Cisco raising the partner bar with channel program changes

Cisco Systems is using its annual partner summit in San Diego this week to introduce its channel partners to a revamped partner program that will see them have to strive harder to reach the Gold level, but that will also offer more opportunities for market differentiation and specialization.

Over 2,200 partners are on hand for the conference, which Cisco says is their largest Partner Summit turnout to date. The themes running through the conference have been “The Edge”, and “The Network as the Platform”, and those themes are reflected in the range of changes the company is making to its partner programs. The channel is an important priority for Cisco, accounting for over 85 per cent of the company’s sales.

Edison Peres, Cisco’s vice-president of worldwide channels, said the market has bought into the idea of the network becoming the platform, with new capabilities and applications migrating from the application or middleware layer to the IP network. That means more opportunity for partners, and he said increasingly the opportunity is as much on the services side as it is the equipment side. Cisco puts the worldwide equipment sales opportunity for partners today at US$42 billion, and the opportunity for partners in the services arena at US$44 billion.

“A lot of our partner program is geared to not just helping partners exploit the technology opportunity, but also tackling as much of the services side as possible,” said Peres.

To help partners exploit the services opportunity Cisco is introducing a new set of tools called Cisco LifeCycle Services, which combine a training curriculum and best practices to help walk partners step by step through different technology implementations.

The challenge now, said Peres, is for partners to bring the right intelligence and technical expertise to the table in areas like security, routing and switching, unified communications and WLAN, and to enable the productivity gains possible when the technology is used properly.

“It’s about the solutions and applications coming together and enabling competitive intelligence,” said Peres.

Cisco already breaks down its partner program between those with broad expertise across a range of technologies, what Peres calls the “general contractors”, and the specialists that have developed a significant level of expertise in a specific area of technology. Both are being enhanced.

On the general partner side partners can earn premier, silver and gold certifications. The levels are staying, but Peres said the bar for gold is being raised. A gold partner will be expected to bring together a minimum of five technologies, including integrated security, WLAN, routing, LAN switching and unified communications, and deliver them at an advanced level.

“They’re the general contractor of the network world going forward,” said Peres. On the specialization side, in addition to the Express and Advanced levels a new Master specialization level is being introduced. The first Master area of specialization will be security and unified communications.

“This is an opportunity for the specialized partners, whether its in security or voice, to have a brand identifying them as a Master at that level,” said Peres.

There will be a two-year transition period for current partners to meet the new requirements, but the educational materials and resources will be available immediately.

Karl Muelema, Cisco’s vice-president, services marketing and channels, customer advocacy, said the changes are putting more focus on specific skills and best practices of Cisco’s partners instead of simply looking at the number of Cisco-certified engineers a partner has on its staff.

The changes are intended to help customers buy complete, advanced networks with new capabilities such as security, IP telephony and wireless from one provider. A survey of Cisco customers revealed they are using a greater variety of network technologies than before and want fewer partners with more expertise.

As part of the qualification for certification, partners will be required to present audits of how they have employed best practices in actual customer implementations. For end user customers, Muelema said the changes should give them greater confidence in the capabilities and skills of a Cisco partner.

The changes are Cisco’s way of pushing its resellers to compete on expertise rather than price, which is likely to help maintain profit margins but also to help customers find a good supplier, said TC Doyle, an analyst at Amazon Consulting LLC, in Mountain View, Calif. The idea is that, for the customer, “In front of them on their bids is a really proven expert in a given field,” said Doyle.

— With files from IDG News Service