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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.

Scale Computing – Hyperconvergence for the SMBs

The rise in virtualization has been driving an accompanying demand for converged infrastructure or hyperconvergence: products that combine processing, storage and networking into a robust and scalable unit that can support and respond to the options inherent in virtualization. While the migration from separate server, storage and networking products to converged infrastructure is still in its early stages, the Techaisle SMB virtualization & converged infrastructure survey shows that it is beginning to gain traction, especially within more sophisticated SMB accounts.

Scale computing, launched in 2008, based out of Indianapolis with development in San Francisco bay area and offices in London, Paris, Toronto and Dubai made its SMB focused hyperconvergence launch at VMworld in 2012. Since then Scale Computing has implemented over 6,000 systems in a little over 1,600 customers.

As per Techaisle’s SMB virtualization and converged infrastructure survey, the key barriers to adopting hyperconvergence within SMBs are high cost of implementation, infrastructure disruption during roll-out, greater-than-anticipated time and resource investment, and the complexity of integrating new infrastructure units with existing infrastructure. For example, a pet peeve of SMBs when using VMware on HP Proliant DL380 G8 is their inability to use cloud migration to upgrade or add G8 or G9. These are the issues that Scale Computing is trying to address. In defense of VMware, although the initial code base of ESX was never built to be self-aware, VMware is working on it.

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Dell Channels – All the right moves?

Channel Momentum

As some IT companies continue to consolidate and others split up, Dell is promising its channel partners consistency, stability and increased profitability. And it is showing:

  • Dell Channel revenue now represents more than 40 percent of overall Dell commercial revenue and its channel business is growing faster than the overall market

  • Channel revenue growth is up double digits in 10 of Dell’s top 11 countries year-over-year

  • Dell solutions are now available through three of top Distributors - Ingram, TechData and Synnex - and where Dell is experiencing growth in excess of 50 percent


To keep the channel momentum intact, Dell is pledging US$125 million in enhanced incentives to help channel partners bid and close new customer acquisitions and also deploy towards retention deals with existing customers.

As always, not willing to take any hype on face value Techaisle took to the streets to really talk with Dell SMB channel partners and especially those who have partnered with both Dell and HP. Over the course of last three weeks, Techaisle conducted over 25 depth interviews with SMB channel partners. The discussions clearly revealed that the partners have started to look at Dell rather seriously. As one of them said, “Dell has changed its approach and outlook towards channel partners after it went private. They monitor and coordinate with their partners just like any other OEM. They have changed their ways in how they strategize and have created their training plans to cater to our needs and are succeeding by actively collaborating.”

Another partner, based in Texas and focused on SMBs was more direct, “Dell hasn’t been looking at channel partners as a key to gain market share unlike OEMs like HP. A few months back only about a 30 percent of sales were driven by the channel partners and the rest was a result of Dell’s direct sales efforts. The reason is that Dell itself had a large sales team managing sales accounts. However, after Dell went private they have mended their ways in how they look at us. They have kept the key sales accounts with themselves and the rest have been distributed amongst the channel partners for further management and revenue generation which is a good step as it inculcates trust and sense of real partnership.”

Impressive Numerics

At one of my sit-down meetings, Cheryl Cook, VP, Global Channels and Alliances shared some impressive statistics:

  • Dell has 167,000 channel partners out of which 4,255 are Preferred and Premium partners.

  • Nearly 700 channel partners chose to become premier or preferred partners of Dell in 2014, a testament to channel commitment

  • Training uptake, (a top requirement of channel partners as per Techaisle SMB Channel study), was up by 54 percent in 1H’14. But more importantly, training on software solutions increased by 102 percent.

  • Over 82,000 deal registrations were processed, up 8 percent YoY and software (security, device management, data protection, systems management) deal registration was up by 32 percent

  • Rebates processed was also up by 23 percent during the same time frame

  • 4400 new customers were acquired through channels, transacted 10,000 new orders out of which 1200 were for storage and 1600 for software


Although she deftly skipped my question on how many named accounts have been formally handed over to channel partners she reiterated that Dell is continuing to maintain its compensation accelerator program which is yielding good results. Recently, a little over 200,000 greenfield accounts have been posted on the Partner Portal.

