Server Management Defined
So like any lazy blogger, I went over to Wikipedia to get a definition for “Server Management.” Guess what? There’s not one and that’s the problem. Not only are we missing a definition, there are no real server support standards in our industry.
Over the next few weeks, I will be providing some insights into our little niche market of Linux server support services.
I hope to provide some:
- Tips to help you find the right server management company.
- Insights into why pricing, services and support vary so dramatically between vendors.
- Establish some criteria by which you can evaluate if the server support company is right for you.
So What Is Server Management?
We recently completed a market survey of more than 100 server management companies that are self-identified as either a server management provider or managed service provider. We collected about 25 data points on each company and are still doing further research. One thing however already stands out:
There is no consistent, minimum set of services that constitute a server management service package.
So server management is whatever set of server support services a company sells under the banner of “server management”. That’s about it. There are no clear definitions, standards or recommendations. This creates a confusing, buyer beware market. While it is easy to compare hardware, comparing support services is very difficult. This can lead to costly mistakes in outsourcing server management.
Buyer Tip: All Server Management Programs are not the Same – check Your SLA.
Without clear standards, similarly named services management offerings mean very different things at different server management companies. As a result, the server support market is confusing with inconsistent service offerings, pricing and expertise offered by various server management companies. This makes it a challenge to buy the right server management services for your business.
Same Name, Different Service
For example, take the simple task of updating your server’s OS. We found 80% of companies offered support services that included OS updates.
Among the server management companies we surveyed, we found four basic approaches to managing OS updates:
- Automated, Monitored Updates: The provider uses a management tool to monitor and apply updates as needed.
- Automated but not Monitored: The company sets the system to automatically update but nobody proactively checks to see if it is working.
- Managed but not Automated: The company will provide the OS updates but you must ask them to do so.
- Self-Managed but Supported: You have to apply the updates yourself. If you have issues, they are there to help.
These are very different support services. At the top, you don’t have to worry about it. The company takes care it all. At the bottom, you manage the patched on your own but there’s some help if you need it.
From a business standpoint, the top and bottom make sense. In general, the higher-priced providers were delivering fully automated, monitored and verified updates. At the bottom, it is up to you. You pay more for more service. That makes sense.
Low Value, High Risk Services
The two middle options are the most confusing, and unfortunately, very common in our industry.
Managed updates that are not automated require you to ask someone to apply updates. What value is there in paying someone to manage your server if you have to ask them to do one of the most important tasks: update the OS? Do you really have time to stay on top of security patches and remind your provider to update your server for you? Probably not. Yet, we know support providers that operate this way. In fact, it is pretty common with companies offering budget-level management services.
A bothersome practice is automating updates without checking that they work. We see this problem over and over. Many server management companies simply turn on various auto-update settings without checking if the updates actually happen. This is risky. You and your server management provider think your system is up-to-date but it is not. This could be a significant security risk. With a refugee from another firm, we found the system had not been updated in nearly 3 years. Fortunately, this system had not been rooted by attackers. I cannot say others have been so lucky.
What’s the right OS update strategy?
The right OS update approach depends on your needs. In general, if you do not understand when, what or how to update a system, you need to be using a firm that both automates and monitors patches without your input.
If you are technical and can manage things on your own, then a budget firm that leaves things up to you but is there if you get stuck could save you some money.
The middle, which is where I find many service providers operate, delivers little value. There is too much risk for the added costs.
Speaking of costs, one thing we found in our survey is there is little correlation between the server update approach used and the costs. We need to verify this, but from some anecdotal accounts, we found many firms in the $100-$150 per month price range do not use a monitored, update approach. So be sure to ask.
At rackAID, we have automated OS updates and monitor to assure they are working. If they fail, our team is notified within the hour. Also, we design all of our services according to our SMART management philosophy which provides us with a broader context to design, build and test management approaches.
Note: The focus of this blog is server support companies serving the hosting industry and smaller companies (< 100 employees). The enterprise and SME providers do a great job of clearly defining their services, monitoring them, and delivering reports, but if you are used to $99 management plans, the sticker price may shock you.