Channel partner events, MSP

Open APIs vs Open MSP Conferences

On the eve of next week's IT Nation 2015 conference, chatter about two key topics has started to filled my inbox. The first is Open APIs (application programming interfaces) that ensure software product integrations. The second is Open Conferences -- the ability for any vendor to attend any other vendor's conference. I will always defend and advocate Open APIs, but I can't always defend and advocate Open Conferences for all to attend. Here's why.

First, some background. IT Nation is hosted by ConnectWise. Generally speaking, it's the largest gathering of channel partners focused on managed services and recurring revenues. During the early years of the event, IT Nation was essentially open to just about any IT vendor to sponsor. (Technically, I'm not sure ConnectWise's PSA rivals could have shown up as sponsors...)

One Big, Growing Nation

The early IT Nation conferences were filled with rival RMM (remote monitoring and management) platforms that plugged into ConnectWise. Names like Kaseya, Level Platforms (later acquired by AVG Technologies) and N-able Technologies (now owned by SolarWinds) had a strong presence at the show.

Then came the awkward years. ConnectWise Capital invested in LabTech Software, a fledging RMM provider, in 2010. Then ConnectWise invested in Quosal, a sales quoting and proposal tool. Yet IT Nation remained open to rival RMM players as sponsors. Rival sales quoting tools like Quotewerks also could sponsor, I believe.

Fast forward to this year, and the list of IT Nation 2015 Sponsors has evolved dramatically into many new and emerging markets. The overall MSP software ecosystem is healthy. Yet... several of the RMM players will be absent from this year's event. As will some other players that compete with ConnectWise's growing software portfolio (ConnectWise, LabTech, Quosal, ScreenConnect, etc.).

Some MSPs are wondering:

  • Were some of ConnectWise's rivals barred from sponsoring IT Nation 2015? I believe so.
  • Did I bother asking ConnectWise for comment? Nope.
  • Why? Because ConnectWise owns the conference. It's essentially a private customer gathering.

If I ran a media event, I wouldn't invite media rivals to hang out at my conference. And the same is true across the software market, where VMware has blocked Microsoft from some conference activities, and Microsoft has blocked Google and Amazon from conferences, and the list goes on. Face it folks: That's life the competitive software world.

On to Open APIs

Meanwhile, a different discussion is brewing about Open APIs (application programming interfaces). Since the dawn of system software, Open APIs have been critical for a range of processes -- everything from writing applications for operating systems, to writing integrations between applications.

MSPs are especially dependent on Open APIs as they link different business automation, monitoring and cloud systems together -- things like PSA, RMM, BDR (backup and disaster recovery), email security and more.

When ConnectWise Capital invested in LabTech in 2010, ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini vowed to keep his company's API platforms open. Even as ConnectWise and LabTech integrated their software, rival RMM players would continue to have equal opportunity to integrate with ConnectWise, Bellini vowed.

Generally speaking, API integrations between most of the MSP software players have remained in place -- even as various platforms move to rapid software upgrades on a quarterly and even monthly basis.

Did You See That?

Still, API-driven connections can break. And conspiracy theories can rise. In the early 1990s, the book Undocumented Windows became a best-seller by revealing "hidden" Windows API functions.

Based on the book, some rivals believed Microsoft was hiding certain APIs to gain a competitive market advantage, or perhaps even breaking API connections on purpose to disable third-party Windows applications that competed with Microsoft's own applications.

And that brings me back to the current state of Open APIs for MSPs, VARs and channel partners... and the arrival of IT Nation 2015.

He Said, She Said

Again, the overall state of industry APIs -- and vendor integrations -- sounds reasonably good to me. But I have heard some scattered complaints from a handful of MSPs -- alleging that some integrations aren't working as promised. And in some cases, finger pointing between vendors has surfaced... "It's their fault, not ours."

Those same MSPs worry that the integrations will become worse -- not better -- as numerous software vendors begin to block each other from their respective conferences. Again, I'm not pointing at ConnectWise. It's common practice for vendors to carefully consider who can -- and who can't -- sponsor their customer events.

If I was an MSP, I'd stop focusing on which vendors attend which conferences. Instead, I'd just stick with your Open API demands.

Open APIs: Three Critical Requests

So where do we go from here? First, MSPs must demand the following three items from their software vendors:

  1. Open APIs must be well documented, well defined and stable.
  2. Processes to gain access to Open APIs must be clear and widely available online.
  3. Open APIs should make it easy to track usage and user data.

Awesome list, right? Instead of thanking me be sure to thank  Michael Moszczynski and Jacob Korenblum, authors of the fantastic article "Why Open APIs Matter: Tech Partnerships Power Development." Those three API requirements are from their article.

Next, MSPs should assume "best intentions" -- rather than a vendor conspiracy -- when APIs break. That's right: Sometimes API connections between rival vendors actually break without any hidden, nefarious vendor activity behind the curtains.

If you have an integration that fails, be sure to report it to both vendors. Then, hold them both responsible for a joint fix. If you get the run around ("It's the other guy's fault"), then escalate your problem internally to each vendor.

If no resolution arrives then escalate your problem to influential communities like CompTIA, HTG Peer Groups, TruProfitsASCII, Robin Robins and others.

Power to the MSPs

I am NOT suggesting that industry associations and peer group owners/leaders will police APIs and software integrations for you. But their members -- and their collective voices -- are incredibly influential.

If you sound the alarm across your peer organizations, your single voice will amplify across more and more MSPs -- some of which may be experiencing your frustrations. Funny, but "time to resolution" estimates typically accelerate when a few hundred MSPs start rallying behind a handful of MSPs that feel mistreated, ignored or misled about product interoperability.

Again, I do believe APIs are working pretty well (for the most part) across the MSP industry. But I am hearing some "breakage" concerns from a handful of MSPs. And the concerns are rising a bit as vendors stop attending rival events for reasons I haven't pursued.

One Issue Matters, One Doesn't

But don't confuse the issues. Remember:

1. Open Technology Events Are A Myth: You should never depend on technology conferences remaining "open" to all vendors. Mergers, acquisitions, and emerging disrupters will continually change which vendors do -- and don't -- surface at specific events. Some vendors could be barred. Some may simply abandon the market (ahem... gloStream, circa 2010).

2. Open APIs Are A Requirement: Demand them. Give your vendors the benefit of the doubt if/when API connections break or fail. But demand that they address the issue, escalate the problem until it's fixed ... or make it clear  that your peer MSPs will soon know about your problems.

And remind your vendors: Microsoft and Oracle despise each other on many fronts. Yet, Oracle databases on Windows servers and the Azure cloud are fully supported by both giants. The same approach to "coopetition" (cooperating and competing) must hold true in the MSP software market.

Long live Open APIs... and the vendors who support them.

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.