Investment in Training, Support, Lead generation, Consultative partnerships

Most channel partners that Techaisle spoke with agreed that Dell has been concentrating on technical training sessions and regularly assessing partners’ performance with a clear objective of empowering them with required product knowledge to be able to pitch to the right set of SMB customers in the best possible way. Unlike the immediate past, account managers from Dell have suddenly become approachable. Some partners went to the extent of telling Techaisle “we specifically like the pre-sales and sales trainings that Dell has designed for Channel Partners. At times I feel that their efforts in the field of training annoy us as there are multiple and repetitive requests for attending or undergoing the same set of trainings that we have already gone through. They do not yet have a system to remove these redundancies”.

Channels are also having good experiences working with Dell’s consultative approach. “Lately, we were dealing with a few SMB customers and they wanted the account managers and few other technical experts to be available on call. We worked together with Dell and closed 3 deals where the consultative partnership worked in our favor”, said an SMB channel partner based in California.

Dell is also investing in supporting the channels when they bid for complex engagements. Their pre-sales support has improved as compared to before as channels now have access to their technical resources who work along with partners’ technical teams in understanding customer requirements, existing customer infrastructure to suggest suitable solutions.

In addition to training and support Dell is making a series of investments to help channel partners by:

  • Making available 5X demo gear to facilitate proof-of-concept

  • Increasing number of Solution centers for partners to showcase Dell end-to-end solutions to their customers (granted not many SMB channel partners will take advantage)

  • Improving areas of financing such as extending credit and payment terms thereby assisting channel partners in better managing their cash flows. The terms announced are 75 days interest-free financing on all Dell purchases for an introductory period of 180 days


Are conflicts a thing of the past? Channels are cautiously optimistic

Dell seems to be diligently working towards building trust within its channel partners. Dell and its partners have had a love-hate relationship due to conflicts with Dell’s strong direct sales force across all divisions. In fact, with the progress made, channels are wishing that Dell limits its investment in its internal sales teams as it would in all probability bring back the channels to “square one”.

The channel partner community reminded us of unpleasant past experiences of “Dell snatching customers from their partners and dealing with them directly”. But they quickly added, “We haven’t come across such a scenario (lately) and would never want to face a situation like that”.

Another partner said, “Dell has always been known for their direct business and has ramped up their efforts in the indirect sales through channels around a year ago. Earlier, we never knew if a deal which is routed through us will be closed keeping us in loop (with our margins intact) or Dell may go ahead and deal with the customer directly. Now, this has completely changed and Dell itself directs the customers to go through us”.

An HP and Dell partner was eager to get his point across regarding lead generation saying that Dell is managing a nice balance while sharing potential customer details with only one partner. HP is not following this approach triggering conflicts.

End-to-End Solutions message is resonating

Dell is steadfastly focused on its end-to-end solutions strategy and channels are paying attention. “Dell offers support in implementing end-to-end solutions. They work with us in consultation to determine the best product and solutions based on SMB customer requirements. Account Manager from Dell works with us closely when we deal with such deployments. We get all the technical help required, if skills are not available with us. Dell offers us access to experts (both on calls and physically, when required) from functional areas when we deal with SMBs for deployment of end-to-end solutions”.

Channels are finding that not only end-to-end solution deals give them extra margins but also makes it easier to deal with Dell, namely, channels get a better attention from Dell. Techaisle feels that if selective attention becomes the norm then many Dell SMB channel partners may flounder.

A mid-west Dell SMB channel partner was very vocal when we spoke with him. “Dell is important while we engage in end-to-end deals with our customers. Dell’s role starts from pre-sales to the deployment of such engagements. They offer the required marketing set-up for the products and solutions. If we have to take care of these things on our own, I think our margins will squeeze and it will be difficult to sustain our business”.

