Palo Alto Networks Edges Out HPE In Razor-Thin Channel Madness Victory

As the cybersecurity giant took top prize in the 2024 Channel Madness Tournament of Chiefs, an executive tells CRN that the recognition reflects the strength of Palo Alto Networks’ relationship with its partners—while ‘the opportunity ahead of us is bigger than it ever was before because of our partner community.’


The massive channel push at Palo Alto Networks over the past year—which has seen the vendor double down on its work with solution and service providers and boost the critical effort to defeat hackers—helped to deliver the first-ever win for the cybersecurity giant in CRN’s Channel Madness Tournament of Chiefs.

“It's tremendous,” said Prem Iyer, senior vice president of global ecosystems at Palo Alto Networks. “This is not an easy competition. You have a tremendous amount of great partner leaders in the community that are doing amazing work for their individual vendors” competing in Channel Madness.

“For Palo Alto Networks to get that recognition is a huge accomplishment in a field that's very, very competitive. So we don't take it lightly. It means a ton to us,” he said.

In CRN’s 2024 Channel Madness tournament, Palo Alto Networks edged out Hewlett Packard Enterprise in the championship round in one of the closest rounds of voting the contest has seen to date. Palo Alto Networks emerged victorious with 51 percent of the votes as the final minutes of the match ticked down, compared to 49 percent for HPE and its North America channel chief Phil Soper.

Less than 24 hours before the close of voting in the final round, CRN reported that Palo Alto Networks’ channel chief in the contest, Tom Evans, was in fact departing the company for another opportunity—but even that news apparently did not deter supporters from casting their votes for the cybersecurity powerhouse.

Evans was named vice president of worldwide channel sales at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company in December 2022. He initially joined the cybersecurity giant in mid-2017 as director for public cloud partners and was promoted several times before being named worldwide channel chief.

Evans did not respond to requests for comment.

Palo Alto Networks’ path to the championship began with Evans’ defeat of Schneider Electric’s Gordon Lord in the first round, and then NetApp’s Jenni Flinders, HP Inc.’s Scott Lannum and Cato Networks’ Frank Rauch before besting Soper.

In 2023, Evans made it to the semifinal round of Channel Madness, his first appearance in the tournament.

Iyer said the strong showing is clearly reflective of the fact that Palo Alto Networks—from CEO Nikesh Arora and other top executives all the way down—has been leaning in with the channel more than ever before during the past year. And going forward, “the opportunity ahead of us is bigger than it ever was before because of our partner community,” he said.

“We have more partners leaning in on certification than ever before. We have more partners getting specialized on different parts of the portfolio than ever before. We have more partners qualifying for rebates now than we ever thought would be the case. That is driving deal registrations through the roof,” Iyer said.

“When we look forward, we're investing more in the partner community than ever before,” he said, pointing to recent hires such as Chief Partnerships Officer Kristy Friedrichs, in addition to the vendor’s recently bolstered NextWave Partner Program and added incentives. “It's a signal of the increased investment we're doing across the board.”

For solution providers such as Logicalis US, Palo Alto Networks has grown into a heavyweight of the cybersecurity space thanks in no small part to its steadfast commitment to working with the channel, said Andrew Riddle, principal cybersecurity architect at Troy, Mich.-based Logicalis US, No. 68 on CRN’s 2023 Solution Provider 500.

Logicalis US counts Palo Alto Networks among its top security vendors, now approaching the same league as its core partnerships with Microsoft and Cisco, Riddle said.

In addition to Palo Alto Networks’ “amazing” security capabilities, “they have worked with the channel very well for a long time. [They don’t] say they’re channel-focused and then take sales direct,” he said. “It’s a true partnership.”

Power Of The Platform

Palo Alto Networks partners who spoke with CRN this week also applauded the vendor’s aggressive efforts to build a comprehensive cybersecurity platform. In addition to its core next-generation firewall offerings, the Palo Alto Networks platform now spans protection for cloud and applications, to secure access service edge (SASE) and zero trust security, to AI-powered endpoint detection and security operations.

With Palo Alto Networks, “you really can go all-in with their platform,” said Jason Lewkowicz, executive vice president and chief services officer at Denver-based Optiv, No. 24 on CRN’s 2023 Solution Provider 500. “I think they are leading in the context of having a true platform play.”

At San Diego-based Evotek, Founder and CEO Cesar Enciso echoed the sentiments, saying that in the debate over “best of breed” or “best suite” security tools, the Palo Alto Networks platform is uniquely positioned.

“What I like about [Palo Alto Networks] is, you don't really have to choose,” he said. “You have best of breed and you also have best of suite.”

