Mike Wooten is vice president of customer operations at ViON.

Until recently, the quality of the hardware and software represented the defining metric of the value of an IT provider.

Increasingly, that's no longer true.

Today, hardware and software have largely become undifferentiated commodities, and the defining characteristic of a contractor is its ability to deliver what's now called "converged services," also called "managed services" or "converged infrastructure."

No matter which of those three terms is used in the description, converged services describes how IT vendor are now providing personnel and delivering resources at an ongoing operational level for the customer, often acting as a turn-key outsourced IT department.

Moreover, converged services also implies that the vendor assumes real risk (typically in the form of highly punitive fines) for shortfalls in delivering the performance of the IT infrastructure if it does not perform to standards set by the client, as expressed through a service level agreement or SLA.

Why has this dynamic changed from an IT vendor that just drops off the hardware, installs the software, and walking away, to an IT vendor that provides installation and operational management, even with vendor personnel taking up residence on-premises to managed the IT? Well, stop and listen for a minute. Can you hear the grumbling? I can.

It's buyers of enterprise IT that have grown dissatisfied with vendor lock-in syndrome. Customers want to get away from the same old manufacturer, who sells them the next IT box in an endless string of boxes, which – let's admit it – often sit in warehouses or on a customer's floor, unused, until the warranties run out and the systems become outdated. Customers also want to get away from the scenario where hardware and software are installed by a vendor who bills for the initial professional services, but then wishes the customer good luck as they head out the door.

By offering converged services, outsourcers can provide enterprise IT in public cloud, private cloud, and hybrid cloud solutions that absolve the customer of the capital expenditures typically required for enterprise IT purchases. That's become the standard now. Accordingly, what sets the outsourcers apart is not the hardware and software products (multiple brands provide more than adequate solutions), but the professional services team that gets the IT system up and running, and maintained at performance levels set by service level agreements that lay out performance goals that the vendor must achieve, or suffer penalties for falling short.

The customer is absolved of unwanted duties

Converged services providers really have changed the dynamic of how IT is offered and consumed, especially when the services delivered are cloud services. When a cloud provider steps in with turn-key solutions, the enterprise IT buyers suddenly realize that they have more time to actually do their jobs. Why? Their teams are not buyers of IT any more. (That's the converged service provider's job now.) They are no longer managing teams of IT technicians to run the IT system. (That's the converged service provider's job now.) They no longer have to invest time researching what's new in IT systems or fending off manufacturer's sales calls. (That's the converged service provider's job now too.) Instead, the enterprise that is accessing the converged services can focus on what they were hired for: implementing business solutions to solve customer problems, whether the "customer" is the US taxpayer, the military, educational institutions, and health care providers, etc.

It's all about performance and reputation

A converged service provider competes on its professional services reputation, not on which OEM boxes and software it has access to. In fact, the outsource provider is enabled to select the best solution rather than be tied to hardware or software, precisely because they are not locked into one manufacturer, but have relationships with many. It enables the provider to implement the best solution in the more cost effective way possible to meet the customer's SLAs.

However, as advantageous as converged services are for enterprise IT consumers, not all converged services providers are the same. Surely, converged services providers will differentiate on the quality of service, but here are eight metrics to use when appraising the quality of your converged services provider.

The Great Eight:

Credibility: When choosing a converged services provider, look at the client list. Note the caliber of clients, and imagine their demands for security, uptime and flexibility. The "wisdom of the crowds" among customers, over time, sorts out the best providers.

Longevity: How long has the converged services provider been around, and does the provider have long-term customers? High customer churn is a sign that the converged services provider is leaving unsatisfied clients in their wake.

Diverse client list: Is the converged services provider's client list a diverse group? Or does the provider tend to focus on just one sector? It may be that you want a sector focus, but if your business challenges are diverse, you want to see a diverse set of clients in the converged services provider's list of clients.

Multiple brands: Does your converged services provider work with a number of IT brands? Or are they dedicated to just one? Here too, the converged services provider should have a full "tool box" of solutions, so that they are not force-feeding you with just one type of IT solutions.

Vendor management: Is the converged services provider adept at managing their vendors? Check references, because it takes a seasoned converged services provider to develop the channel expertise and know-how to manage support escalation with a manufacturer.

Financial stability: Is your converged services provider financially stable, with a good credit line? Sometimes SLAs will put financial penalties in place for downtime, yet the penalties won't be very painful to the converged services provider if they never have to pay the fines for lack of funds and the collapse of the relationship.

Access to talent: Does your converged services provider have access to staff and the talent to ramp up and services your needs, without a great deal of drama about onboarding new employees? A good converged services provider should be able to quickly find and adequately manage the outsource team.

Expertise: Does your converged services provider have demonstrated expertise in project management? It's not easy to manage an enterprise IT environment, and when you start to talk about cyber security, global reach, and transnational databases, the challenges grow very complicated very quickly. Your converged services provider should not be engaged in on-the-job training.

One thing is clear about outsource enterprise IT and converged services: It is an unstoppable movement that holds enormous cost avoidance potential to consumers of enterprise solutions. Moreover, customers have consistently reported that they are elated to be absolved of the IT-acquisition duties that had encumbered them in the past — duties that can now be wholly assumed by the converged services provider. Not all converged service providers are alike, and the items reviewed in this article should give you a running start for sorting out the seasoned vets from those who, sensing a cloud opportunity, are really in a fog.