Having a full portfolio of offerings also allows “non-end-to-end solution channel partners” to sell adjacent technologies. For example, “we have clubbed and sold Dell hardware with Cisco, NetApp and IBM storage management and security solutions”.

Then there are other channel partners who try and build solutions with a product from Dell as the center-point. “Based on customer requirements we will see if there is a Dell product suited to meet the needs. If yes, we pitch for it and if there isn’t a product suited, we may bundle it up with other solutions and design an end-to-end solution for our customer. If the customer wants to go with a specific product and Dell doesn’t have promising product in the area; in these cases we will bundle it up with other product and present it as an end-to-end solution to our customers”.

Lingering Channel Challenges

To my question on what should channel partners be expecting next from Dell, Cheryl Cook quickly points out her focus on strategic pillars of mobility, security and Big Data with big push on converged infrastructure and innovative storage solutions.  She counters me with a question on VMware EVO:RAIL and its “fantastic” suitability for the SMB market segment.

Channels are listening and echoing that the fastest selling Dell solutions are Rack and Blade servers. But they feel that Dell has not yet been able to position its Force10 and SonicWall offerings effectively and channels are losing to Cisco or HP.

As conflict is disappearing, trust is settling in, channels have a new gripe. When a customer floats an RFP to a number of partners, Dell seizes the responsibility to directly speak with the customer, decides which partner is in the best position to offer most favorable terms and informs other partners to step aside and not waste their time on a deal which may not land with them at all. This annoys the channel partners as they would like a fair opportunity to win the deal and gain a customer by cutting down on own their margins.

No Regrets – but could have been bolder

Looking at the last one year since taking the helm, Cheryl Cook has no visible regrets. After much coaxing and cogitating she says, “Perhaps we could have been bolder in our move” referring to speed of Dell’s organizational moves and intuitive proactive thinking. The future is bright and she and her team are committed to helping all partners – “narrow or broadline”.
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Brand Equity - A New Prescription for Cisco’s SMB Channel Partner Success

Cisco and the SMB market

Cisco has established an undisputed leadership position in the enterprise market. The company combines a widely-adopted and well-integrated portfolio of networking products with a highly-skilled (and paid) direct sales force to manage/expand its presence within major accounts.

The SMB market is a separate challenge. Here, buyers are less likely to require integration across multiple network components and more likely to emphasize price. They are also more likely to receive advice/management from channel partners, further reducing Cisco’s control over the acquisition process.

Against this backdrop, Techaisle’s SMB Channel Trends research illustrates the strengths and challenges Cisco must manage, as it looks to expand its share in the SMB segment.

Cisco Commands High Trust and Reputation

Within the channel community, Cisco enjoys a sound reputation and a high degree of trust. Techaisle’s latest SMB channel partner survey shows that 78 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners trust Cisco, a higher percentage than is registered by competitors such as HP and IBM. Nearly 70 percent of the partners believe that Cisco has quality products – again, the highest ranking recorded within the ‘hardware leader’ group including Cisco, HP, IBM and others. However, only 52 percent mention that Cisco has cutting edge technology, a percentage lower than that for both IBM and Microsoft. Moreover, 60 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners say that they Like Cisco, lower than corresponding rates for HP and Microsoft, only slightly higher than is found for IBM.

In its 2013 Annual report Cisco has written, “A substantial portion of our products and services is sold through our channel partners, and the remainder is sold through direct sales.” With specific reference to SMBs, Cisco wrote, “Generally, we define commercial businesses as companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. The larger, or midmarket, customers within the commercial market are served by a combination of our direct salesforce and our channel partners. These customers typically require the latest advanced technologies that our enterprise customers demand, but with less complexity. Small businesses, or companies with fewer than 100 employees, require information technologies and communication products that are easy to configure, install, and maintain. These smaller companies within the commercial market are primarily served by our channel partners.” Techaisle’s data shows that Cisco has attracted positive attention within this channel partner community, but that its technology and relationships do not leave it especially differentiated from competitors.

