As I reflect on where Straight Path Solutions has gone and what we’ve become – one thing has become clear. We’re a Managed Services Practice in large part. It’s a highly specialized and niche MSP, but the service delivery model we have is really modeled after MSP practices. We have a growing Professional Services “division” also and all of our MSP clients get professional services, too.
That gets me thinking about broader MSPs that manage servers, printers, logins, domains, switches, even some applications. A few of our clients are MSPs that realized they needed SQL Server consulting expertise and didn’t like the concept of building that specialized practice inside of their organization. Before I lept into Straight Path, I helped start up a SQL Server practice at an MSP but it was harder; The goals for the broader MSP are different than SQL, and the delivery model perhaps a little too generic for a beast that really isn’t “set-it-and-forget-it.”
My pondering of late as we go deeper with a couple of IT MSP services firms is “Should an MSP build a SQL Server practice or “Buy” One?” Let’s explore those thoughts. We’ll start with a few definitions.
What is an MSP?
Or, at least, what do I mean by Managed Service Provider here? Some of the details differ among MSPs, but when I say MSP here, I’m thinking of a firm that is charging some fee – usually per device or login per month on an annual contract. They have a service desk, they usually follow ITIL practices, and they manage much of or an entire technology stack for their clients. The clients of MSPs span industries and sizes. The concept here is to pay for the help you need when you need it, and turn much of the IT services into operating expenses instead of having a full team spun up for the “just in case”.
It’s a smart model. Some MSP customers may have a smaller IT team, some may not. Some have their own CIO, some utilize an MSP’s “Virtual CIO” services. They can help get folks into the cloud, help keep best practices in play and make sure that their clients are able to focus on their business without worrying about IT. We actually use an MSP here at Straight Path to manage our O365 tenant and help set up new laptops, provide security training, and phishing tests. Sure, we could do all of that – but why do it? It’s not our core – SQL Server and the Microsoft Data Platform in the cloud and on-prem are. It’s nice to just know that that is taken care of. Good MSPs provide regular touchpoints, proactively reach out and let you know how your servers are, and help you plan for the roadblocks coming up.
What is a SQL Server Consulting Firm?
Really simply – it should be SQL Server experts who have been there and done that and already learned “the hard way”. We come in and quickly diagnose the health of a SQL Server environment, identify the needs, and then help implement the needs in the right order.
Why Should an MSP Care about SQL Server?
Simply put, “It’s yours” (at least in the eyes of your clients). It’s yours! If you are in an all-in service contract with a client, that includes their SQL Servers, not just their domain controllers. And a lot of firms treat them more or less like just another Windows server. As a career-long database administrator and SQL Server consultant for the past 10 years, that makes me cringe. Sure these SQL Servers are hosted on windows servers (well, can be Linux now too) and those windows servers need the normal MSP touch. But there are many defaults that are bad when you click next a few times and install SQL Server. There are critical maintenance items that need to be set up the right way and if not – could spell certain data loss. Not just from a user pressing a bad button, but corruption because of a power cycle, or a hiccup on the VM hosts or SAN switch.
We’ve been called in when the “OH CRAP!” button was pressed and there just wasn’t anything we could do because no one set those best practices up. We’ve been called in and invoiced amounts that would exceed our annual services for an MSP customer for a few years because these things weren’t down. It’s further complicated with many vendor applications because the software vendors sometimes give the impression that ownership of the databases is sort of a “shared thing” – some will tell you they’ve set up jobs to handle maintenance – and maybe they have. Maybe the jobs are the right jobs and just getting skipped or missed without someone noticing. Or maybe the jobs the vendors set up are actually just downright wrong and dangerous. I won’t name names but we’ve seen this a couple of times in accounting packages and in commonly used EMR systems in health practices.
An MSP needs to care about SQL Server. And they need to realize that this may be a special skill, think like VMWare administration or SAN administration – but potentially with more experience-taught wisdom requried. Sooner or later, every MSP realizes why they should have bought or built a SQL Server consulting arm.
Build or “Buy” ?
That’s a tough one! And clearly, we’re a SQL Server consultancy with a thriving remote SQL Server DBA service practice and we number MSPs and their clients among our customers. I’m biased. Do your own research. Past results don’t predict future performance, all that stuff.
