What’s the difference between an MSP and an MSSP?

| By: Wayne R. Selk, CDPSE

The key difference between a managed service provider (MSP) and a managed security service provider (MSSP) is easy to spot: It’s the “security” factor that sets them apart.  

While MSPs are increasingly leveling up their capabilities across different areas, an MSSP provides an elevated level of cybersecurity expertise and service with 24/7 network monitoring and proactive security tactics. 

Understanding the difference between an MSP and an MSSP can help customers select the right resources for their own business, while also helping MSPs determine the right level of cybersecurity expertise they can offer before recommending an MSSP’s services.

What is a Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP)? 

An MSSP is a business that supplies outsourced security services, software, and/or expertise to other organizations. MSSPs provide top-tier cybersecurity skills to organizations that prefer to outsource their program. 

Opting to work with an MSSP is often either a complement to, or a replacement for, an in-house security operations center (SOC). Companies might choose to outsource to an MSSP because they can’t staff their in-house SOC with the right amount of cyber expertise. Additionally, organizations in highly-regulated industries like banking and healthcare rely on the MSSP’s superior expertise to ensure that their network is both secure and compliant. 

Commonly, the MSSP’s services will include proactive approaches like a managed firewall, virtual private network (VPN) setup and management, anti-virus setup and management, event monitoring and alerting, intrusion detection/prevention capabilities, and incident response. MSSPs can also help their customers identify and react to a cybersecurity breach. 

How is an MSSP different from an MSP? 

Both MSPs and MSSPs are third-party service providers, yet they play very different roles. 

While many MSPs are growing their cybersecurity capabilities, their core focus remains on supporting their customers’ IT needs. You could say that the MSP’s bread and butter is IT management and the MSSP’s is security. 

With security front-and-center of customers’ minds, many MSPs are including cybersecurity services like firewalls, endpoint protection, and email filtering. There’s no doubt that these tactics are allowing MSPs to enhance their customers’ security posture, but they’re far from complete protection. 

The MSSP needs to provide clients with 24/7 protection and availability to combat security breaches through speedy detection; something most MSPs cannot do simply because of limited resources and experience.  The MSSP is able to offer this steadfast commitment to security because of their SOC staff and expertise, while the MSP’s focus on administration and performance requires that they are structured to include a network operations center (NOC).  

There’s also a middle ground to consider, where an organization known as an MSP+ provides the typical MSP services but places a greater emphasis on cybersecurity. An MSP+ can offer more advanced security solutions than an MSP alone, but doesn’t always have the 24/7 access and complete expertise of an MSSP. 

It’s true that some organizations that began as MSPs have been able to transition to MSSPs or level up to an MSP+. But it requires more than new software or providing an a la carte security service in order to provide full scale cybersecurity services. 

It’s not about choosing one or the other 

Comparing MSPs to MSSPs can be misleading, because organizations shouldn’t necessarily choose one over the other. Often, these providers work in concert with each other. 

Organizations can determine where to begin by evaluating their current provider, considering the scope of their cybersecurity needs, and prioritizing their budget accordingly.  

MSSPs were essentially born out of the increased need for advanced cybersecurity tactics. When traditional MSPs realized they couldn’t meet their customer’s demand for 24/7 security access and protection, the MSSP was created. Several organizations still operate with both MSP and MSSP offerings, allowing customers to reap the benefits of both services. 

The cybersecurity expertise MSPs and MSP+s need to provide 

As discussed, although MSSPs offer the complete cybersecurity package, MSPs need to be mindful of their customer’s security needs as well. 

Organizations interested in increasing their security offerings can start by enhancing the security expertise of existing MSP employees through dedicated training or certifications. Some areas to focus on while building the foundation of your MSP’s security offerings would include industry frameworks and standards, and risk assessment best practices. MSPs with more advanced security expertise can enhance their cybersecurity knowledge by focusing on security operations (SecOps) and cybersecurity sales frameworks. 

Start by Conducting a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment 

MSPs can also grow their cybersecurity knowledge while providing greater value to customers by offering a cybersecurity risk assessment. This assessment should include: 

  • A privacy program review to proactively determine whether the customer is properly managing and storing their data 
  • A security program assessment that considers the customer’s awareness of cybersecurity threats and audits existing security foundations, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA) and digital asset inventories 
  • A review of the suite of tools the customer uses for security processes, such as firewalls and endpoint detection and response (EDR) software 
  • An overview of system hardening to fine-tune settings and remove unnecessary vulnerabilities 
  • A vulnerability assessment to define and prevent gaps in the customer’s security posture 
  • An incident response plan that acts as a plan-of-attack following a suspected breach 

While these steps won’t provide customers with full-scale cybersecurity programs, they will enhance the value any MSP can provide their customers. 

MSSPs provide cutting-edge cybersecurity expertise 

It’s true that modern MSPs are improving their security offerings rapidly, but they would only harm their business or put their customers at risk by trying to take on more than they can truly handle. When it comes to third-party providers, full-scale cybersecurity should be left to the MSSP. 

To recap, the key differences between these third-party service providers are: 


MSPs role in network operations, remote monitoring, and performance provides massive value to their customers. While an MSP+ can enhance these offerings with foundational cybersecurity processes and expertise, the bulk of the cybersecurity onus remains with the MSSP.