Architecting your MSP Infrastructure

“Architecture” is a big word that scares some people. It sounds complicated and a little mysterious. Most people aren’t sure how a building architect differs from a draftsman – after all, they both draw plans. In the IT world, what’s the difference between a software architect and a plain old programmer? Is it just a fancy title that lets someone charge more for performing the same work? We know architects generally have more education than their lower-paid, less prestigious co-workers, but exactly what areas does that extra training cover?

The word comes from Latin and Greek roots that mean “builder” but it has evolved to describe the designing of complex systems of all kinds. Architecture generally encompasses both design and engineering, so when you architect an infrastructure for your MSP network, it involves a plan that takes into consideration functionality, reliability, usability, security and even environmental impact and psychological factors (such as clients’ preferences for a particular operating system environment or security solution).

Too many of today’s networks “just grew that way.” As a business grows, a hodge-podge of parts and pieces are added in a haphazard manner, with little thought to the “big picture” or the future. Architecture is all about planning, and putting the plan down on paper – where it can be analyzed and modified – before you start building. A well-architected network is designed to meet the needs of your business today and to accommodate an increased or different workload that might evolve over the next years.

Elements of infrastructure design

If you’re lucky enough to be designing a brand new (or replacement) infrastructure, it’s much easier to incorporate best design practices, just as it’s easier to build a new home or office building that’s ergonomically comfortable, energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing and won’t fall down than it is to correct the flaws in an older structure to make it fit those same criteria. However, many companies choose to build on top of their existing infrastructure rather than “tear it all down” for the same reasons owners repair and remodel old buildings. It may be less expensive (or at least appear on the surface to be less expensive) and it can be done with less disruption.

Whether you’re designing the infrastructure from scratch or redesigning an existing one, the goal is the same: to build a network that provides functionality for those who manage it, usability for end-users, security for sensitive data, maximum uptime for everyone and complies with any special requirements that are necessitated by government or industry regulations, customer preferences, owner/top management preferences, and projected future needs. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • The transmission media for your internal network. Wired, wireless or a combination of both? Plan ahead: use cabling that supports not only the transfer rates you need now but those you’ll need in ten years or more. Should you stick with Ethernet or go with fiber? Invest in wireless access points and routers that support the fastest available wi-fi technology even if most of your system’s wireless network adapters don’t, yet.
  • Internet connectivity. As a managed service provider, your business is completely dependent on a highly reliable, high speed Internet connection with a rock solidSLA, and you must build in redundancy so you can continue business as usual if a connection goes down.
  • Servers. The foundation of the managed services that you provide is comprised of the servers on which the software for those services run. They must have the system resources necessary to support a multi-tenant environment with an acceptable performance level. Modern virtualization technology reduces the number of physical servers required, but don’t skimp on quality or expandability.
  • Data storage. The amount and nature of your data storage solution(s) is dependent on the type(s) of managed services you provide. Obviously managed storage service providers will need large amounts of storage space (typically measured in petabytes) and should be able to offer tiered storage, managed SAN and NAS for high scalability, etc. Customer data must be protected from loss or co-mingling with the data of other customers.
  • Backup. Software and equipment for automated, regular backups are essential to the MSP infrastructure. This should include offsite backup to protect your customers in case of a natural disaster or other site-wide failure at your location.
  • Security. Security is still a number one sticking point in selling the idea of managed services to customers. In architecting your infrastructure, security can’t be an afterthought; it must be built into every element of the design of your network.

The bottom line: customers come to you to provide their managed services because (they believe) you have a more reliable, more (or at least as) secure, and more efficient infrastructure than theirs, allowing you to offer services more cost effectively and with less “hassle factor” to them than if they ran those services in-house. To live up to their expectations, you must plan carefully and implement wisely.

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