Technology Shift has Created SMB Messaging Challenges

In recent years SMB technology demands have shifted to cloud, mobility, analytics, social media, collaboration, managed services and virtualization. Cisco is seeking to capitalize on this market transition through the development of cloud-based product and service offerings that enable its customers develop and deploy their own cloud-based IT solutions.

In communications channel partners in the U.S. including those specializing in the SMB segment – Cisco has been steadily driving them to offer products and services that deploy cloud, mobility, virtualization, managed services and data center solutions. This is by no means an easy task as most SMB channel partners are being actively courted by competitive vendors that also want to grow their emerging technologies’ business. SMB channel partners selling advanced technologies have an average of 3.46 vendor partnerships which average jumps to 4.21 for Cisco SMB partners, a difference of 21 percent. With this increased contention for mind/market/wallet share, it can be difficult for Cisco to manage brand identity and its related messaging.

This difficulty is illustrated by study findings showing that of all the Cisco SMB channel partners, 44 percent consider Cisco to be their top partner. The other 56 percent mention Microsoft, Oracle, HP, IBM and several others. Within the VAR/SI community, Cisco’s share of preference is 48 percent and drops to 39 percent amongst the MSPs/SPs that are viewed as critical to the success of future cloud initiatives.

Cisco’s SMB Channel Partner Brand Equity

Techaisle believes that it is time for a new metric to represent presence (and opportunities for growth) within the SMB market. Techaisle refers to this second-generation measurement approach as Brand Equity Management. It is measured by a robust proprietary index, the Techaisle Brand Equity Score (BES-360).

Techaisle believes that it is important for IT vendors to measure their Brand Equity within SMB channel partners as well as SMBs. Techaisle’s Brand Equity Score, BES-360, helps to identify areas where IT vendors can improve to increase share of wallet. BES-360 is a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) that measures the strength of brand within a segment.

Cisco’s Brand Equity Score within its SMB channel partners is higher than most competitors – but lower than scores for both IBM and Microsoft. The implication of these findings is that even through Cisco has high brand equity amongst its channel partners; it is not necessarily true that its entire SMB-focused channel base is firmly wedded to Cisco’s game plan.

SMB Channel Partner Brand Equity Measurement– the New Prescription

Breaking down the data for Cisco, Techaisle’s study finds that almost 25 percent of Cisco’s channel partners have a Brand Equity rating of 80+. This group forms Cisco’s core partners. The data also shows that almost 35 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners have equity of less than 40. These are the partners that Cisco needs to work on.

Interestingly, small business focused channel partners give a higher Brand Equity Score to Cisco than mid-market focused channel partners. This is a segment that Cisco should address as the mid-market has become a battleground for most IT vendors and there is yet no clear dominant player.

Among all SMB channel partners of Cisco, VARs are actually driving up the Brand Equity Score. In fact 41 percent of VARs constitute the HBE (High Brand Equity) group. On the other hand, MSPs constitute only 20 percent. In order for Cisco to continue to grow its CMSP program and build on its initial successes, Cisco has to turn its attention to the MSPs that serve the SMBs to understand the key reasons for lower brand equity which when fixed can lead to better wallet share among MSPs.

Drilling down further into the data, Techaisle finds that Cisco is not doing better within the overall managed services community than it is within MSPs focused on cloud. A higher percentage of Cisco’s HBE partners are offering managed services to SMBs whereas a higher percentage of ABE (Average Brand Equity) partners are offering Cloud to SMBs. Cisco’s SMB cloud ambitions would benefit from moving some of these ABE cloud partners to HBE segment. The HBE segment offering cloud services need extensive training on cloud solutions to become more successful in offering cloud to their SMB customers. More than 40 percent of these channel partners are working with SMB customers that have private cloud. This may be good for Cisco in the short-term but it does not represent best practice in this segment, and it is misaligned with the ongoing acceptance of public cloud as a preferred IT delivery platform.

