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ConnectWise’s Artificial Intelligence Balancing Act
The managed services mainstay is one of many vendors figuring out how to move fast yet responsibly on AI in real time. Also: Microsoft gets into Microsoft 365 backup.
Much ink has been spilled in the months since ChatGPT’s debut last November on both the promise and peril of artificial intelligence.
The promise is obvious. Though still in its infancy, AI has already performed once unimaginable feats likely to save millions of lives. The peril is fairly clear too: No one really understands how AI works and some very smart people think it just might, you know, wipe out the human race.
The stakes for the future of AI in managed services are much less dire but comparably divergent. On the plus side, per earlier Channelholic posts, AI can automate technical workflows and enhance marketing impact in powerful ways. On the less plus side, it can also produce “automated malware,” draft flawless, precision-targeted phishing emails in seconds, and expose confidential information to outsiders.
ConnectWise offers a pretty good glimpse into how thoughtful managed services vendors are navigating those extremes in real time. On the one hand, the company has released an automated scripting tool powered by Microsoft’s Azure OpenAI Service, is actively soliciting ideas for future AI-based tools from its employees, and views rolling out such features swiftly a competitive must.
“We’re going to be quick to market because the market is evolving and if we don’t stay ahead of it, then as you can imagine partners will have different choices and they will feel like they have a need to change out and go to a different vendor,” says Ameer Karim (pictured), executive vice president and general manager of ConnectWise’s unified monitoring and management group.
At the same time, the company has taken steps to prevent all that rapid-fire innovation from harming partners or end users. Those include the recent publication of an AI “responsible use statement” designed to establish guardrails around “ethical considerations, user trust, and protecting partner and client data.”
“Our partners put their trust in us, and we needed to be very clear on how we are treating the information that we might be getting from the partners,” Karim says. “The other thing was being super transparent to our partners [about] how our AI solutions will be used and what impact it might have on their business as well as their customers’ business.”
To enforce compliance with those guidelines, ConnectWise has formed an AI Oversight Committee led by senior executives. Members will have a lot to keep an eye on. ConnectWise is currently exploring ways to build automated documentation into that previously developed scripting tool, for example, and to help MSPs better understand scripts they produced before.
“So many scripts were written ages ago, and many technicians have left or have moved on,” Karim observes. “New technicians don’t have a clue what that script is really supposed to do.” AI can potentially answer that question while helping the company figure out which scripts it no longer needs and which have latent, underutilized potential.
Also in development is “ticket sentiment” functionality that will help MSPs prioritize service requests based on how much fear, anger, or urgency is reflected in what the client wrote. Auto-triaging of tickets is a longer-term prospect as well.
“The MSP partner can be more responsive because that AI is able to synthesize the information and highlight exactly where the problem lies and maybe even seek out a quicker response to that customer’s needs,” Karim says.
ConnectWise is exploring use cases for AI in predictive analytics too, and not just in traditional areas like forecasting endpoint hard drive failures. “You could see all kinds of use cases in security where how do we get ahead of zero days and ransomware and email threats,” Karim says.
Combining AI with robotic process automation to accelerate pricing, onboarding, invoicing, and other operational processes is under active review also. “Because of AI, they’ll able to drive more productivity,” says Karim of ConnectWise partners, “and because of that productivity, they can improve on their profitability.”
Unless of course one of those exciting new features leaks data or otherwise hurts end users in ways no one saw coming. Several groups inside ConnectWise, including the oversight committee and the company’s information security team, are doing their best to prevent that by inspecting AI-based updates before they’re permitted to ship.
“There’s multiple levels of reviews within ConnectWise right now,” Karim says. “There will be lot more governance and lot more reviews until we feel more confident that this is going in the right direction.”
Will there be enough monitoring to prevent something from going wrong? So much governance that it inhibits innovation? Getting the balance between speed and responsibility right isn’t easy at a time of rapid change in a massively important market.
“All of us are still learning where and how this will all evolve,” Karim says.
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Meet the newest Microsoft 365 backup vendor: Microsoft
AI, not surprisingly, was pretty much all Microsoft talked about during opening keynotes at its Inspire partner conference this week. You’ve presumably seen the highlights by now. A still young partner program that was all about the cloud is now all about the cloud and AI, a new business version of Bing Chat is designed to protect private data, and pricing on Microsoft Copilot, the still forthcoming AI add-on for Microsoft 365, will be so steep that salivating investors added over $84.7 billion to Microsoft’s market cap within hours of hearing about it.
