Cisco has made strides in integrating both the technology and channel programs of Tandberg into its own, say solution providers. But the networking behemoth has a long way to go toward finishing the job -- and some of the biggest challenges for legacy Tandberg partners may be still to come.
Cisco completed its $3.3 billion acquisition of Tandberg in April, and in doing so vaulted to the top market share in videoconferencing systems, ahead of rivals like Polycom and LifeSize. But at the time of the acquisition, VARs had plenty of questions about how the Tandberg channel community would map into Cisco's own, and several expressed frustration throughout 2010 that that process wasn't proceeding more rapidly.
Cisco on Monday offered new details however, including new products and services and a look at its new TelePresence Video Authorized Technology Provider (ATP) program. The Cisco and Tandberg partner programs that have run in parallel since April will integrate as of January 31, 2011, with Tandberg partners mapping into appropriate Cisco designations.
It's an important step, VARs told CRN this week, even if the process remains incomplete.
"In fairness, I will say they've done a very good and proactive job at reaching out and educating at an executive level about many of the upcoming changes," said Todd Luttinger, president and CEO of Providea Conferencing, a Camarillo, Calif.-based solution provider. "We feel positive about it, and I do think it's going to benefit us compared to the former Tandberg programs."
Cisco's channel program -- and the way it structures both its certifications and specializations -- is one of the more rigorous in the industry, which will be a welcome change to many Tandberg partners, Luttinger said. Luttinger, like many solution providers who had been Tandberg partners before the acquisition, alluded to ongoing challenges with Tandberg's enVision channel program, which many VARs described as having requirements that, in its later days, went unenforced and created difficulty for partners.
"Whether best laid plans or best intentions, the enVision program just got kind of steamrolled over time," Luttinger said. "In the big picture, we'll end up better off."
"Tandberg had a good model, but they just didn't enforce it," said Rus Healy, chief technology officer for Annese & Associates, a Herkimer, N.Y.-based solution provider. "If you got people certified and they left the company, for example, most people just didn't pay any attention to that and no one cared what certifications you had. Cisco is not like that. Cisco is unquestionably dedicated to specialization, and they've really pushed that end of it."
Next: What Partners Are Hoping To HearLuttinger listed equipment purchase requirements, as well as order logistics and order processing as areas Cisco had areas that still "had wrinkles." The mapping of Providea into Cisco's ATP program has also been a challenge, he said.
"Over the past few weeks, oftentimes we thought we were some place we weren't in the certification process, which was frustrating," he said. "I think it's clear it's not edified in its entirety, and it'll be a work in progress for a while. It's not a game changer by any means, it's just a little bit frustrating to see this dragged down a little further than expected. We expected to be 30 to 45 days farther along than we are right now."
Luttinger said he's less concerned about certification requirements being too stringent for many solution providers -- if anything, tougher certs mean a thinner herd of competitors. But he is nervous about discounting levels for Tandberg and Cisco video products going forward -- Cisco hasn't come forth on what all the discounting plans will be for the portfolio.
For his part, Healy said that he'd heard Cisco would open up distribution of the Tandberg products beyond the fixed, one-distributor-per territory rules Tandberg used in the past.
"No one has reached out to me from our Cisco team to build a roadmap, which is kind of unusual," Healy said. "We want to build a roadmap to figure out what level of partnership is the right one for us, and help us understand how to get there. Cisco is usually pretty proactive about that, so what it says to me is that it's not fully baked yet. That's not surprising -- they said at the Partner Summit it would take six to seven months to figure it all out -- but we are waiting."
Cisco's pricing discussion on the Tandberg video lines hasn't been encouraging, either, Healy said, especially since Cisco didn't exactly lower prices to bring the Tandberg gear closer to competitive offerings from Polycom and LifeSize. The overall level of investment in Cisco -- from the products themselves to the time and money it takes to certify and specialize at advanced levels -- will deter a lot of partners, he reasoned.
"It's kind of discouraging," he said. "Cisco is requiring these [partners] to achieve the advanced UC specialization, so even if they have no plan to do UC in the way that traditional UC partners do, they still have to jump through hoops. What some of them are doing is saying, it's not worth the effort, we're going to focus on Polycom."
An East Coast solution provider who carries Tandberg, Polycom and LifeSize said the certification requirements for Cisco's ATP do appear overly strict.
"Tandberg is a great product and Cisco's going to put some wood behind the arrow on the channel side," said the solution provider, who asked not to be named. "But if I'm Polycom and especially LifeSize, I'm beating down the door of every Tandberg partner I can find right now, and looking for a way to fast track them on my program. The Cisco investment is just too great, and the products themselves are pretty expensive."
"Part of what brought them to Tandberg was to capitalize on that channel, and they don't seem to be giving them any love," said Healy, who said Annese doesn't carry Polycom or LifeSize. "So what that's doing is creating competition for us among partners that are strong in video who don't have to jump through hoops. That's a side effect of all this we're watching."
Healy's request for Cisco -- echoed by a number of solution providers interviewed by CRN, is be clear, sooner rather than later, on how each partner maps into the ATP and Cisco programs.
"We've got to see how it's going to impact us on our advanced UC specialization, because that impacts how we allocate people," he said. "Cisco's usually got a very clear cut way of publishing requirements and offering a blueprint, and we haven't seen that yet. And what about areas like midmarket video, and the areas where Tandberg telepresence was a direct competitor to Cisco telepresence? We don't yet know what's in our reach and what is not."
Next: Partners Sharpen Their Attack
Many Cisco and Tandberg partners have made their own moves to bulk up for an integrated portfolio.
Annese, for example, hired a former Tandberg regional account manager to be one of its sales managers, and Healy said data center and Cisco-led video opportunities were creating a strong pipeline for the company heading into 2011. Other VARs have gone the M&A route; VAR 500 powerhouse ePlus last week confirmed the acquisition of Interchange Technologies, a Mount Laurel, N.J.-based Tandberg Platinum Partner, and the creation of a new Advanced Audio and Video Solutions Practice.
Providea has grown 50 percent over 2009, said Luttinger, and Tandberg sales have been its biggest source of product revenue. Encouragingly, he said, the number of $500,000-or-more video solutions sales has quadrupled year-over-year, with lots of opportunities for large telepresence deployments and value-add through Providea's managed services offering, which includes such add-ons as a white glove concierge help desk for telepresence.
Video is undoubtedly growing, he agreed.
"The quality is better than it's ever been," Luttinger said. "Enteprises really feel comfortable with the fact that they could mitigate, if not replace, travel with this technology. That's been one. And I think there's been an overall lightening on the purse strings. Not a wholesale loosening, but it's gotten a lot better."