MSPs usually have:
- Fully functioning helpdesks
- Excellent onboarding practices
- Great system/VM/Cloud/Storage administrators
- Great PSA systems to track their clients and their assets
- Smart, resourceful people who are pretty good at figuring things out that aren’t in their specific job description
- Really amazing cultures (At least the ones we interface with – they often seem to be run by servant leaders, who care about their teams and invest in their teams)
But they often lack a SQL Server expert. Let’s face it. We’re expensive and if there isn’t a true database services practice in place, it’s a daunting practice to build up and grow. Well-meaning people with excellent google skills, smart tech brains, and time to learn and apply best practices can do a pretty good job. It’s harder to scale that, though. And there’s a difference between learning something fresh and the experience that comes from being a SQL Server DBA or consultant for a couple of decades. I’ve now lost track of the number of times someone has “added all available storage” to a cluster when adding a node to an AG – and “inexplicably” brought an availability group down in the process.
SQL Server Consultancies bring that expertise, perhaps a little less maturity in the woes of picking the right PSA and maybe have a hybridized ITIL-like approach. They have ticketing systems and a “desk” that watches tickets and alerts but perhaps not always a 24/7 team in a NOC (though the bigger they get, the more likely they are to have that – it’s part of an evolution), instead often having an on-call rotation.
Building a SQL Server Practice
I think you need to have at least two SQL Server experts, if for no other reason than one can go on vacation sometime. In addition, you should have a specialized support team that is geared towards DBA work. They are on a track to become DBAs and are mentored by your team of Senior DBAs. Absolutely those couple of DBAs you hire and the support team you hire or specialize should train the rest of the desk in your NOC to handle the “Tier 1” issues, and maybe someday the Tier 2 issues. Now your expensive Senior DBAs can work on mentoring the rest of the team, and doing the designing, architecting, and planning.
You’ll also need a few deliverables. At the very least you need to have a robust and reliable SQL Server health check offering that doesn’t just say “this is bad, this is bad, this is okay.” You need to be able to deliver a customized report with a prioritized action plan to your client so they know what you need to do and when they need to do it. You also need to be able to explain what happens if they don’t.
A lot of what we do is fighting dragons that no one will ever see if we do our job right. You need to explain the woes of database corruption in such a way that a client understands why you need a “Corruption Resistant backup strategy” and why you need to be able to perform that regular consistency check. You also need SQL Server-specific monitoring out of your RMM tools – possibly rolling some custom alerts that get to the heart of SQL Server issues hiding under the surface. I am a fan of our Daily Health Check also – this is a really important report that quickly shows our clients our value and the health of all of their SQL Servers under our watch – you don’t need that but it truly helps explain your value and let your customer see a SQL Server move from red to green because of your efforts. It also reminds them of what they need to do for their part of moving from red to green.
It’s a fulfilling and rewarding practice. But it can be expensive to start up. And if it’s not already a core competency on your team, it requires more trust with less verify ability.
I think very large MSPs with sufficient cash flow should absolutely consider building up a SQL Server consulting practice in their portfolio of offerings. Your clients will thank you, and you’ll differentiate
Buying a SQL Server Consulting Practice
It’s really not “buying,” it’s partnering (at least when we’ve done it). What if you were the best at what you do, and your clients love you, and you could marry up to a SQL Server consultancy with a lot of satisfied clients, experts who get what’s needed to keep your clients’ SQL Servers out of the mud – and you could attach in the things you already do really well, like your onboarding, your contracting, your NOC and helpdesk? What if you could partner with a firm that can teach your techs to handle those Tier 1/Tier 2 issues in-house, saving you some billing while increasing your institutional knowledge?
That’s what partnering with an established firm in the SQL Server space to deliver true all-in services could look like. As we work with details and mature our processes – this model seems to scale well. And it keeps the teams “in their lanes” – your team really owning the all-in services, with us stapled in as the SQL Server team. Our monitoring and daily checks, but your desk perhaps triaging all tickets and only escalating when necessary – probably more up front but through the mentoring and training, that should be less over time.
There are some hurdles to overcome: integrating the teams, making sure that your helpdesk can talk to the DBA firm’s ticketing system (and all of the PSAs are different – I’ve come to realize there is no perfect PSA tool), making sure your clients see the value of an additional charge when they perhaps thought they were already “all-in” with you. These are all hills that can be climbed and I think the end result can be a really well-oiled machine that helps make sure the right experts are looking at the right systems and everyone wins because client Net Promotor Scores stay high, disasters are averted, and your DBA firm will want to make sure your clients are upgrading and keeping current to meet the demands that a mission-critical SQL Server workload has to meet.
Whether you partner with us, partner with another great SQL Server consultancy, or build your own (if you are running an MSP and are kind of watching your client’s SQL Server environments) you really ought to make that investment today. Whether it’s digesting some of the great training available, hiring a couple of rockstars and building a team, or partnering with someone like us – those SQL Servers are less set-it-and-forget-it than the easy installation and lack of complaints (until now) may indicate.