MSP vs MSSP: Differences, Key Services & Making Right Choice

The acronyms MSP and MSSP can often confuse, and in fact it's common to find some players in the IT industry using these two interchangeably to mean one and the same thing. Meanwhile a significant number don’t give much thought to MSSP and therefore use MSP to refer to any third party vendor that provides IT services, regardless of the level of specialization for certain services such as security.

Well, there are some elements of truth in between all these assumptions. But if you are keen on narrowing down to providers for specialized services that your organization needs the most, then it’s important that you understand the clear cut difference between MSP and MSSP.

This post outlines the differences between MSP and MSSP, including the key services for each.

What is the main difference between MSP and MSSP?

MSP stands for Managed Service Provider while MSSP refers to Managed Security Service Provider.

So the main difference between MSP and MSSP is that an MSP focuses on managing the overall IT Infrastructure while an MSSP focuses entirely on IT security. This means that an MSP can provide cyber security services as part of its wider IT Infrastructure management scope. But an MSSP cannot provide other Infrastructure management services outside security.

However, the depth and scope of the cyber security services that an MSP is capable of providing is fundamentally shallow compared to what an MSSP will offer.

MSPs vs MSSPs: summary of differences

DifferenceMSPMSSP

Scope

MSPs focus on the entire IT infrastructure

MSSPs only focus on the security part of the IT Infrastructure

Security

MSPs offer basic security services

MSSPs offer comprehensive security services. This is all they do.

IT services

MSPs offer comprehensive IT services

MSSPs do not offer any other IT services that fall outside the security realm

Tools

MSPs mainly use tools such as RMM to monitor and manage clients’ systems, and PSA tools to automate their internal administrative functions.

MSSPs mainly use security tools such as pen testing software, vulnerability scanners and Security Information and Event Management tools (SIEM).

Growth support

MSPs help organizations to become more efficient and grow fast through strategic advice relating to IT.

MSSPs help organizations to assess and strengthen their security posture through strategic advice relating to cybersecurity.

The MSP model explained

In the MSP model, organizations offload the management of their routine IT Infrastructure needs into the hands of trusted IT services providers to manage them on an actively continuous basis.

Why is this model important for organizations? Well, the modern business landscape is one that is heavily reliant on Information Technology. It’s difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to succeed without a consistently dependable IT Infrastructure. Employees are using computers and mobile devices round the clock. Many organizations run elaborate websites and platforms from where they offer their products and services to thousands or even millions of customers. Many use various productivity, security and communication applications, plus more. All these elements of IT must always work optimally. And whenever they malfunction, the business can implode.

Now, the big companies can afford to hire enough and highly experienced internal staff to comfortably take care of their IT needs — they have the resources. However for startups, small and medium businesses, it’s practically impossible to manage your IT infrastructure in-house. But with an MSP, you can enjoy the same level of comfort as a large corporation, but at a price that makes sense to your organization.

The MSP model makes it easy for organizations to stay up-to-date on the latest technology without sacrificing operational efficiencies and reliability.

Origins of the MSP model

The MSP model actually evolved from the traditional break-fix model, where organizations used to hire IT professionals on a need by need basis whenever issues occurred. But as businesses in the modern landscape started to depend more and more on IT services, they realized that the break-fix model was not sustainable. As a result, the need for continuous IT management and monitoring emerged. This need gave birth to the MSP model, where IT providers are contracted to offer ongoing management of IT resources.

Another key evolution is the scope of services. Previously, the MSP model was largely administrative, basically helping clients deal with the basic administration of the IT Infrastructure. But today, the model has grown beyond administration. MSPs are now expected to also help clients compete effectively and succeed in the digital economy. Organizations are increasingly looking up to MSPs to help them make strategic decisions, deploy superior technologies, and conquer their markets. As Gartner observes, MSPs now need to shift to a mindset of customer success.

The demand for MSPs shot up drastically when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, as many businesses suddenly discovered that MSPs can actually help them lower IT costs and remain afloat in uncertain times. In fact, it’s the view of some experts that the pandemic may have transformed the MSP industry perhaps forever.