Among the dozens of other announcements, though, was one that’s gotten surprisingly little attention: Microsoft’s getting into the Microsoft 365 data protection business.
Due to arrive via public preview in Q4, Microsoft 365 Backup (there’s an archiving counterpart coming too) will maintain safe, current copies of SharePoint, OneDrive, and Exchange data in the Microsoft cloud. Isn’t that what Acronis and AvePoint and Axcient and Barracuda and Carbonite and ConnectWise and Datto and MSP360 and N-able and SkyKick and Veeam and…well, a whole lot of others already do?
Given that we’re still months away from getting a good look at the new solution, the most accurate answers to that question for the moment are “maybe” and “kinda”.
First the maybe part. “At this point, there are some things that we can’t disclose,” says Chris King, senior director of product management for data protection at Barracuda. “What we can say is that both the future Microsoft solution and Barracuda Cloud-to-Cloud Backup share many aspects that we know are important to customers—security, Azure’s powerful scalability, and, of course, ransomware protection peace of mind for recovery.”
On to the kinda. Yes, Microsoft 365 Backup will do some of the same things as Veeam’s Microsoft 365 backup solution, which currently protects over 16 million mailboxes, concedes Rick Vanover (pictured), Veeam’s senior director of product strategy. The key word there is “some,” however. Microsoft 365 isn’t the only place businesses have data, and Veeam expects most end users to prefer a comprehensive data protection platform like its own.
“Customers are tired of multiple products for this and that,” Vanover says. “They want to consolidate the number of players, and our partners are very comfortable in a broad platform story.”
Barracuda similarly views the breadth of its portfolio, which includes security as well as backup products, as a competitive bulwark against Microsoft. And King, at the tail end of this comment, hints at another area that may give Barracuda an edge: “Cloud-to-Cloud Backup has a long, successful history and tens of thousands of loyal, happy customers who love Cloud-to-Cloud Backup’s security, ease of use, and simplicity—not to mention our live 24/7 support,” he says.
If anything, Barracuda is looking forward to integrating with Microsoft 365 Backup, which will feature a fresh set of high-speed interfaces expected to shorten backup times. The company is a launch partner for the new service, in fact, along with AvePoint, Rubrik, and Veeam, among others.
“I think a lot of the vendors are excited to be able to use the new APIs in their offering, depending on their customers’ needs,” King says.
Veeam certainly is. “This is directly going to enhance data transfer,” Vanover says. “It’ll be a lot faster.”
Partners will have an easier time selling Microsoft 365 backup solutions too, he predicts, now that Microsoft is officially acknowledging that businesses should use such services. “We’ve been saying that on our own, but we didn’t really have super clear validation from the whole industry, in particular Microsoft themselves, that this is a needed function, and now we have that,” Vanover explains.
Questions linger, though. Will Microsoft 365 Backup offer multi-tenant management? (We’re guessing no). What will the pricing look like? (We’re guessing cheap, and it sure will be convenient to pay for it on the same bill as your Microsoft 365 subscription).
Based on what he knows about those APIs right now, which is limited, Vanover doesn’t foresee integrating with Microsoft 365 Backup to result in price hikes for its own M365 backup customers.
“We do not have any plans for a price increase on the Veeam side for people who are subscribed,” he says. “The way we understand it currently is that these APIs will not drive that overall cost up for the customers.”
Details emerge about Microsoft’s new “Support Services” designation
Speaking of lingering questions involving Microsoft, we learned more this week about the mysterious “Support Services designation” for SMB channel partners that I wrote about back in March. Scroll deep enough into a blog post by Microsoft worldwide channel chief Nicole Dezen and you’ll learn that the new credential “will provide a way for customers to identify partners with support capabilities and demonstrated customer success aligned to the Microsoft solution areas.”
Also disclosed about the still forthcoming designation during Inspire:
You’ll need to be either an indirect reseller (think distis like Ingram Micro, Pax8, and TD SYNNEX) or direct-bill CSP partner to qualify, at least initially.
You’ll also need to have an active Advanced Support for Partners (ASfP) and/or Premier Support for Partners (PSfP) contract, plus one of Microsoft’s six Solutions partner designations.
“There will also be requirements around performance, skilling and customer success,” Microsoft says, without disclosing specifics.
There will be no fee for attaining the designation.
And what will having the designation get you? “We are working on a suite of benefits that will help improve support capabilities. We will share more information in the future as available,” Microsoft says, adding that partners in the public preview slated to commence shortly will be the first to learn more. Click here to sign up.
Also worth noting
GoTo’s got a new CISO and chief people officer.