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MSP Software and Business Automation: Artificial Intelligence Required?

MSPs are racing to automate their businesses for higher staff productivity and frothier profit margins. The automation effort typically involves product integrations, software scripting and other moves that make MSP service desks and operations more productive.

Still, the MSP automation recipe is missing at least one major ingredient -- namely, artificial intelligence. Every corner of the software market is racing toward the AI promised land. Yet the MSP software industry, generally speaking, appears late to the game.

I don't want to paint AI as a cure-all for manual processes and human decision making. In recent months, we've seen some of the world's largest companies stumble with AI -- often with tragic consequences. The startling setbacks include:

Those are heavy, dramatic examples of AI missing the mark. But keep in mind: AI systems, bots, sensors and big data platforms make billions of automated decisions that ultimately help us every day. And AI for MSPs will influence profits, productivity, customer retention and satisfaction --  rather than life-and-death outcomes.

Artificial Intelligence: Business and Technology Adoption

AI as a whole is making progress. Among the anecdotes to note:

  • More than 70 percent of U.S. businesses plan to use more AI and machine learning in 2019, according to recent Webroot research.
  • NVIDIA and Amazon Web Services are partnering to help customers deploy AI and deeper learning across millions of connected devices. (Keep an eye on NVIDIA Jetson.)
  • Facebook Messenger had 300,000 bots as of May 2018.
  • Salesforce is betting heavily on an AI technology called Einstein. Customer support agents could get a big boost thanks to AI-driven call routing decisions and more.
  • The AI story extends into small business, where FrontdeskAI just raised $2 million in seed funding for its AI assistant technology.

Artificial Intelligence and MSP Software: Late Start?

Despite all of that anecdotal AI progress, the MSP software market is largely stuck in old habits.

Perhaps part of the challenge involves private equity. To their credit, private equity firms have been acquiring and then expanding MSP software companies. The PE buyout list in recent years has included Autotask, ConnectWise, Continuum (twice), Datto, Kaseya and SolarWinds, among many others.

Amid that PE activity, the MSP industry still preaches about software platforms and product integrations across PSA (professional services automation), RMM (remote monitoring and management), BDR (backup and disaster recovery), security and network operations center (SOC and NOC) systems.

Those are important pieces in the automation puzzle. But generally speaking, I haven't seen MSP software vendors stake out a leadership position in the AI journey.

I suspect that's about to change. Why? PE firms now have their basic MSP software building blocks in place. Through organic R&D and additional buyouts, they're now looking to snap AI components into their portfolios, ChannelE2E believes.

Artificial Intelligence and MSP Software: Signs of Progress

For many MSPs, early AI adoption started in the security market -- where platforms like Cylance (now owned by BlackBerry) and Webroot (which Carbonite is acquiring) have taken hold.

Webroot was a first-mover in the MSP security market, and an early mover in the AI market. Cylance is a more recent partner to MSPs, and has one of the world's strongest reputations for AI technology.

Poke around the broader cybersecurity market, and you'll find that the vast majority of companies now tout at least some form of AI. And many of those players are getting cozy with MSPs and MSSPs.

Artificial Intelligence and MSP Software: Platform Developments

For this portion of the blog, I'll shift my focus to the major MSP software platform providers -- the companies that offer some form of business management (i.e., PSA) or remote monitoring (RMM) capabilities. I've sorted the companies alphabetically.

1. Barracuda MSP: Best know for its security portfolio, Barracuda has been pushing hard into MSP-centric partner solutions. The first move involved acquiring Intronis for backup and disaster recovery in 2015. But this wasn't a one-acquisition move. Barracuda CEO BJ Jenkins and the board of directors were quietly plotting an entire channel shift toward MSP partners. More recently, the company has acquired Managed Workplace, a niche RMM platform, from Avast. For clues about the AI strategy, check out Barracuda Sentinel -- an AI-driven cybersecurity platform that protects Office 365 users from spear phishing and account takeover attacks.

2. ConnectWise: The company has been very, very quiet about AI and machine learning. No doubt, new owner Thoma Bravo and new ConnectWise CEO Jason Magee have AI on the white board. Perhaps we'll gain some clues during the IT Nation 2019 conferences in Europe, Australia or Orlando...

3. Continuum: The MSP-centric platform provider is ideally positioned to leverage AI. The company's NOC (network operations center) is tied to RMM (remote monitoring and management) software that extends across thousands of MSPs, and tens of thousands of small businesses. That integrated system has collected SMB and MSP data for roughly a decade. Imagine injecting all that data into an AI system. That could be quite powerful. Now, imagine viewing the resulting business intelligence in Continuum's recently acquired BrightGauge platform. That could be a heck of a strategy -- a true game-changer for MSPs, if such a strategy exists...

4. Datto: The company hasn't said much about its AI or machine learning strategy. But stay tuned. There could be surprises involving Datto RMM on the horizon. During ConnectWise IT Nation 2018 in November, Datto VP of Business Development Rob Rae hinted that the company's cloud-based RMM platform is well positioned for AI and machine learning developments. We're speaking with the RMM team in the days ahead and will seek some more clues about Datto's AI direction. Moreover, the company is in the process of naming a new CTO. We're curious to know if that executive will have AI experience.

5. Kaseya: The company's Traverse platform for network performance management has some machine learning capabilities. There are clues that the Kaseya One platform will leverage AI. Plus, the company's BackupIQ claims to be the the industry’s only artificial intelligence backup assistant. But so far, the company has yet to announce an overarching AI or machine learning strategy that will potentially change the game for MSPs. Perhaps that will change during the Kaseya Connect 2019 conference in May...

6. SolarWinds MSP: The company's LogicNow buyout of 2016 included some machine learning capabilities known as LogicCards. And if you poke around SolarWinds' IT professional product line, you'll find a growing number of AI- or machine-learning driven products that will extend to the MSP industry. Finally, keep an eye on SolarWinds Threat Monitor -- which packs considerable automation for threat detection, response, and reporting.

What's Next?

Long term, AI should disappear -- essentially becoming a ubiquitous service that you use without thinking about it. Near term, AI for MSPs will continue to extend from cybersecurity software toward RMM offerings and service desks. Keep an eye on ServiceNow's AI progress up in the enterprise. It's a safe bet we'll see parallel, MSP-centric trends in the midmarket and SMB sectors.

Joe Panettieri

Joe Panettieri is co-founder & editorial director of MSSP Alert and ChannelE2E, the two leading news & analysis sites for managed service providers in the cybersecurity market.