Product resale revenue is 43 percent for HBE partners as compared to 38 percent for ABE. Similarly, recurring revenue is 57 percent for HBE as compared to 61 percent for ABE. Naturally, this bodes well for Cisco’s current revenue as the High Brand Equity partners are driving higher revenues from products. However, if Cisco plans to increasingly promote service-centric partners then a lot more work is required to identify partners with higher services revenues and move them into the High Brand Equity segment.

Practicing the Prescription

Techaisle’s brand management work is anchored in the belief that if a vendor’s brand equity is good, then it can compete successfully with vendors with lower brand equity for sales of comparable products or services. Vendors with sound products/services but low brand equity will struggle to maintain parity with competitors that have higher brand equity, even if that vendor’s products/services are (somewhat) inferior. Hence, Brand Equity Score findings help indicate potential areas of expansion or exposure as vendors, like Cisco, assess their potential for expanding the footprint of their brands within the SMB channel partner community. The composition of Cisco’s BES across its channel indicates the core strength of its brand. Techaisle’s analysis indicates that Cisco has both strengths to build on and areas requiring focus as it moves to position its next-generation solutions (especially, cloud solutions) through its channel to the SMB market.

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Dell Channels Power On

As uncertainty swirls around both the IT infrastructure needs of the SMB market and the channel that supplies these solutions, Dell’s channel team, led by Greg Davis and Bob Skelley, could not be more upbeat. And as Techaisle research shows, channel members of Dell’s PartnerDirect program continue to power on.

In a recent Techaisle study of channel partners selling Cloud, Mobility, Managed Services, Virtualization and Datacenter solutions to SMBs, 58 percent said that Dell is a trusted brand with 48 percent mentioning that Dell is a reputable brand. With today’s announcement on software competencies, Dell is looking to build on that presence with an expanded portfolio addressing essential (and high-growth) infrastructure software products.

Partner Voice

It is clear that Dell considers sales enablement and execution to be the keys to its channel success. The company exhibits very tight focus on issues like deal registrations and training. In qualitative interviews, Dell’s partners say that Dell is easy to work with. They report that Dell’s partner program is straightforward, with a low threshold to enter, reasonable certifications’ requirements and all training materials available online. Dell partner executive Marcus Lindqvist, Country Manager for Sweden’s Dustin AB highlighted the benefit of this approach when he shared with us his reasons for being upbeat on Dell: “deal registration, robust process that protects the partner investment in our engagement with Dell on a deal by deal basis. We register the deal at an early stage in the sales process, most deal registrations are approved, and from that point we are in the lead without any future discussions about other partners or Dell direct sales undercutting our work. Deal registration is done online with quick turnaround times.”

Echoing the sentiments, Daniel Serpico, President of FusionStorm, [partner of Dell] noted, “[there is] very real clarity around deal registration and partnering; there is significant value creation around integration and configuration and Dell has infused software and tools to win with Dell.”

Software Competencies

It was only a matter of time before Dell extended the PartnerDirect program beyond its roots, from enabling and incentivizing hardware sales to rolling out software competencies. Over the past year, with numerous acquisitions and the hiring of John Swainson to helm Dell’s software operation, Dell has launched an aggressive strategy to build scalable enterprise software offerings into its solution portfolio, with emphasis in the areas of datacenter and cloud management, information management, mobile workforce management, and security and data protection.

On September 3, Dell announced four new PartnerDirect software competencies, including:

  • Security: Includes identity and access management, as well as network, endpoint and email security

  • Systems Management: Includes client management, performance monitoring, Windows Server management, virtualization and cloud

  • Data Protection: Includes enterprise backup/recovery, virtual protection, application protection and disaster recovery]

  • Information Management: Includes database management, business intelligence/analytics,  applications and data integration, and big data analytics


Dell partners now have the flexibility to decide between reselling hardware only, software only (via resale or a referral fee program) or both hardware and software. As per Techaisle’s Marketview, worldwide SMB (1-999 employees) spend in 2016 for the above four competences will be US$11.1 billion. Combine it with traditional datacenter solutions that includes servers, storage, networking the market spend jumps to over US$40 billion by 2016. This is a huge opportunity indeed for Dell and its channel partners.

