Email and collaboration options for MSPs

Cloud is a broad brush term that covers several different approaches to delivering IT services and there is currently a lot of discussion looking at the role of managed service providers (MSPs) in relation to delivering this type of offering to business customers. MSPs could be pivotal to the long term adoption of such business IT solutions since most are acquired from channel organisations rather than directly from a Web site.

Cloud based Email along with its associated functionality of diary management, task lists, contacts etc., is already proving to be a buoyant early market for Cloud services. But this raises the question of which types of solution 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: – sell a pre-packaged solution provided by a software vendor or build your own, perhaps utilising open source components. As with all things in life, there are pros and cons with each approach.

One easy, and highly visible, option for MSPs is to simply resell a product produced by a major software vendor. Becoming a broker for a widely marketed cloud solution certainly eases, if not completely removes, the task of building awareness of the offering. But solutions that are hosted by the vendor themselves may leave some MSPs questioning whether operating as a broker for such offerings allows them the right level of technical and commercial control.

The advantages are simple – the vendor carries out all development of the solution and also functions as the ultimate source of customer generated support issues thereby relieving the MSP of significant workloads and risk around the development and testing. And for solutions which are also hosted by the vendor, there is clearly little requirement for the MSP to invest in the physical infrastructure on which the applications run, thereby reducing elements of capital investment.

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, levels of service quality and speed of solution support will all be subject to the specifications of the software vendor. Beyond this, the space available for the MSP to add value to a solution or to tailor things to suit their customer base may also be limited.

The attractiveness of this approach will vary for each MSP but the precise nature of the revenue model used will greatly influence whether MSPs decide to offer such intermediate broker solutions, as will who ultimately gets to bill and ‘own’ the customer relationship.

The alternative is to take the ‘DIY’ approach whereby the MSP takes the option of creating their own email platform, perhaps based on scalable open source technology in the same spirit as SPs have broadly adopted the LAMP stack for generic hosting.

The advantages in taking such an approach are reasonably clear and centre on the high level of control the MSP has over the precise details of the solution in terms of its functionality as well as being able to specify exactly 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. It can also allow the MSP much greater flexibility on the pricing models it offers to users, albeit within the constraints of a free market. Another important factor is that this methodology ensures that the MSP is the clear owner of the customer as well as the source of most support and contact.

The limiting factors centre around the requirement to develop and test all aspects of the solution as well as taking on primary customer support, something that the vast majority of organisations consider essential for mainstream business solutions. This requires the MSP to ensure they have all the extended skills required to build and service the solutions they assemble, which may require them to put in place their own back-end support contracts with specialist service companies.

But MSPs do not have to make a binary choice here between hosting and brokering email solutions as there is little to prevent them offering solutions utilising both approaches, customised to suit different customer segments in turn. For email and its surrounding collaboration functionality this is an option that is not always widely appreciated.

Indeed, few people take time to consider that email is not ‘just email’ but rather comes in many varieties from the very sophisticated full function mail, calendar, notes, tasks etc. down to the most basic web access email message system. Each functionality package will suit different types of user, but at a time when organisations are seeking to optimise their IT spend and are seeking to keep things as simple as possible the tenet of one size fits all for email or groupware may be reaching a crossroads.

MSPs, like their customers in turn, have choices to make. Which each selects will depend on their targeted customer base, skills capabilities and the availability / pricing models of the email and collaboration solutions they could take to market.


Tony is an IT operations guru. As an ex-IT manager with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, his extensive vendor briefing agenda makes him one of the most well informed analysts in the industry, particularly on the diversity of solutions and approaches available to tackle key operational requirements. If you are a vendor talking about a new offering, be very careful about describing it to Tony as ‘unique’, because if it isn’t, he’ll probably know.