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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.

SMB Channel Partners – Top 10 Business Issues, IT Offerings

Top 10 SMB Channel Partner Business Issues

Figure below from Techaisle’s SMB Channel Partner Trends coverage lists top 10 business issues being addressed by SMB channel partners in the next one year - a question that parallels the one that Techaisle uses to develop perspective on SMB buy-side business issues.

techaisle-2015-smb-channel-partner-business-issues-infographic-resized-small

There are many ways that SMB channel partners can attack these business issues; in some areas, cloud is part of the problem, while in others, it helps form some of the solution. For example, cloud creates a requirement for new products and processes, which opens opportunity for firms that are effective in rolling out new offerings, but cloud itself is a major source of channel business uncertainty.

Improving productivity as well as improving quality of products and services are the top 2 business issues - they are ranked way higher than business growth and customer acquisition. It makes for a compelling attention that channel partners have realized the shift in technology and its acquisition and SMB channels are struggling to address these issues. Improved productivity is also often seen within the channel as a core attribution of managed services delivery – but growth in managed services portfolios will very likely encompass cloud-based systems. Cloud allows for new offerings to be brought to market quickly. And given the growth of cloud within the SMB market it could be fairly stated that cloud is central to both increasing business growth and keeping pace with competition. The impact of cloud on business activities expands beyond the SMB buy-side community into the channel itself. Cloud’s virtues are therefore apparent in several of the business issues that are of most concern to SMB channel businesses.

It is interesting to point out that "improving sales and marketing" is also among the business issues being addressed by SMB channel partners, but it not within the top 10 business issues.

Top 10 Current & Planned IT Offerings

Figure below lists the top 10 current and planned technology offerings, which can be treated as the starting point and the “next steps” in SMB channel migration. The findings illustrate the breadth of business opportunities available to the SMB channel – and also, the essential pervasiveness of the cloud as well as managed services.

techaisle-smb-channel-partner-current-and-planned-offerings-vertical-resized-small

Cloud is at the core of many of the IT solution offerings enumerated in both the “current” and “planned” lists, for example, managed services and of mobility management. It is intrinsic to social media, VDI, desktop as a service and IoT. It is the best, most cost-effective and most scalable approach to supporting collaboration and BI/Big Data. And cloud enablement and management is the key objective of deployments of server virtualization and converged infrastructure, and the key requirement for on premise/off-premise data integration.

Today, many of these IT solution offerings and their associated channel capabilities are largely commingled but within the next three years the depth requirements associated with these will force them to concentrate on some areas and de-emphasize others. Techaisle believes that channel organizations serving the SMB market will become increasingly defined by pursuit of one or two of four primary product/delivery areas.

There will also come points in the SMB Channel Partner migration where the connection between the starting point (for example, mobility) and the next application (for example, Big Data) will become tenuous. These cases will call for partner-to-partner collaboration structured around meeting evolving SMB customer needs. There is already evidence that firms adept in partner-to-partner collaboration are better positioned to build successful businesses in areas such as cloud than those that cling to a "go it alone" approach in all situations (Source: Techaisle’s Winning Strategies of Successful SMB Cloud Channel Partners). Partners and vendors who are effective in inculcating these relationships within their ecosystems will both achieve above-market growth rates. In the meanwhile IT vendors and distributors should really pay attention to the top business issues being faced by SMB channel partners. 

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SMB MSP Channel fragmentation and role of IT vendor

The SMB IT channel has hit a point of fragmentation. Today, channel can be all things to all people but not in 2018 unless channel finds a way to generate more than 150% of revenue. Faced with an expanded SMB buyer community and requirements for specialized skills to support different solutions, the SMB channel is beginning to segment by focus area. Although the different specialties are starting from a common point today, Techaisle expects to see each develop unique characteristics over the next several years.

Highlights of Techaisle’s report on State of SMB Managed Services Channel include:

The business of the SMB channel: migrating to specializations

  • Overall, currently, the SMB channel has a reasonable balance between product and services revenue and engagements.
  • There is no ‘silver bullet’ leading to financial health in the SMB channel. Execution, not time allocation, is the key to sales success.
  • Sales cycles vary with several factors, including solution expertise. SMB-focused MSPs have relatively long sales cycles overall, but channel partners that are “very comfortable” with managed services have superior time-to-revenue results.
  • Four key specializations are emerging in the SMB channel and this fragmentation will accelerate in the 2015-2018 timeframe.

