Written by Dennis Walsh Monday, 31 July 2006 19:00
The term Managed Services is one of the latest catch phrases and covers a wide range of products and services. I define Managed Services as a program that takes a proactive approach to managing and monitoring a computer network. The program can include network monitoring, antivirus and spyware management, security management, spam filtering, proactive maintenance, an alert system, data backup monitoring, patch management, reporting, and other services.
If you were going to design a Managed Services program for your house, what would it include? The list may include a security system, a monitor for the cooling and heating systems, a program that would throw out all of your junk mail, a system to monitor all of your appliances, a monitor for the plumbing and electrical, a sensor for water in the basement and one for roof leaks, a mother-in-law detector, and a maintenance service that cleans, paints, and fixes all those nuisance items on your to-do list.
Illustration by Nathan Zak
Think of how much time, energy, and money a system like this would save you over the course of a year. Now apply this thought process to your computer network. How much time is wasted due to system problems, little annoyances that keep your employees from performing a task, network downtime, and all of those other computer problems? How often do your users get a notice that their antivirus program expired or found a virus and they just click "Remind Me in 14 Days" and go about their day? Who is checking your backup? Who is updating your systems and responding to error messages that, if addressed right away, will keep you from major problems later on?
Managed Services is much more than network monitoring. Sure, it is good to have a network monitoring system in place, but that is the equivalent of having a warning light in a car. When the light goes off, you know you have a problem, but you don't really know what the problem is. It could be nothing to worry about, or it could be something that is going to cost a lot of money to fix. What if there were a more sophisticated system in your car that told you exactly what was going wrong and could page a mechanic with the details of the problem? The mechanic could then connect remotely to address the issue or could drive out to your exact location with the right tools and parts to fix the problem.
Network monitoring is a 24/7 big brother watching your network. You can have it set up to monitor your server, your server and desktops, or everything on the network. Would you sleep better knowing that your backup is monitored, and when there is a problem, a technician is paged who can connect in to see what's going wrong? The system can also monitor your desktops to make sure they are running OK and will notify your techs of any issues that occur. How many times have you found out about a computer issue a week or so after it started? Are your front desk people just clicking "OK" to an error message every morning when they turn on their computers? Although these are not emergencies, most of these errors would trigger warnings that your tech can address.
Antivirus software and adware/spyware monitoring and removal software can be used to stop or remove pests from your computers. But, they are only as good as their last update. Most of these programs are purchased on a subscription basis, which means you can download updates for a specific amount of time, usually for one year. Also, to be effective the software needs to be running in the background, scanning files as they are accessed or saved. Do you know for sure if the antivirus software on your server and all of your PCs is running correctly and is being updated at least daily? Are you really going to check it daily or even weekly to make sure? Are you going to rely on your staff to tell you when there is a problem? What is the procedure you have established with your staff members when they get a message that a virus has been detected?
WHAT A MANAGED SERVICES PROGRAM DOES
A Managed Services program could take care of all the above tasks and more. The system would monitor the antivirus software on each PC to make sure it is running correctly and being updated at least daily, and it can trigger notices if a virus is found. It can also monitor any scheduled scans to ensure they run as scheduled and that the systems are virus free. It may also be able to tell you if a staff member is disabling the antivirus software because it is keeping him or her from playing a favorite game during lunch (or at 10:15 AM when everyone else is busy seeing patients).
Patch management is just a fancy way of saying that the Managed Services program installs the latest patches released by Microsoft. Microsoft releases patches to its programs once a month on the second Tuesday of the month. Most of the time these patches fix bugs or an obscure security issue. But there are months when a lot of patches (sometimes more than 10 different downloads) are re-leased, and some of them address serious security holes. These security holes can be used by hackers and slackers to cause problems with your server, PCs, e-mail, and even Internet connection.
One downside to patches is that they can make big changes to your operating system (Windows XP, Win-dows 2000, etc) that can cause other problems. You could have 10 PCs on your network that were purchased at the same time and have all the same software and configurations. When you install the latest patches, 9 of the PCs may not have any problems, but the 10th PC won't boot, and of course this is the PC that is attached to your panoramic x-ray machine. To be more realistic, most offices do not install the patches all at once; they are installed when you get the chance or when a user gets tired of seeing the message, "Updates have been downloaded and are ready to be installed on your computer." So the user clicks on the balloon and installs the patches. How would you know that this was the cause of the system not booting? Would your staff members tell you that they installed the patches, or would they tell you they weren't doing anything when the system crashed?
A Managed Services program can also mean fewer technician visits. Your techs will know what most of the issues are before you call, and they can address them re-motely when possible. This can also create the impression that you pay them a monthly fee, but that they don't do anything. You should get monthly or quarterly reports that include information on the issues or problems that arose and what was done to correct them. Also, if you have signed up for a proactive program, you may see the techs in your office going through the systems performing a checklist of tasks. The amount of time they spend doing this checklist can vary month to month based on the number of issues they need to address.
BENEFITS OF MANAGED SERVICES
The benefits of your Managed Services program should be judged based on the gains in productivity because you have less computer downtime, your staff is not suffering in silence with annoying issues, and you are not spending part of your day trying to fix issues or working on the computers. What are you going to do with all that free time? What are you going to worry about now that you have given the responsibility of managing your network to someone else?
I will assume that you have a front desk staff because you don't have time personally to greet patients, collect payments, process insurance claims, pull charts, and book appointments. (I know that front desk staff members do a lot more than this, but I couldn't fit all of their responsibilities in one article). You probably don't spend your time watching them perform every task or let them go without policies and procedures in place. You are hopefully reviewing daily or weekly reports to make sure things are getting done and correcting problems as they arise. Do you see your patients after the hygienist is finished? You don't perform the cleaning, but you do check to make sure everything is done correctly and to look at any issues the hygienist may have found. A Managed Services program is one more responsibility (or headache) that you can delegate to someone else so you can spend more time working on your practice.
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