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With Intune, Microsoft Gets Serious About MSPs

Microsoft is making an all-out effort to attract managed services providers to its new cloud-based Windows Intune platform, commissioning best practice guidance for partners from IDC and integrating with both major professional services automation platforms.

One of the big questions around Windows Intune was how serious Microsoft was about the MSP market. MSPs have never really had a specific landing place in the Microsoft Partner Network. Microsoft toyed with providing MSP tools in the past with a special version of System Center, but later backed away from that product. Even with Windows Intune, the MSP play seemed like an afterthought to a product intended for in-house IT departments, with Microsoft only adding the critical multi-account console in the Beta 2 release in July.

But with the Windows Intune launch last week at the Microsoft Management Summit, Microsoft showed it has been thinking carefully about what MSPs need to succeed with the tool.

"Based on partner requests, we have released guidance on how to integrate Windows Intune with commonly used professional software automation (PSA) tools like Autotask and ConnectWise," wrote Gavriella Schuster on the Windows for your Business Blog in the Windows Intune availability announcement.

In its own announcement of integration, ConnectWise called Windows Intune a remote management and monitoring service, which puts Microsoft in a category with tools from Kaseya, Level Platforms, N-Able, Zenith Infotech and others.

The integration with ConnectWise creates an integrated workflow for problem alerting, tracking, remediation and some billing, according to ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini.

"We expect partners using Windows Intune to manage and maintain complicated PC infrastructures will realize greater efficiency, productivity and profitability thanks to this integration," Bellini said in a statement. "MSPs have been early adopters of cloud computing, and Microsoft is to be commended for developing another RMM tool for the ConnectWise community."

Windows Intune is also "Ready-For-Autotask," which that East Greenbush, N.Y.-based  vendor defines as "third-party products that integrate with, and add value to, the Autotask platform."

"It's important that VARs, MSPs and other technology solutions providers have options when selecting the tools they use to service their clients," Autotask CEO Mark Cattini said in a statement about Intune. "As the cloud-based IT business management platform of choice, and to better serve our users, Autotask is committed to supporting all vendors in the IT services ecosystem that wish to integrate with our platform."

In a blog entry, Microsoft global channel chief Jon Roskill made the case that Intune pads Microsoft's entire cloud portfolio for partners. "Joining Office 365, Windows Azure and Dynamics CRM Online, Windows Intune brings expanded protection to customers and new cloud revenue opportunities to partners," Roskill wrote. Office 365 is the successor to the Business Productivity Online Suite, and is expected to go live this summer.

One Seattle-based early adopter partner with a substantial Microsoft cloud practice is finding Intune to be a "great addition" to its services business. In a video case study for Microsoft, Aaron Nettles, CEO of Vorsite Corp., said, "For Vorsite, I think the more products that are moved to the cloud, the larger our service revenue will be, especially around the managed side."

Vorsite recently emerged in a leaked list as one of the top 10 Microsoft partners in the United States in terms of BPOS customer deployments. In the video, Nettles said Vorsite has migrated 90 customers and about 4,000 seats to the Microsoft cloud.

"I think Intune will finally give a compelling story to a lot of service businesses that are sitting on the fence and waiting for the revenue stream or for the business model to kind of play out. I think Intune will finally give them a compelling reason to move their practices to the cloud," Nettles said.

Another partner who is seeing that opportunity is Steve Hall, CEO of District Computers in Washington, D.C. A beta tester for both Intune and its integration with ConnectWise, Hall said Intune gives partners a way to reach formerly unreachable end users. "It's a very affordable management solution that end users can embrace because it's coming from Microsoft [and] being managed by a partner," Hall said in a statement. Windows Intune costs about $11 per user per month for desktop management and security features and Windows 7 Enterprise upgrade rights. For an extra $1 per user per month, organizations can get access to the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack, which is normally reserved for Software Assurance customers.

Hall was one of a dozen partners in North America and Europe that IDC channel analyst Darren Bibby interviewed for the 17-page, Microsoft-sponsored whitepaper, "The Windows Intune Partner Opportunity: A Blueprint for Success." According to Bibby, nearly all partners interviewed for the project had a positive attitude about Intune.

"New opportunities include opening PC management to new markets, including smaller businesses that could not previously afford PC management; increasing deal size, particularly for businesses with large numbers of noncorporate attached PCs; and removing barriers to sales and adoption of PC management services," Bibby writes. "Further, included offerings like Windows 7 Enterprise upgrade rights and optional Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) upgrade rights provide additional areas of opportunity. In fact, the partners who were able to venture an estimate projected that Windows Intune would help them grow their PC management businesses by an average of 19 percent over the first full year of operations."

Some questions remain, and the IDC whitepaper lays out several. One is Microsoft's direct billing approach, where partners receive partner-of-record fees, but the customer gets the bill directly from Microsoft. While it's potentially a huge issue for MSPs, Microsoft executives are trying to deal with the issue across the company's portfolio of cloud offerings and some sort of fix is widely anticipated after the Office 365 launch. Other questions Bibby raises from his partner interviews are about Microsoft's ongoing commitment to improving the MSP-focused product and questions about the relatively limited number of internal use rights Microsoft gives partners to try out Intune compared to its other cloud products.

The billing issue aside, these questions seem secondary. The main question is whether Microsoft is for real in the MSP market. The moves Microsoft has made since this summer suggest strongly that the answer is yes.

Posted by Scott Bekker on March 28, 2011