MSP Best Practice: 4 Keys to Automation

Creating Automation

The benefits of automation were lauded as far back as 1908 when Henry Ford created the assembly line to manufacture his famous “any color you like as long as it’s black” Model T. Before assembly lines were introduced, cars were built by skilled teams of engineers, carpenters and upholsterers who worked to build vehicles individually. Yes, these vehicles were “hand crafted” but the time needed and the resultant costs were both high. Ford’s assembly line stood this traditional paradigm on its end. Instead of a team of people going to each car, cars now came to a series of specialized workers. Each worker would repeat a set number of tasks over and over again, becoming increasingly proficient, reducing both production time and cost. By implementing and refining the process, Ford was able to reduce the assembly time by over 50% and reduce the price of the Model T from $825 to $575 in just four years.

Fast forward a hundred years (or so) and think about the way your support capabilities work now. Does your MSP operation function like the teams of pre-assembly line car manufacturers or have you implemented automated processes? Some service providers and many in-house IT services groups still function like the early car manufacturers. The remediation process kicks off when an order (trouble ticket) arrives. Depending on the size (severity) of the order one or more “engineers” are allocated to solving the problem. Simple issues may be dealt with by individual support staff but more complex issues – typically those relating to poor system performance or security vs. device failures – can require the skills of several people – specialists in VMware, networking, databases, applications etc. Unfortunately, unlike the hand-crafted car manufactures who sold to wealthy customers, MSPs can’t charge more for more complex issues. Typically you receive a fixed monthly fee based on the number of devices or seats you support.

So how can you “bring the car to the worker” rather than vice-versa? Automation for sure, but how does it work? What are the key steps you need to take?

  1. Be proactive – the first and most important step is to be proactive. Like Ford with Model T manufacturing, you already know what it takes to keep a customer’s IT infrastructure running. If you didn’t you wouldn’t be in the MSP business. Use that knowledge to plan out all the proactive actions that need to take place in order to prevent problems from occurring in the first place. A simple example is patch management. Is it automated? If not, as the population of supported devices grows it’s going to take you longer and longer to complete each update. The days immediately after a patch is released are often the most crucial. If the release eliminates a security vulnerability the patch announcement can alert hackers to the fact and spur them to attack systems before the patch gets installed. If that happens, now there’s much more to do to eliminate the malware and clean up whatever mess it caused. Automating patch management saves time and gets patches installed as quickly as possible.
  1. Standardize – develop a check list of technology standards that you can apply to every similar device and throughout each customer’s infrastructure. Standards such as common anti-virus and back-up processes; common lists of recommended standard applications and utilities; recommended amounts of memory and standard configurations, particularly of network devices. By developing standards you’ll take a lot of guess work out of trouble-shooting. You’ll know if something is incorrectly configured or if a rogue application is running. And by automating the set-up of new users, for example, you can ensure that they at least start out meeting the desired standards. You can even establish an automated process to audit the status of each device and report back when compliance is contravened. The benefit to your customers is fewer problems and faster time to problem resolution. Don’t set your standards so tightly that you can meet customers’ needs but do set their expectations during the sales process so that they know why you have standards and how they help you deliver better services.
  1. Policy management – beyond standards are policies. These are most likely concerned with the governance of IT usage. Policy covers areas such as access security, password refresh, allowable downloads, application usage, who can action updates etc. Ensuring that users comply with the policies required by your customers and implied by your standards is another way to reduce the number of trouble tickets that get generated. Downloading unauthorized applications or even unveted updates to authorized applications can expose systems to “bloatware”. At best this puts a drain on system resources and can impact productivity, storage capacity and performance. At worst, users may be inadvertently downloading malware, with all of its repercussions. Setting up proactive policy management can prevent the unwanted actions from the outset. Use policy management to continuously check compliance.
  1. Continuously review – even when you have completed the prior three steps there is still much more that can be done. Being proactive will have made a significant impact on the number of trouble tickets being generated. But they will never get to zero – the IT world is just far too complex. However, by reviewing the tickets you can discover further areas where automation may help. Are there particular applications that cause problems, particular configurations, particular user habits etc.? By continuously reviewing and adjusting your standards, policy management and automation scripts you will be able to further decrease the workload on your professional staff and more more easily be able to “bring the car (problem)” to the right specialist.

As Henry Ford knew, automation is a powerful tool that will help you to reduce the number of trouble tickets generated and, more importantly the number of staff needed to deal with them. By reducing the volume and narrowing the scope, together with the right management tools, you’ll be able to free up staff time to help improve drive new business, improve customer satisfaction and ultimately increase your sales. By 1914 – 6 years after he started – Henry had an estimated 48% of the US automobile market!

What tools are you using to manage your IT services?

Author: Ray Wright

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