Managed services in the channel: pervasive as a delivery vehicle, becoming more of a specialty

  • MSPs are hardly the only source of managed services: more than 60% of VARs, SPs and SIs sell managed services today, and there has been an increase in managed services activity in all of these channels.
  • The variety and depth of managed services will make it difficult for non-specialists to keep pace with MSP specialists.
  • SMB preference for a single source of managed services will have an impact on managed services market and channel development.
  • SMBs have a definitive view of pricing and per user/ per device is not the way forward 

The role of the vendor in the managed services channel

  • Vendors must navigate a mix of generic channel requirements and requirements that are specific to managed services partners.
  • Generic requirements for end-to-end solutions are less important in managed services (where best-of-breed is paramount) than in other areas.
  • Vendors must understand and address the challenges faced by partners migrating to managed services specializations; this course will be complex and expensive.
  • Vendors will benefit from aligning with managed services partners’ value propositions, which are in turn well aligned with business outcomes (and business buyers).

Working with the SMB managed services customer: managed services addresses key buy-side imperatives

  • SMBs are more dependent on technology than ever before.
  • Since 2010, IT staffing has dropped in microbusinesses, and increased in small and midmarket firms. Accordingly, managed services acts as a substitute for IT staff in firms with 1-19 employees, and as a means of augmenting IT management in larger SMBs.
  • SMBs are struggling with IT complexity, and turning to managed services providers for support.

The survey data shows that channel partners struggle to transition from delivering some managed services to building viable businesses on a managed services model. To be successful, vendors will need to set objectives spanning a three-year period over which managed services specialization will emerge.

Many IT vendors will struggle with simply understanding this fundamental change in the market, and more will fail to understand the focus and investment required to grow with partners through this transitional period.

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SMB managed services adoption increases amidst acquisition challenges

SMB Current and Planned adoption
Techaisle’s SMB Managed Services adoption study (US, UK, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, China) shows that a substantial and rapidly-growing segment of SMBs across different geographies are using some combination of managed services to support IT and business requirements. Drilling into the US data, 40% of SMBs are currently using one or more types of managed services, increase of 21% from a year ago. Take-up of managed services within micro businesses is relatively low but doubles within the 10-19 employee size businesses. Techaisle survey data also shows that confusion around what managed services is and how they work has a negative impact on take-up in this segment, reinforcing the importance of education to building acceptance within this market.

Managed services usage rates are far higher within larger SMBs. Firms with 20-499 employees, who are trying to scale IT faster than can be achieved through in-house staff, are very avid users of managed services. Larger midmarket firms, where managed services is often a means of augmenting current staff (to deliver on niche specialities and/or to cover standard tasks so that in-house resources can move on to new initiatives), are also heavy users of managed services.

As impressive as these figures are, the ranks of managed services SMB users are poised to swell further within the next 12-24 months. Survey responses from companies with 1-9 employees indicate that the proportion of very small businesses using one or more managed services will double during this period. Growth within other SMB e-size segments will be less dramatic, but aggressive nonetheless.

The combination of increased reliance on technology as a key element of business success (as shown in the study), burgeoning complexity and cost constraint has created a “perfect storm” for use of managed services. SMBs are not just dealing with more technology, but with more complex technology.

SMB Managed Services acquisition challenges
A question exploring the issue of “what are the toughest challenges faced by SMBs when purchasing managed services” in the Techaisle SMB Managed Services Adoption Trends survey found four broad challenges: 1/ identifying solutions that address operational support requirements, 2/ selection of qualified providers, 3/ presenting a valid business case to senior management, and 4/ available funding.

The primacy of these issues changes with employee size:

  • Microbusinesses (1-19 employees) struggle most with finding appropriate suppliers – MSPs who understand and can work with companies that lack internal IT resources.
  • Small businesses (20-99 employees) struggle most with providing a valid business case to management. These firms are on the line separating the “managed services as a replacement for in-house staff” approach of microbusinesses and the “managed services as a means of augmenting IT management” approach of larger SMBs. At least in some cases, management considers outsourced services to be an either/or proposition rather than an “and” and needs help in understanding why a mixed approach to IT service delivery makes both technical and economic sense.
  • Available funding is the key issue for smaller midmarket (100-499 employees) businesses. These firms are pulled between the need to keep pace with IT opportunities and requirements (as defined by larger competitors) and the need to watch cash flow very carefully (as is the case with small businesses).
  • Larger midmarket firms (500-999 employees) are challenged primarily by identifying solutions addressing operational support requirements. These companies have specific needs and require complex solutions. It’s telling that it is also a challenge for these firms to find qualified suppliers and to develop a business case that can be absorbed by senior management.

SMB's use careful evaluation of supplier and platform
Techaisle’s corresponding SMB Channel Partners trend study (survey across several countries) and The State of US SMB Managed Services Channel study shows that the percent of US SMB channel partners offering managed services has increased to 71% from just below 70% in 2013.

There is a tight connection between managed services supply and demand. The interaction between SMB buyers and the firms that supply managed services is important to the vibrancy of the managed services market. The SMB Managed Services Adoption Trends explored some of the key issues in supplier evaluation and managed services sourcing. Once a relationship has been struck, SMBs and managed service providers need to connect effectively through the managed service delivery platform. Survey results indicate that there are five key elements that are integral to a compelling platform and SMBs use an average of 3.2 factors for MSP evaluation criteria.