The main role of MSPs

Simply put, the role of MSPs is to offer services that encompass everything in an organization’s IT Infrastructure, from the networks to the applications that a company uses both internally and externally. While MSPs can execute most of these services remotely, some tasks might require their staff to go to the premises of clients. But to a large extent, the growth of cloud computing solutions now enables MSPs to manage most of their client’s systems remotely.

MSPs are able to offer an elaborate range of services to many businesses thanks to the use of modern tools that allow them to manage the systems of multiple organizations simultaneously. Some of the most popular tools that MSPs use include Remote Monitoring and Management (RMM). These tools can integrate with an array of other tools that MSPs use, such as PSA software, as well as data backup and recovery solutions. This integration makes it very easy for MSPs to quickly move between different client systems and tasks, all from a central dashboard — making their daily management a smooth experience. Meanwhile the clients get the all crucial peace of mind to focus on their core business, aware that the MSP is keeping tabs on their IT Infrastructure.

Thanks to this role, MSPs have made it possible for thousands of organizations, especially SMBs and startups, to take advantage of modern IT at scale. A large number of organizations both in private and public sectors now recognize the huge impact an MSP can make in their operations. This explains why the global MSP market is growing at an insane rate, projected to reach $354.8 billion by 2026. It’s a sign that ambitious organizations worldwide are appreciating the immense benefits that a robust IT infrastructure can deliver. For one, Information Technology spurs growth by increasing efficiency and driving innovation. And because MSPs can bundle services and offer them to several businesses with reasonable customization, it means that they can crash the prices and make these services affordable for any size of business.

What specific services are offered by MSPs?

The services provided by MSPs can be as elastic as the size and unique needs of the organizations. For example, an MSP can offer just a few services to one organization and as many services as it can to the next organization.

However, these are the most common services that most organizations require and therefore cut access most if not all established MSPs:

1. Endpoint management

In the context of an IT Infrastructure, an endpoint is a device or system that is connected to the network. Examples of endpoints include desktops, laptops, mobile devices, routers & switches, servers etc. Therefore, endpoint management simply means ensuring that all these devices are always functioning at optimal level. MSPs use RMM tools to monitor these endpoints in real-time, enabling them to identify and resolve issues as they occur.

2. Network Operations Center

The NOC service ensures that all the organization’s network users are able to get the resources they require from the corporate network without disruption or minimal disruption should it occur. For example, employees need to access the corporate email system at all times. So the provider ensures that the email system is secure and always available and accessible. Other examples include the internal and external phone system, virtual conferencing tools, etc. From the network operations center, an MSP can always keep an eye on the entire network and respond to disruptions in a timely manner.

In addition to monitoring, MSPs provide expertise at the network level in order to identify potential problems before they cause any downtime or data loss.

3. Managed cloud services

With managed cloud services, MSPs provide businesses the ability to efficiently utilize cloud-based platforms such as AWS or Microsoft Azure with support from certified engineers and developers.

Whether it's setting up virtual private data centers, configuring devices and applications or securely connecting remote locations while keeping all assets secure, an MSP has you covered with round-the-clock cloud support.

Other managed cloud services include the optimization of cloud solutions, configuration of security, and migration. Besides managing, managed cloud providers also offer useful advice that helps clients to choose the most suitable cloud options among private, public and hybrid clouds.

4. Application installation and patching

This service can also be categorized under endpoint management, though it makes sense to separate it because of its importance. MSP technicians help organizations to install and regularly patch different applications across multiple endpoints.

Related: What is a patch management policy?

5. Remote support

MSPs provide help desk and service desk services to allow efficient customer support while helping maintain high levels of customer satisfaction.

Users of the IT infrastructure will always encounter challenges. It does not matter how superply it's managed. Employes just want to come to work, use their devices to get the job done and be proud of their accomplishments. When they run into challenges, the MSP must always be ready to respond timely and assist. To do this effectively, they need to use best practices and set up either a help desk or a service desk or even both depending on the scale of operations on the client side.

With 24/7 access to experienced IT professionals, organizations gain direct and timely assistance when they need it most so that any issues arising can be resolved quickly. Most of the support is always offered remotely, but there are instances where support engineers will be required to report to the client’s site.

Further reading: The difference between a help desk and service desk

6. Decision making

This is a critical service that MSPs offer at the highest level. They help senior managers to make high level decisions on the use and management of modern IT resources to drive efficiency and business growth.

