Protect client log files against tampering
  • Protect MSP system log files against tampering
  • Auditing for security standard compliance
Of course, the physical security of the premises, user training, and manual employee supervision are also important. However, even those functions can be enhanced with supporting software.
Locking the working practices of the MSP through automated workflows enforced by MSP software helps to strengthen system security. The data flows of security software, such as data loss prevention, intrusion prevention systems, and activity logging also tighten security for the MSP and its clients.

Cost Considerations

The provision of MSP software is not a cost-free activity for the business. Researching MSP solution options can be very time consuming and it involves many members of staff and management meeting in groups to make software buying decisions. All of these staff need to be paid.
Time spent on evaluating MSP software lengthens when you consider a multi-vendor environment. Buying separate software packages to support the activities of the MSP requires testing to ensure that the systems can work together as an MSP toolbox. It might be necessary to adapt the data exchange utilities between packages or write bespoke programs to transfer and reformat data from one piece of software to another. These tasks all cost money and are accounting overhead.
Once you have decided on the total MSP software landscape that you need in order to support the MSP’s work, you then need to assess the hardware to run it on. The premises of the MSP will need to have a separate, secure room to house the servers that host your software. You will then also need an in-house systems administrator to supervise the maintenance of the servers and the software.
On top of the purchasing and housing issues for software and a suitable host comes the issue of networking the server to sufficient workstations for all of the management and staff. When the business expands and takes on more staff, then the network will need to be extended. Expanding networks is a challenge and requires the in-house system to be constantly monitored, so the business will also need to buy network monitoring software and hire a network manager.
With servers and software on the site comes the task of maintaining those facilities. Software licences need to be managed and renewed. More often than not, the expiration of software licenses falls on different dates. That complicated issue can be resolved by software inventory management systems. Operating systems and firmware will need to be patched regularly and software updates will also need to be installed. These tasks can also be performed automatically by software.
The cost of buying and managing in-house MSP software is a pure overhead. All of these issues can be simplified by using Software-as-a-Service from a cloud provider instead of running all of the MSP’s software support on site.
The SaaS approach eradicates the need for on-site servers and even includes opportunities to sell on cloud storage space to clients for their system backups and document archiving.
Cloud-based MSP software is available from anywhere through a standard browser or a mobile app. That configuration opens up the possibility of distributing support staff around the globe. An international team makes it easier to hire staff with different language skills and it enables the MSP to provide 24-hour support without having to run a night shift. SaaS MSP solutions also enable technicians to work from home, which reduces the cost of premises and equipment.
Opting for an SaaS PSA and RMM will radically simplify the MSP’s operating costs, provide workflows and data integration and tighten up security procedures.
The cloud-based RMM and PSA should provide connection encryption for all communications between the technician workstation and the cloud-based console and also between the monitoring agents installed on client sites and the RMM’s controllers.

Conclusion

Startup MSPs need to prioritize cloud-based integrated PSA and RMM software that creates an MSP toolbox. These services include all of the software that the MSP needs to start operating without having to waste time assessing, installing, and adapting separate on-premises packages.
The SaaS MSP solution also removes the hardware issues related to running software on site. You don’t need a network to connect all of the staff’s workstations to a server, you just need to provide an internet connection for each endpoint. The removal of the need for a server takes out the need to plan for a secure server room and you also won’t need those systems and network administrators.
Even when you decide to go for cloud-based PSA and RMM services, you still have a lot of research to perform to assess rival MSP software packages. There is also a big issue over fitting together the PSA and the RMM if you take those services from different providers.
It is easier and cheaper to choose an MSP software service provider that offers integrated PSA and RMM packages. This gives your MSP’s managers and technicians just one point of access for all of the functions they need for their tasks. The integration of these services into an MSP toolbox also removes the danger of data being lost when translating information from one system to the other.
Atera offers the complete MSP software solution. The Atera service combines both PSA and RMM in one package that also includes a server for processing and cloud storage space to support the functions performed by the MSP software.
Conveniently, Atera is charged for by subscription, so there are no upfront costs, making SaaS more affordable than the frontloaded expenses of buying in software and servers. The subscription plan of Atera is charged for per month per technician. It is very easy to add on more accounts as your MSP expands. As a remote MSP solution, it doesn’t matter where in the world your staff are located. That makes staffing opportunities more flexible because you can hire new staff anywhere in the world and enable both managers and technicians to work from home.

The Atera PSA and RMM system is a huge cost saver and it also saves a lot of time in setup and maintenance. The system’s processors will set your MSP’s operating procedures and support all of the business’s activities. Atera is an easy-to-use MSP hacking tool that will save you time and money.

The best way to assess the suitability of Atera for your MSP is to take advantage of the 30-day free trial. Atera is a comprehensive MSP solution and you will recognize all of the functions that you have been looking through as you explore the system. It is only by getting access to the system that you can see for yourself that Atera includes all of the software that you will need to make your MSP successful.