Enciso added that another highlight of working with Palo Alto Networks has been the vendor’s NextWave Partner Program, which last fall introduced an improved compensation model for partners as well as a more-lucrative incentive for individual partner sales representatives.

“It's incentivizing the right people for the right behavior to jointly be successful,” he said.

HPE’s Big Showing

Soper, North America head of channels at HPE, said his strong showing in the hard-fought Channel Madness competition is a testament to HPE’s partner-first strategy.

“It’s clear to me this is a statement from our partner ecosystem that we are doing the right things,” said Soper, a three-decade channel veteran who previously spent 12 years as a solution provider executive. “I am really proud to represent HPE and proud of my teammates who are on the streets everyday working with our partners. We are a partner-first company, and we are really excited about the opportunities going forward with our partners.”

The strong support from partners also shows that HPE’s “unprecedented” investment this year in helping partners win deals with specialized storage and compute sales reps is paying off, he said.

“We have created a specialty sales organization around storage and compute, and their role is to hunt and drive opportunities for partners,” said Soper. “They are working with partners to satisfy our customers. We made some dramatic investments in specialty resources, which are paying off. I think the votes for HPE are a result of our partners seeing a lot more of HPE, even more than they did before. We have always been a partner-first company, but I think our partner ecosystem is seeing that HPE is doubling down on our partners.”

Soper said the global channel priority in 2024 to “win with partners” is resonating in the channel. He said the company’s breakthrough Partner Ready Vantage program is centered on partners’ ability to build their solutions and services capabilities around the HPE GreenLake hybrid cloud model.

“We want partners to build their solutions capabilities around the GreenLake platform and our hybrid cloud strategy,” he said. "We want them to drive increased margin on their opportunities by building services at their pace the way they want. We believe that is the right customer strategy. We are creating opportunities for partners to build around their capabilities at a pace they want and based on their strategic imperatives that sync up with HPE.”

Soper said he is proud to be part of the channel ecosystem and to participate in the CRN Channel Madness Competition.

“The relationships that we form in the channel are irreplaceable,” he said, noting that his role has given him the opportunity to travel frequently and “meet incredible partners across North America.”

Channel Madness, meanwhile, “is a great deal of fun. I know a lot of people competing in it, and it is not lost on me that this is a statement not about Phil Soper but about HPE. I am really proud of HPE, my channel team, our channel partners,” he said. “I also appreciate the partners’ vote of confidence in HPE and our partner-first philosophy. I feel like it is paying some dividends for partners and that is why they are voting.”

Soper’s road the final round began with a victory over Crowdstrike’s Michael Rogers in Round 1, followed by wins against Veeam Software’s Kevin Rooney, Lenovo’s Rob Cato and SonicWall’s Michelle Ragusa-McBain before his showdown with Evans.

He made it to the second round in 2023, his first year in the tournament.

Harry Zarek, founder, president and CEO of Compugen, who has known Soper for more than three decades and whose HPE business is up double digits over the last year, said Soper’s experience as a top channel partner executive has been critical to his success as a channel chief.

“Having worked in the channel, Phil knows and understands our business model better than anyone who has spent 100 percent of their career at an OEM,” he said. “He is the man!”

Before taking a job at HPE as Chief Commercial Officer for HPE Canada in March 2020, Soper was president of solution provider PCM Canada and vice president and general manager of CompuCom, No.53 on the 2023 CRN Solution Provider 500.

Soper has always brought an “innate curiosity” to the business and a willingness to listen closely to partners, said Zarek. “Phil is always asking questions, digging, digging, and digging, not superficial at all,” he said. “He is brilliant in terms of how he looks at the business and the channel.”

Pat O’Dell, managing partner for Clinton, N.J.-based CPP Associates, the GreenLake North America Partner of the Year, called Soper a “true channel champion” who has walked in our shoes” for a good part of his career.

“Phil not only understands HPE but also our main competitors and their offerings because of his past experience running a large VAR,” said O’Dell. “That understanding helps him to make better decisions when working with HPE partners. He is a tremendous channel leader and advocate for HPE and North American partners.”

Soper has provided the leadership to set up extra incentives for partners to sell the full HPEstack from storage to compute to networks and the HPE GreenLake pay-per-use service, said O’Dell. “Those incentives—combined with our Infrastructure Anywhere Assessments, which provide a detailed analysis of customers’ IT environments and workloads—has enabled us to provide more end-to-end HPE solutions whenever appropriate for our clients,” said O’Dell.

Soper, for his part, said he appreciates the support of partners and is looking forward to returning to the Channel Madness competition next year. “Making it to the finals has been a great experience,” he said. “This is really a testament and a statement from our partners of what they think of our transformational strategies. I am really excited to have made it to the finals and I can’t wait to participate with HPE in next year’s tournament.”