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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.

New partner program from Cisco seizes the channel transformation conversation

Cisco held its annual Partner Summit on October 28-29, 2020, where it announced its new partner program. Since then, I have been sifting through pre-event analyst briefings, at-event announcements, post-event partner discussions. It has been difficult to find flaws with the Cisco partner program's vision, trajectory, commitment, and investments that Cisco is making in an integrated execution model to simplify partner engagement, support profitability, and drive partner differentiation. Cisco is focusing on customer-in rather than product-out.

Key announcements:

  • New partner program organized around four roles (Integrator, Provider, Developer, Advisor) while maintaining three-tier structure (Gold, Premier, Select)
  • Partner Experience Platform (PXP), a digital house to deliver a single source of truth and provide actionable insights, API-enabled for more automation and higher efficiency for partner success; consistent eight-month initiative resulting in a move from 166 siloed partner tools to a unified platform approach
  • Business Critical Services (BCS 3.0), a set of advisory services for customer use cases, for example, a secure remote workforce, trusted workplace, cloud transformation, multi-cloud networking, workload management, and automation
  • Significant increases in incentives for participating in BCS, Success Tracks, and Solution support

Rather than elaborating on each announcement's details, in this Techaisle Take, I am highlighting the three areas that showcase why Cisco is leading the charge in defining channels' future.

Future-ready partner profitability journey

The impact of the cloud on traditional channel business models is wrenching at all levels of business operations. Pay-as-you-go models are compelling to customers; there are higher rewards in business valuations for recurring revenue, and pursuit of as-a-Service calls for different sales approaches. Cisco recognizes that the profit model that was relevant yesterday, based on product lifecycle with margins, rebates, and close to the box services, is not the profit model that a partner will need to succeed. In direct contrast to several IT suppliers' narration about the customer journey, Cisco leads the partner profitability journey's conversation. Before the new announcements, the Cisco partner program was Cisco-out but not customer-in. Cisco put partners in a box, based on how they transacted or interacted with Cisco. The new program emphasizes the roles that partners play for customers. Besides integrators and providers, Cisco has added two new roles– developers and advisors. Developers who assemble solutions by leveraging Cisco components or building on Cisco's platform, and advisors who use their expertise to guide customers to the right solution, often in a pre-sales motion, or kickstart on the lifecycle journey.

Channel partners have looked to vendors for information on technology directions. They will continue to align new offerings with customer needs and internal resources with emerging requirements. This dependence grows more acute in times of structural industry change, as channel partners look to vendors for product insight and guidance on how to position their firms to ride with and not get swamped by the waves of change. However, the cloud has broken many of the links which connected channel and IT supplier business strategies. The buyer needs have become much more acute in the cloud era – meaning that the channel partner has an essential role to play in supporting mainstream businesses in IT acquisition. But the services/functions that have justified vendor payments to the channel have less direct value, which has strained the vendor/channel relationship. The channel's most significant opportunity is in meeting buyer needs – and that requires that the channel partner plot a path for the buyers rather than vendors. Cisco's new partner program helps partners be future-ready and build these capabilities to drive profitability by delivering full customer value across the lifecycle.

It is critical for partners to invest in new capabilities and differentiate their practices because the differentiated practices can jump-start their profitability journey. Front-end discounts and deal protection matter too for the partners. Cisco is inching towards a vendor-partner zero-friction future by introducing guided deal registration, which means faster approval time through a simplified process, apply the right promotions to offer the best discounts. Partners that are customer experience specialized will see incremental discounts and protection.
To align with the primary revenue model, cloud channel partners often view sales commissions as tied to a book of business, which is a challenging proposition to present to seasoned reps who have substantial quotas and variable compensation expectations. It is one reason why established channel partners have difficulty migrating from product sales to hybrid/cloud sales. To assist the partners, Cisco provides a bonus for maintaining monthly recurring revenue and a cumulative book of business. Lifecycle incentives vary from US$7500 (lifecycle starters) to US$100,000 (for defining a use case and then successfully delivering upon it) with the potential to earn up to 6% for additional software licenses sold.