It may not be possible for MSPs to ramp this service together with the other routine tasks for all clients. It requires investment in highly experienced IT experts, which can make it quite expensive for many small businesses.

Overall, not only do MSPs provide a more flexible and cost-effective solution for an organization’s IT needs than many in-house options, but they can also offer enhanced scalability that is appropriate for larger businesses or organizations with growing networks. Additionally, MSPs can customize their services for each business in order to ensure that the network meets industry standards and ensure optimal performance. For organizations eager to avoid treating IT infrastructure as an afterthought, the Managed Service Provider model offers an excellent way with little hassle.

The MSSP model explained

In the MSSP model, organizations entrust third party providers with the security of their IT Infrastructure. The MSSPs continuously manage their clients' security posture, ensuring their networks and devices are protected from all manner of threats and attacks.

The demand for this model is fueled by the increasing number of organizations that want to separate the security infrastructure from the main IT infrastructure. It makes sense to do this especially now in the era of rising cyber attacks that are pushing companies to mainstream their cybersecurity strategies.

Like the MSP market, the global MSSP market is also growing fast and is projected to pass the $60 billion mark by 2026.

The main role of MSSPs

The role of MSSPs is simply to protect the IT Infrastructure, thwarting cyber attacks and data loss. The growing importance of this role is not difficult to imagine, considering that cybercrime is becoming a nightmare for organizations.

According to a report by Accenture, 2021 alone saw an average of 270 attacks per company. This is a whopping 31 percent increase when compared to 2020 statistics. COVID-19 plunged organizations into large scale uncertainties and vulnerabilities that motivated criminals to take advantage and intensify attacks.

With this level of rising cyber security concerns, organizations are realizing that it’s risky to mix cybersecurity with the other routine IT tasks. You need dedicated security, and this is best offered by a provider that solely focuses on security. This way, you get to enjoy 24/7 cybersecurity support that is managed by high level security engineers.

What services do MSSPs offer?

MSP services are purely focused on the security of the IT Infrastructure, and not on the management of the IT Infrastructure like is the case for MSP services.

Here are the key services that you can expect to receive from MSSPs:

1. Preventing data loss

Data loss prevention is all about ensuring that an organization's data is intact wherever it's stored, both on premise and the cloud. Important to note that sometimes data can be lost not because it was breached but because of negligence or use of outdated tools. But with a service that is focused on preventing any form of loss, MSSPs ensure that the organizational data is always safe.

The providers typically deploy DLP software across the network in order to monitor all traffic for signs of interference with sensitive data.

2. Identity and Access Management (IAM)

This is another popular service, allowing organizations to monitor user access to systems and limit permissions based on roles.

This service also includes Privileged Access management (PAM) — the practice of granting certain users special access to systems and data, while monitoring their activity. Typically, these users have root or administrator-level privileges, which allow them to access the system.

Some MSSPs use PAM software to help clients secure their systems by tracking user activity and providing a mechanism for revoking privileges if necessary. It can also help identify malicious or unauthorized activity, so that it can be addressed quickly. PAM solutions can also be used to provide audit trails of user activity, so that organizations can ensure compliance with regulations such as PCI DSS and HIPAA.

3. Intrusion detection

Intrusion detection (ID) is the process of monitoring network or system activities for malicious or unauthorized activity. MSSPs use what is known as Intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDS/IPS) to automatically block or stop attacks in progress.

IDS/IPS systems can also be used to monitor other aspects of the security posture, such as firewall rule compliance, antivirus status, and user activity.

4. Incident response

Incident response is the process of detecting, responding to, and recovering from a security incident. It usually involves activities such as identifying the incident, containing and eradicating the threat, preserving evidence, restoring services, and communicating with stakeholders.

Most organizations have an incident response plan in place, but they may not have the resources to implement it themselves. MSSPs on the other hand offer solutions such as rapid alerting and notifications, expert analysis and remediation, forensics and litigation support.

5. Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

A vulnerability scan is the process of identifying security vulnerabilities in an information system. These vulnerabilities may exist in operating systems, software applications, networks, and devices. MSSPs usually use vulnerability scanning as the first step in assessing the security risk of an information system.

Penetration testing, also known as ethical hacking, is the process of attempting to breach the security of a network from the outside. It is usually done in order to find and fix vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by criminals or other malicious actors.