SMB MSP fragmentation and coming channel transformation
Techaisle believes that the channel is at the beginning of a migration from generalist to specialist firms that will play out over the next few years. The variety and depth of managed services will make it difficult for non-specialists to keep pace with MSP specialists. Techaisle survey trend data clearly reveals that SMB channel partners have hit a point of fragmentation: they can be all things to all people today, but not in 2018. On this topic and more in Techaisle’s channel subscription services consisting of:

Related research areas

  • SMB Channel Trends
  • The State of SMB Cloud Channel
  • The State of SMB Managed Services Channel
  • The State of SMB Virtualization Channel
  • The State of SMB Mobility Channel

and corresponding SMB coverage:

  • SMB Cloud Adoption Trends
  • SMB Mobility Adoption Trends
  • SMB Managed Services Adoption Trends
  • SMB Virtualization and Converged Infrastructure Adoption Trends
  • SMB Collaboration Adoption Trends
  • SMB IT Decision Makers: TDM vs. LoB
  • SMB Big Data Adoption Trends
  • SMB Security Adoption Trends
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SMB Server virtualization penetration is increasing but challenges remain

Techaisle’s SMB Server Virtualization adoption market trends study shows that US SMB server virtualization penetration has reached 54 percent (un-weighted), up from 41 percent two years ago. Within midmarket businesses the penetration has reached 88 percent and another 7 percent are planning in the next one year.

Figure below uses data from multiple surveys to illustrate trends in virtualization penetration within SMB accounts that have adopted server virtualization. In 2013 the proportions of servers virtualized was very similar across all employee size categories, ranging from 61%-62% in microbusinesses (which sometimes only have one server, making virtualization an all-or-nothing proposition) to just over 50% in midmarket enterprises with 500-999 employees, which can be expected to have many servers. The statistics for 2014 show virtualization penetration rising in all employee-size segments: rapidly in microbusinesses and the 500-999 midmarket enterprises, and gradually in other SMB segments. The perspective on future intentions, drawn from the Techaisle SMB 2015 survey, indicates that these trends will continue and accelerate. Microbusinesses and larger SMBs (including both the 250-499 and the 500-999 segments) are expecting rapid further penetration of virtualized servers, and the other midmarket segments are expecting a further 6%-10% of servers to be virtualized.

percent-servers-virtualized-within-smbs-2015-techaisle

What does this trend mean to the market?

Clearly, there is increasing opportunity for hypervisor sales, and Techaisle would expect that VMware will find purchase within companies looking to connect virtualized servers to other infrastructure assets (especially, for example, hybrid cloud or software-defined networking or storage), while alternative suppliers, such as Microsoft, gain share in the core market as multi-hypervisor strategies become more common. Techaisle expects that this trend also indicates increased opportunity for converged infrastructure products as these systems can be used to capitalize on advanced virtualization capabilities.

Location of Virtualized servers

A comparison of 2013 and 2015 research results shows that within each employee size segment, SMB end-user organizations are becoming more likely to virtualize servers that are located outside of their business premises. Across the entire SMB community, there has been a 45% increase in off-premise virtualized servers in the past two years: an enormous shift that highlights the broader shift towards remote management of infrastructure resource.

location-of-virtualized-servers-smbs-2015-techaisle

If virtualizing servers is so popular – why isn’t it universal?

The Techaisle interview of 848 US SMB ITDMs uncovered a number of reasons why SMBs struggle with virtualization adoption. The top five challenges cited in the research illustrate the complexity that can accompany infrastructure changes.

The most prominent challenge, cited by 34% of SMB respondents, was the high cost of virtualization licenses, which may explain why the expansion of virtualization within current user accounts often includes investigation of (and in many cases, migration to) a multi-hypervisor strategy that adds “free” options such as Hyper-V and Xen.

top-5-server-virtualization-smb-challenges-2015-techaisle

The third most common challenge is that management of virtual servers proved to be more difficult than anticipated, which may reflect initial learning curve struggles and/or incremental complexities associated with environments relying on multiple hypervisors.

The second leading challenge, “projected cost/space/power savings not achieved,” highlights both the cost and complexity issues: it can be difficult to obtain projected densities/utilization rates during the adoption/migration period, and expenses can escalate in several ways: due to costs associated with virtualization solution licenses, and also because of the “high cost of ISV licenses for applications running in a virtualized environment” and generally higher-than-anticipated project costs. It is worth noting as well that in small businesses (1-99 employees), “lack of experience” is also seen as a major server virtualization challenge, cited by 22% of survey respondents.

On the positive side, the relatively high level of server virtualization experience found within the SMB channel partners (Techaisle SMB Channel Trends study) may help mitigate this issue – but it should act as a caution when evaluating market outlooks for VDI and DaaS, where experience levels within both the SMB buyer and SMB channel communities are much lower.

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