Meeting the Scalability Challenges of MSPs

MSPs must be able to scale their businesses and infrastructures up and down. This article discusses strategies for scaling managed services businesses.

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

January 16, 2018

4 Min Read
Challenges Ahead

Surviving in today’s managed services business requires the ability to scale. Scaling, however, is easier said than done. How can MSPs meet the challenges of scalability? This article explains.

In today’s IT world, scaling means changing the volume of services you provide, users you support or resources you consume. In other words, scalability is the ability to change the size of your operations easily.

When people talk about scaling, they’re often thinking about scaling up, or increasing volume. However, being able to scale down is crucial, too. If you can’t scale down, you’re at risk of wasting money by consuming more resources or services than you need at a given time.

Scalability and MSPs

It’s easy to see why the ability to scale is important for MSPs.

The number of customers that you support is likely to vary from month to month or year to year. In order to add customers without compromising your level of service, you need to scale up.

And if your customer base shrinks, you will probably need to decrease the size of your infrastructure and operations in order to avoid spending money on services that your business no longer needs.

Scalability Challenges for MSPs

Scaling your MSP business and the infrastructure that powers it can be challenging for several reasons:

  • Adding infrastructure or increasing the size of operations requires setup time. You may not have the time to scale quickly.

  • In some cases, MSPs face strict limitations on the size of their infrastructure. For example, if you rely on an on-premise server rack, you only have so many servers. Scaling beyond that number is difficult because of the setup time and acquisition cost of new servers.

  • Scaling requires not just changing the size of infrastructure, but also the size (and, sometimes, the nature) of management processes and teams. Those are challenging items to modify.

  • Predicting your future operations needs is difficult at best. You may gain or lose customers unexpectedly. Scaling seamlessly requires you to react instantly to these types of changes, which is hard to do.

How to Scale Effectively

These are real challenges, but there are ways to address them. If you’re struggling to scale your MSP business, consider the following strategies:

  • Automate, automate, automate. There are many reasons to automate everything in your business, and scalability is a big one. If processes such as infrastructure provisioning and application deployment are automated, it is much easier to increase the volume of your operations quickly.

  • Rely on tools, not people. To the extent possible, your business should be built around tools, rather than people. Tools can quickly be reconfigured or upgraded when you need to scale. Changing the work that people do, and the number of people who do it, is harder. Obviously, people will always be an important part of your business, and tools can’t replace them everywhere. But consider using tools (such as Infrastructure-as-Code platforms, or automated monitoring software) in order to perform tasks that are currently assigned to human beings.

  • Develop scalability “playbooks.” A playbook is a plan that defines how you’ll react to given circumstances. They can be used to develop paths for handling everything from security incidents to infrastructure failures to, yes, scalability needs. If you invest time before scalability pressures arise in developing a plan for how you’ll increase or decrease capacity, you’ll be better able to scale quickly when the time comes.

  • Adopt modular architectures. Software, infrastructure and business processes that are modular—that is, composed of multiple discrete pieces—are easier to scale. That’s because, in some cases, scaling requires you to modify one part of the system, but not other parts. If you have a monolithic system where all the parts of deeply entwined, scaling can be much more difficult.

  • Move to the cloud. By now, you’ve no doubt heard hundreds of reasons why you should move to the cloud. But if you still need convincing, think about scalability. In the cloud, you can increase or decrease resource consumption on demand. Plus—and this is the more novel argument in favor of cloud computing—modern cloud platforms provide innovative services, such as serverless computing, that offer new scalability opportunities.

In short, scalability is hard, but it’s essential in order to remain competitive in today’s managed services world. If you’re not scaling, you’re not efficient.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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