APIs are essential to empower the consumption of Cisco technologies and enable partners to build tools and services on top. The shift to APIs isn't a matter of moving to where the market is going – it represents a requirement to accommodate a current need that will continue to increase in importance. Software-led business assessment is a tool that Cisco is introducing to help partners identify where they are in their journey. The tool identifies areas that partners may want to invest in or begin the process of becoming software-led and moving into the world of transformation. Associated with the assessment tool is a profitability simulator. Once the partner has determined the transformation path it wants to take, the tool simulates a profitability profile to ensure that partners get a return on their strategic investments.

Pivot to customer value creation through as-a-service

The notion that channel businesses need to add value - logistics, installation of software, upgrade, or implementation of a system, provision of services - to remain viable is old. Each value-add has an essential factor in common – it looks at what the channel does to enhance its revenue stream or differentiation. However, future-ready channel partners need to look at the issue from the other direction: how do the products and services delivered create value for the customer? What is my client able to do differently or faster, or more efficiently in a way that enhances their revenue stream or differentiation? In today's post-pandemic reality, customers are not especially interested in optimizing their hardware and software widgets' performance – they are focused on improving their businesses' performance. And this is where Cisco is focusing, empowering partners through agility, relevancy, and profitability to create customer value successfully.

We know that "as-a-service" is growing and is on its way to becoming the dominant technology acquisition model, as both a consequence of customer demand and a result of IT suppliers changing their business approaches to emphasize the as-a-service delivery model. Like HPE and Dell Technologies, Cisco is on a mission to empower buyers' preferences for rapidly deployable solutions through as-a-service, the need to work with managed service providers, realize value from technology investment, and assure the desired business outcome.

Cisco is estimating its as-a-service opportunity to be US$140 billion, two-thirds of which is potentially from the small market segment with pre-integrated solutions based on consumption models. Cisco is approaching the new technology acquisition business model holistically through three lenses: 1/ delivering exceptional outcomes, 2/ enabling and facilitating agility for Cisco customers by removing their operational burden when adopting Cisco solutions, 3/ regardless of the IT and cloud maturity as well as the size of the business, allowing them to adopt Cisco solutions in the most flexible manner.

Seeing the 'new normal' through the eyes of the customer

As per Cisco, its most profitable partners have been winning larger deals by accessing new buying centers outside of IT, by co-selling with ecosystem partners. Over the past six months, the need for partners that can support strategy, implementation, integration, and optimization has become much more acute. Business patterns changed by COVID-19 require businesses to accelerate digital transformation within their operations. In many customer organizations, purchasing authority has shifted from IT to business management. The shift requires partners to position their offerings and services in terms that emphasize business metrics, such as time to market and measurable revenue and cost impact, rather than technical specifications and targets. This business focus ripples through partner marketing and technical operations: marketing needs to emphasize time-to-benefit, the ability of individual solutions to contribute to overall business agility, and the direct application of IT features to pressing business needs; on the technology side, partners need to focus as much as possible on services centered around pre-built vertical solutions that can be deployed and integrated rapidly, with replicable processes and predictable outcomes, so that delivery matches the vision set by marketing and the requirements of the customer executives.

For decades, a turnkey solution approach worked well for customers, the channel, and vendors but it is out of sync with a hybrid world focused on a continuous path towards ever-greater levels of digital business capabilities. Business users are not committing to static systems that manage defined tasks/processes; instead, they are building approaches that allow for incremental deployment of new capabilities that increase reach and efficiency. And this is where Cisco is heading with a book of business aimed at the business buyer through a co-selling approach with Cisco sellers and ecosystem partners. To be successful, channel partners need to develop an ability to be flexible in their approach to customer needs. Cisco is committing to support this flexibility by enabling an ecosystem that can extend the ways solutions are deployable by adopting APIs that facilitate integration across complementary offerings. It also requires Cisco to establish alliances that help position these integrations as part of a strategy aligned with a digitally-transforming market.

Final Techaisle Take

In short, Cisco's partner program is ready for the future. It is a program that can help channel partners become the navigators in plotting customer digital transformation strategies.

