Why MSPs and MSSPs must partner on security, not compete

Managed security service provider man in suit behind virtual icons

In a business world increasingly dominated by IT, the demand for managed services providers (MSPs) is showing no signs of slowing down. While many companies, large and small, seek the skills and support that MSPs offer, however, the role that MSPs need to play today is significantly changing.

The days of MSPs simply managing office devices and hardware are long gone. Innovations in enterprise computing and the rise of remote working are transforming business IT. While they are delivering major benefits for businesses, they are also creating new security risks and vulnerabilities.

For every business, security has risen to the top of the agenda, with data being the most important asset. Understandably, ambitious MSPs might be tempted to step up to the plate and offer security services on top of their existing services to maximise the new opportunity. After all, MSPs have been delivering some level of security for years.

The challenge that MSPs face, though, is that a bog-standard antivirus and firewall will not cut it. Businesses need insight on the latest malware threats and cybercriminals' malicious motives. They also need to be able to guarantee protection from a whole host of bad activity.

Does this mean MSPs should transition into managed security services providers (MSSPs)? Maybe, but doing so will mean delivering brand new services and hiring individuals with security experience - a significant cost for MSPs, both in time and money. For an average-sized MSP making this kind of investment simply isn't feasible.

Luckily, however, there is a viable alternative. MSPs don't need to become MSSPs themselves - but by partnering with them, MSSPs can instigate changes and help MSPs successfully deliver the security services their clients crave. This can be the perfect antidote to MSPs' problems, but only if approached the right way.

Striking up strong partnerships

Understandably, MSPs may have reservations about entering into partnerships with MSSPs. Competition in securing and retaining clients is difficult enough without having to share the spoils. It should be considered, however, that partnerships with MSSPs can help MSPs cover the gaps and weaknesses in their security portfolios and create new streams of revenue. Through partnerships, MSPs can strengthen and sell more of their own services while alleviating the pressures of trying to "do" security alone.

When embarking on partnerships, it's important that MSPs move away from the idea that MSSPs are competitors. While the two operate in the same space and serve the same kind of client base, they are fundamentally different beasts. MSPs often act as the chief information officer (CIO) for a company, responsible for managing devices, raising help desk requests, as well as managing, deploying, configuring, and patching devices. Essentially, an MSP is there to manage, or even be, the IT department.

An MSSP, on the other hand, is solely focused on security - working to keep the bad guys out and ensuring security programmes are in place. Ultimately, the MSSP doesn't want to take on the role of an MSP, and everything this entails. Therefore, MSPs shouldn't take the cynical view of partnerships as akin to 'sleeping with the enemy'. They should instead see these as opportunities to work with partners that exist outside of the battleground where MSPs so fiercely compete.

Another important step is selecting the right MSSP to partner with. There are many out there, and going through the process of selecting a prospective partner with can be difficult and time-consuming. A great place to start is for MSPs to think honestly about which security-related services they currently can't deliver. Is it the inability to monitor networks on a 24/7 basis? A lack of an endpoint management solution? Gaps in specialist crisis management knowledge? Once MSPs have an idea of what they want from an MSSP, finding the right one to partner with will be much easier. With a strategic approach and the correct attitude, MSPs can set things off on the right foot and forge the very strongest of MSSP partnerships.

Differentiating in an overcrowded playing field

It's evident that partnering with MSSPs can help MSPs deliver the security services clients need without having to break the bank. While this alone is enough justification for MSPs to consider entering MSSP partnerships, it's also worth noting that these partnerships can deliver great benefits to the overall business of both parties involved.

Establishing a competitive differentiator is particularly difficult for MSPs and MSSPs alike. Companies across the industry are quick to mirror each other's services and products in a bid to one-up each other. By embarking on partnerships, MSPs and MSSPs not only serve their own clients better, but they can differentiate their businesses by effectively delivering both sets of services.

MSPs and MSSPs have traditionally operated separately, but vast changes in business IT means the line dividing the two is blurring. This doesn't mean MSPs and MSSPs need to completely overhaul their businesses to the point where they're replicate each other. MSPs and MSSPs will always have specialist knowledge in the areas they have years of experience in, and this is why it makes so much sense for the two forces to come together and combine their expertise. Doing so will help both develop into the businesses their clients increasingly need.

Tim Brown is vice president for security with SolarWinds MSP