When IT Managed Service Providers are being outspent on automation, something’s not right. After all, MSPs have had a long track record of successfully leveraging automation tools to keep hundreds and thousands of endpoint devices humming along. As technology has evolved over the last decade, MSPs have found themselves losing visibility into the systems they’re supposed to manage and protect.

Manual documentation

Whenever automation doesn’t exist, IT professionals have been trained to fall back on manual processes to try and document as much information as possible. Engineers are tasked with writing up all change requests and copying and pasting configuration settings into Configuration Management Databases (CMDBs) or Excel spreadsheets. They create detailed workflows to address issues. This task is exponentially challenging, and often results in the need to hire highly skilled staff.

This leads to another issue MSPs struggle with (though it affects just about every company): the concentration of expertise in a few individuals. As staff come and go, so does critical knowledge and processes. The rapid adoption of MSP-centric documentation tools or wikis like IT Glue, Passportal, IT Boost, Confluence, SharePoint, indicate MSPs’ very real need to stem the tide against this issue. Along with checklists, spreadsheets, and internal PSA knowledge bases, these types of fluid, user-generated information tools are part of  human-intelligence based documentation. This loosely structured documentation takes the form of guides and procedures, runbooks, and playbooks to provide shared knowledge throughout all MSP team members.

IT system documentation

Complementing human-intelligence documentation is IT systems documentation, which has evolved from a complex and cumbersome process, to streamlined. CMDBs have traditionally provided the structure to capture this documentation. However, MSPs need a better way to manage at scale, and the advent of remote monitoring and management (RMM) platforms make it possible to rapidly automate visibility and capture data across hundreds and thousands of endpoints. With a handful of staff members and custom scripts, engineers no longer have to remotely log in to systems to monitor health and perform routines. This enables MSPs to gain enormous profitability and scale like never before.

Yet, even with the CMDBs, RMMs, and all the best intentions, the growth of technology is leaving MSPs scrambling to keep up with system documentation. The stack has gone far beyond just the endpoint and some reliable on-prem apps. From cloud services to cloud infrastructure and hyper-complex network devices – these systems can be invisible, leaving the MSP blind. It’s not possible to install an agent on a network device or on third-party services such as Backup and AV providers. Also, there’s no such thing as an agent for cloud-based Software-as-a-Service or cloud infrastructure like AWS and Azure.

As a result, MSPs are forced to hire or train engineers to manually manage the modern IT systems. This goes against the need to for shared knowledge and expertise. Even if the system configurations are documented regularly, it’s a costly and time intensive process.

The fact is, today’s MSPs lack the tools to truly manage beyond the endpoint. MSPs again are forced to log into the respective remote systems to manually pull the answers they need and store them in unstructured wikis that were meant for human-intelligence documentation. Often, anything that was written in them is either shallow and up-to-date, or deep and stale.

The benefits of automation

Surely there must be a better way? Let’s look at how automation can help address the system documentation problem.

Automation continuously and reliably captures the data that’s needed. As discussed, collecting anything manually, writing reports and reconciling services rendered, costs, and margins is time-consuming and expensive: There’s a reason why we’re all too familiar with the monthly reports that take a month to put together.

Eliminate the “shoulder tap.” Every MSP team member relies on system documentation, not just engineers. Account managers and vCIOs rely on policies, access lists, and user and device counts. Billing and Operations need to know licenses and expiration dates for reconciliation. Where do they go today? They ask highly paid engineers to log in and manually pull reports.

The clean hand-off of knowledge. Along each step of the customer journey automation can help source and update system documentation. From sales recon of public data to onboarding, the service desk and NOC to the CEO, automation develops a clear line of sight of accurate and detailed data. This means each team member knows they’re looking at the black and white facts, rather than landmines of manual errors, misinterpretation, and stale .

As you can see, the use of manual documentation is no longer as practical as it once was for MSPs. As technology has continued to develop, MSPs need for automation has grown. While automation comes with its own set of challenges, it has clearly emerged as the path forward for IT service providers.

Photo: Alexander Supertramp / Shutterstock

Vincent Tran

Posted by Vincent Tran

Vincent Tran, CISSP is COO at Liongard, an automation platform which enables MSPs with visibility beyond the endpoint and into critical on-premises apps, the network stack, and cloud services.

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