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Dell Technologies emerges as a new compelling challenger in the as-a-service market

HPE is not the only game in town. Dell had announced its entry into the aaS arena in 2017 with PCaaS on the client-side. Dell Technologies, the only IT supplier with an end-to-end portfolio, announced its latest foray into the "as-a-service" (aaS) arena with Project Apex, which it hopes will take Dell Technologies' aaS capabilities to the next level. Its objective is to unify Dell's as-a-service and cloud strategies to provide a consistent experience wherever a workload runs - on-premise, at the edge, or in the public cloud. Project Apex aims to simplify customers' and Dell Technologies partners' access to Dell's as-a-service portfolio. The first product, Dell Technologies Storage as a Service (ST-as-a-service), delivers a pay-per-use model and elastic capacity and is deployed on-prem but fully managed by Dell at the initial launch. The key enabler of Project Apex is the Dell Technologies Cloud Console. This single web interface enables customers to manage their cloud workloads and services, available to a few select early customers with a wider roll-out in 2021. Dell has a long road ahead with "everything-as-a-service" as a final destination. After STaaS, Dell is expected to roll out compute-as-a-service (COMPUTEaaS), PCaaS, Data-protection-as-a-Service (DPaaS) and vertical solutions (SAPaaS). PC-as-a-Service (PCaaS) is already available. Apex will enable it to move from a bundled, "leased" offer tying software and services to each device in an annual price per seat to modern, flexible aaS capabilities providing customers with tailored offers of hardware, software and services delivered over the air and accessed/ managed through a single portal enabling customers to seamlessly scale up and down specific to their unique needs and renew effortlessly, with one simple price per month.

HPE may have the lead, but nobody can claim a victory lap as yet. It is too early to declare a winner. Dell is a compelling challenger. It matters to SMBs, Midmarket firms, Enterprise customers and Partners.

Cloud, private cloud, and conventional infrastructure are three parts of a whole. Dell Technologies is currently betting on it by providing simplicity, consistency, and flexibility. However, the current branding of solution offerings of Dell Technologies Cloud Platform and Dell Technologies On Demand will need to merge quickly to avoid digressing and having complex customer conversations on the merits of each. And then, there is the VMware Cloud, which adds to the choice complexity.

Let us discuss why the as-a-service challanger status matters to SMBs, Midmarket firms and Dell Technologies' Partners.

Why the announcement matters to SMBs and Midmarket firms

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HPE is serious about addressing the technology needs of SMBs

In 2019, the phrase doubling down on SMB was mentioned several times, including the keynote address by Antonio Neri at HPE Discover. Fast forward to the present, HPE's SMB momentum is building. George Hope, a 22-year veteran with SMB channel experience, is the new worldwide channel chief. With more than a decade of SMB market understanding, Maciek Szczesniak is the new Vice President and General Manager SMB and Mid-Market. HPE's GreenLake, a flagship, "as-a-service" product, which offers a flexible alternative to traditional IT hardware consumption, is now available in a smaller starting capacity targeted at channel partners and their SMB and midmarket customers.

HPE is undoubtedly doubling down on the SMB segment. Last week HPE made several announcements:

- Smaller starting capacity for HPE GreenLake
- SMB FlexOffers program for SMB and midmarket customer
- Specialist support for HPE GreenLake and Storage portfolios

Smaller starting capacity for HPE GreenLake

HPE GreenLake packages now are available from as low as $70,000 with storage (HPE Nimble Storage) and compute (HPE ProLiant servers). The storage starting capacity is 15TB and compute at 4 servers. HPE will continue to offer a 17 percent reseller rebate to drive profitability with partners selling HPE GreenLake. In the coming months, HPE plans to expand to provide a lower starting capacity across the technology portfolio. The speed with which HPE is lowering the minimum threshold is commendable. In mid-2019, HPE had announced a $200,000 minimum targeted at midmarket customers, only a year ago.

The announcement is very significant in addressing the technology needs of SMBs and midsized businesses. Most SMB executives understand that technology plays a central role in their management processes. Many also realize that payback on any technology asset increases as one approaches full utilization and that economies of scale tend to benefit larger rather than smaller organizations. SMBs know that they cannot realistically target and reach optimal IT resource utilization. A small business has trouble consuming all of the new systems' capacity, meaning that they often pay for resources they are not using. Those that do get to full utilization have a different problem: systems that lack adequate storage, memory and compute capacity frequently crash. SMBs cannot rapidly deploy new servers, storage, and networking equipment. Even if they were, the SMB would know that it is paying some form of premium: an SMB will never get to the purchase volumes needed to warrant large scale discounts. Hence, HPE's GreenLake, with its consumption-based business model, is an excellent fit for SMB customers.

