Microsoft critical support plan comes with sticker shock

For a hefty price, Microsoft now offers a dedicated support plan for computers in Windows shops where even a second of downtime is too much.

IT pros in Windows shops who want more than the service levels in a Microsoft Premier Support contract can get additional, dedicated help by dishing out hundreds of thousands of dollars more per year.

Microsoft launched an updated version of Premier Mission Critical Support Tuesday, an add-on for Premier Support customers, which the company initially launched in February 2009. It is Microsoft's service-level agreement support plan that provides a dedicated engineer and a dedicated support line with guaranteed response times of 30 minutes, backed by financial credits. Support agreements have a term of one year or more.

When Mission Critical Support service first became available last year; it only supported SQL Server and certain versions of Windows Server. Now, it also supports the Microsoft .NET Framework, Microsoft BizTalk Server, Exchange Server, Office SharePoint Server, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, and System Center.

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Norm Judah, chief technology officer for Microsoft Services, said mission critical level support service isn't aimed at one application or technology, but for the set of technologies and apps that make up certain environments, such as CRM.

"In our current programs, we don't offer a dedicated solutions engineer who understands an individual customers' environment – that's the new piece – along with a guaranteed response time," Judah said. "Before now, customers were confined to the levels of support in the programs we provided."

When asked if this support add-on is a response to customer frustrations over support that doesn't meet expectations, Judah said it is simply an answer to customer requests for more support.

But some IT pros are sure to see this offering, which costs upwards of $200,000, as a way to fleece customers into getting the level of support they would expect from existing support plans, especially if they invested in the highest level of Premier Support, Premier Ultimate, which Microsoft launched two years ago.

Premier Ultimate offers proactive services and "unlimited" problem resolution support at a fixed price for three years to customers that commit to in-depth training on their Microsoft products. But, when Microsoft uses the term unlimited, that adjective is followed by an asterisk and the disclaimer that "restrictions may apply."

Premier Mission Critical Support: Here's what you get
In addition to restrictions, Premier Ultimate isn't based on a service-level agreement. That's the gap that Mission Critical Support fills, along with some other VIP services, said Paul DeGroot, chief analyst for Directions on Microsoft, an independent analysis firm based in Kirkland, Wash.

"With Premier [Ultimate] support, you'll get a response within an hour, but that response might be a call from someone who doesn't know how to resolve the issue, and it could take hours more for them to figure it out," DeGroot said. "With Mission Critical, you get the fastest problem resolution Microsoft is able to provide."

In addition, Mission Critical Support gives customers priority access to Microsoft product development teams. With the typical Premier Support, customers are separated from product teams, so requests for replacement products can take months to fill and often involves hours of time for IT shops to prove the issue is a Microsoft product problem, DeGroot said.

For the six-figure price tag, Mission Critical Support customers get their own technical account manager and engineer who spend time on the customer's site to learn about their environment, their business needs and become familiar with the IT staff running critical systems. That way, when something does go wrong, customers have a familiar point of contact who knows their systems inside and out, Microsoft's Judah said.

The support plan also includes a dedicated line for support, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with priority access to experts and 30-minute response time guarantees.

The plan may not be for everyone, but it is a worthwhile investment for enterprises such as financial institutions, where even a moment of downtime translates into millions of dollars lost, DeGroot said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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