Best-of-breed Solutions

The latest Techaisle channel partner study found that 54 percent of channel partners prefer to offer best-of-breed solutions to their SMB customers, with 28 percent preferring single vendor solutions. The key to successfully addressing both preferences is to combine best of breed offerings under a single brand, allowing partners to also take advantage of integration and volume benefits. HP and IBM have been active in staking out this territory; with the September 3 announcement, Dell has signaled its intention to compete aggressively for leadership within the small and mid-market business market segment.

techaisle-solutions-preferred-by-smb-channel-partners

In the cloud infrastructure area, Dell’s partner program rests on three pillars - Cloud Builder, Cloud Provider and Cloud Enabler. For all three pillars, best-of-breed solutions take on an entirely different meaning as shown in another study recently conducted by Techaisle. The study was done to understand the Winning Strategies of Successful and Profitable SMB Channel partners selling cloud.

techaisle-smb-cloud-winning-strategies


The study revealed that channel partners that are comfortable and profitable with cloud solutions combine best-of-breed solutions and wrap them tightly under their own offerings & services. These channels have also begun to utilize reference architectures from their vendor partners.

Training as the Lead-in

Channel partners prefer to partner with IT vendors that have quality products and innovative technology solutions that solve SMB pain points. This presents a complex challenge to vendors like Dell: partners need suppliers to both address customer requirements (with innovative, reasonably-priced and easily-deployed technology that addresses SMB pain points) and partner business requirements, such as training, pre-and-post sales support, and lead generation. As the results of Techaisle’s research demonstrate, product training is particularly important in this context. Dell is clearly cognizant of this demand: Marvin Blough, executive director of Worldwide Channels and Alliances for Dell Software is on record as observing that “Trained partners sell four times more than their untrained counterparts,” and Dell is said to be on plan to deliver over 250,000 training sessions this year.

Techaisle has observed, however, that most vendor training focuses on product attributes, and does not address development of the skills (building and advising on infrastructure strategy and workload roadmaps, establishing effective sales tactics and compensation models, developing the services competencies needed by customers) required for VARs to migrate successfully to advising on and deploying hybrid infrastructure. These advanced management-level training offerings will be essential for vendor differentiation, especially for the complex hardware/software solutions that are at the core of Dell’s evolving strategy.

techaisle-smb-channels-support


Concluding Remarks

Clearly, building leadership in the SMB infrastructure market is an ongoing challenge: requirements continue to evolve, entrenched vendors have strengths and relationships that have developed over many years, and Techaisle’s research has found that trusted brand figures for Dell are lower than for some of its competitors. Its brand equity score (BES) among channel partners is also lower than its competitors. It seems clear, though, that Dell is aware of market requirements and willing to invest in its SMB market and channel success, rolling out training modules, integrating partners acquired through acquisitions and combining both hardware and software for end-to-end solution delivery.

Michael O’Neil, Consulting Analyst with Techaisle, notes that “Infrastructure delivery has become a very challenging issue for business partners. Hardware-only sellers are at a significant disadvantage in a market where buyers are looking for hybrid solutions involving both on-premise and cloud-based platforms that combine server, storage and networking hardware with system management and security software to build solutions that will seamlessly support application delivery, data protection and backup, and many other key operational objectives. By offering a wide range of product types, and focusing on making the selling motion as clean as possible, Dell is enabling partners to focus on customer requirements rather than product silos.”

Looking at Dell’s approach from a partner’s perspective, Daniel Serpico provided an apt summary: “Dell sales teams cover all markets, which allows us as a partner to be able to have discussions with the Dell account manager on a specific account or deal, giving us a counterpart that understand the end-customers actual requirements and needs. Both teams have a laser sharp focus on the customer and to jointly win the deal [supported by] shorter turnaround and quick responses from Dell.”

 
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