However, the awareness and advantages of a consumption-based technology acquisition model are limited and challenging within the SMB segment regardless of whether SMBs are the front-runners in cloud adoption. Techaisle data shows that as the complexity of technology increases over the next five years, most small and midmarket firms will not realize the return on investments for long periods or as their businesses scale. HPE and its partners are well-positioned in the market to gain from the massive shift to XaaS procurement models.

SMB FlexOffers program for SMB and midmarket customer

Channel partners are the primary conduit to HPE's SMB and midmarket success. Price-conscious SMBs are demanding agility from their channel partners in their digital transformation deployments of core infrastructure solutions. To meet the SMBs and the partners' needs, HPE debuted its FlexOffers program providing distribution and SMB-focused solution provider partners the ability to customize their built-to-order (BTO) products at bundled discount prices. Partners get the flexibility to select preferred options that, through dynamic attach-driven pricing, can help them access and ensure the best price. Besides, solution providers will drive quicker delivery times by leveraging distributor inventory, and distributors will benefit from an automated, simplified claiming process. In the initial phase, SMB FlexOffers include HPE ProLiant Servers and HPE Storage products. HPE FlexOffers is being offered through select distributors during the pilot starting in November 2020. Partners will leverage the iQuote partner portal that HPE has been refining for the last two years.

Specialist support for HPE GreenLake and Storage portfolios

However, selling "as-a-service" requires that channel partners invest in pre-sales activities. There will be a proverbial opening of floodgates of latent demand from channel partners with the new announcements. Recognizing the need, HPE is committed to providing specialist support for HPE GreenLake and dedicated pre-sales for the channel. HPE will also be providing training for partners to accelerate their HPE GreenLake knowledge and positioning. The additional support will be in the form of dedicated enablement initiatives, like workshops with experts, to help partners personalize their as-a-service journey.
HPE is serious about equipping its partners to participate in the "as-a-service" business model. It offers partners training on HPE GreenLake and an opportunity to self-assess partner "maturity" to shape their own consumption/aaS journey with HPE around their (and their customers') needs.

The shift to "as-a-service" has been in the making for a long time. In FY21, HPE plans to extend partner support and activation through unique and specific enablement initiatives piloted last year with a few partners, who also participated in HPE's "Consumption Advisory Council" meetings. An example is Advizex, an HPE Platinum partner for 35 years.

Not three years ago, the HPE Channel & Pointnext team started to help partners shift to consumption IT and HPE GreenLake to expand opportunities, accelerate digital transformation, and gain competitive advantage. HPE's team collaborated with Advizex on marketing initiatives, education, and dedicated workshops and enablement. This strategic effort allowed Advizex to assess their readiness to shift to consumption, identify the knowledge and actions needed, become proficient in selling HPE GreenLake and consumption IT ahead of the competition, and develop a strategic plan to drive consumption IT with HPE. Now, as HPE doubles down on HPE GreenLake specialist resources, it can extend this kind of support to all partners who decide to focus on HPE's consumption offering.

Solution providers and distributors will also have the opportunity to elevate their conversations and accelerate sales by working with HPE's "Storage Rangers" - outcome-based solution selling experts with a high degree of technical skills. These specialists will help partners enhance the request for quotation (RFQ) process to execute existing campaigns and initiatives.

Storage Rangers are funded heads (aka Champions, partner-badged) with a specific focus on storage. The geographies that have opted-in to the program have nominated a Program Lead (HPE-badged), and that is the go-to person if a partner wants to have a Ranger. HPE offers a specific training curriculum for Sales & Presales Rangers and local support to help them deliver on the request for quotation (RFQ) process and generate new business opportunities.

Each IT supplier is currently focusing on streamlining deal registration for its channel partners. Techaisle's latest global channel survey research of our 2400 partners shows that fees and activity-based incentives, solution development funds, and deal registration are significant enablement incentives for 40% to 50% of partners. Partners have an unmistakable idea of their criteria for partnerships - vendors that are easy to do business with, technical support, quality of partner programs, and those who offer end-to-end solutions that are easy to deploy, integrate are preferred. HPE is increasing its commitment to providing its partners with price and margin protection and new incentives as part of its deal registration program.

Final one-line Techaisle Take

Competition with Dell is on full display. There is no reason to ignore HPE as an IT supplier and a vendor partner for addressing the technology needs of the SMB and midmarket firms for better business outcomes.

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