Managed security service providers use a variety of methods to accomplish penetration testing and vulnerability scanning on clients' systems. This includes manual testing (such as using exploit kits and target scripts), automated scanners, scanning for open ports, and social engineering techniques. They also provide remediation guidance to help organizations fix any identified loopholes.

Further reading: Learn the difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

6. Awareness training

Awareness training involves providing employees with the education and training necessary to identify potential security threats, both from inside and outside of the organization. Through new employee onboarding programs, regular training sessions and ongoing awareness campaigns, companies can ensure their employees know how to stay secure at all times.

MSSPs offer awareness training as a service because it's essential for businesses to have employees who are aware of potential security threats and know how to respond if one occurs. In other words employees who receive awareness training are better equipped to protect the organization's IT infrastructure.

7. Network monitoring

This involves real-time monitoring of the clients’ networks for anomalies, threats and any unauthorized user activity.

Network monitoring also includes Security Information and Event Management (SIEM), a process of managing and monitoring the security of the networks through the collection, correlation, and analysis of security-related data from multiple sources. This data can include events from firewalls, intrusion detection/prevention systems, authentication logs, endpoint protection software, and other security devices.

The goal of SIEM is to identify potential threats to networks and take appropriate corrective action before any damage is done. By collecting data from all these different sources and correlating it effectively, SIEM can provide a comprehensive view of the network's security posture and drive informed decisions.

8. VPN services

Many organizations use VPNs for a variety of reasons, such as connecting to the company's network while traveling, working remotely, accessing resources that are physically located on another network, or extending the security perimeter of the network. VPNs can also be used to protect data when it is being sent over an unsecured public Wi-Fi connection.

Depending on the scale of the VPN infrastructure, managing it can prove complex for organizations with limited IT talent. This is why MSSPs include this service in their offering. The providers ensure that all traffic passing between the client and the remote network is encrypted, protecting against unauthorized access.

Further reading: Best VPNs for enterprises

9. Backup & Disaster Recovery

BDR is the process of backing up and restoring data in the event of a system failure or natural disaster, a cornerstone service offered by Managed Security Service Providers.

BDR backs the entire network to a secure location, enabling quick rebuilding in the event of a disaster. This service typically includes both on-site and off-site backup capabilities.

Further reading: Different Backup Types

10. Antivirus and firewall management

Of course, no security package would be complete without a strong antivirus and firewall management component. Antivirus and firewall management involves continuously ensuring that the organization’s computer networks are protected from unauthorized access and viruses by using firewalls and antivirus software.

Firewalls are the barriers that protect computers from unauthorized access, and antivirus software protects computers from viruses. Antivirus software searches for known viruses and eliminates them. Firewalls can be hardware or software, and they can be either internal or external.

Check out some of the most popular firewalls that are suitable for small businesses.

Which should you choose between MSP and MSSP?

As we’ve just seen, an MSP focuses on managing the clients’ IT infrastructure. On the other hand, MSSPs focus on security, providing round-the-clock monitoring and an array of security services which ensures the networks and data remain protected from threats in real-time.

So which one should you choose? If your organization is keen to address cyber security in a comprehensive way, then you are better off going for an MSSP. But if you want to address cyber security as a small part of other IT services such as device management, communication and support, then an MSP that also provides cyber security will suit you. You also have the option of combining the two: get an MSP to purely focus on IT and an MSSP to solely focus on security.

The size of the organization is also going to be an important consideration. A large or fast growing company with complex systems operating in a high risk industry such as banking or healthcare is better off separating cybersecurity services from routine management of the IT infrastructure.

Conclusion

Whether working with an MSP or MSSP, it's paramount to ensure that they integrate analytics and reporting tools into their services to provide measurable data and insights. Many of these providers offer automated suites of analytics, tracking metrics such as efficiency, software costs, process optimization, and performance. These are all indicators that can give your team insight into which areas of the operational or security infrastructure are performing optimally and those which may need improvement.

With access to pertinent metrics and comprehensive analytics on a regular basis, you'll be able to identify trends in your environment early on, enabling you to make informed decisions based on accurate data. The reports also help you benchmark the performance of your provider against the industry standards and evaluate whether they're providing optimal services for your organization.

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