Sometimes it just clicks. That's when you know you're onto something. There's no sound, no taste, no smell. But it's hanging out there waiting for you to grab it.
That's cloud computing. And the 30 solution providers that comprise this list are shining examples of VARs, integrators, consultants and ISVs that we believe "get it" when it comes to the cloud. They jumped into the market before there was one. They sharpened their technology, services and sales chops, and know-how.
At the time, they may have called it "utility computing" or "managed hosted outsourced IT." But just because it wasn't specifically called "the cloud," it doesn't mean they weren't on the forefront of what has become one of the biggest shifts in IT.
This list was compiled through discussions with solution providers, vendor partners and CRN editors. It highlights 30 solution providers that are on the cutting edge of the cloud -- the ones that pack a mighty punch and had the foresight to dive headfirst into a new market.
Here we spotlight three cloud VARs and how they got their start.
NEXT: Saber Strikes
"The light clicked on around August 2009," said John Stewart, president of Saber Solutions Inc., an Indian Trail, N.C.-based solution provider. An engineer at heart, Stewart's deep dive into the cloud came from experience with his own businesses: He was running three companies with 50 people and needed a viable solution to keep it moving without the expense of hardware and licensing.
Saber targets the SMB market with solutions built on salesforce.com and Force.com. But the solution provider takes a unique approach in that it doesn't change the way its clients do business, just how they do it.
"A lot of small businesses are victims of their own success," Stewart said, noting that smaller companies grow at such a rapid clip that their systems can't keep up.
That's where cloud computing comes in. Saber builds systems for sales, contact management, e-commerce, HR and other processes. It's a one-stop shop -- "not a single aspect of the business is not managed through this thing," Stewart said. And its cloud solutions have helped clients boost productivity and streamline business.
"They don't want to change the way they're doing business; they want to do business better," he said. "We give them an end-to-end suite, a platform that has an immediate impact."
SMBs get one monthly IT bill, and Saber gets a recurring revenue stream. It's a win-win. "We become like the utility bill," Stewart said, adding that by year's end Saber will have about 20 cloud computing customers using its platform.
Like Stewart, Chris Barbin, CEO of fouryear- old cloud solution provider Appirio, remembers the moment when the cloud light bulb went on. It was during a Salesforce project at his previous company.
He got the idea that standardizing, rationalizing and moving applications to the cloud was the crest of the new wave. So he rode it.
Barbin and Appirio co-founder Narinder Singh set out to create a company where Barbin would bring the cloud services prowess and Singh would provide the product punch.
"I got the bug to start a SaaS services company and [Singh] was going to start a SaaS product company," Barbin said. "We knew the cloud was a better way."
Appirio launched at Salesforce's Dreamforce 2006 and kicked off with cloud professional services and products to enable the cloud. The services and product offerings were built into its DNA. "We're the on-ramp to the public cloud," he said.
Immediately, the company drew a line in the sand with its "swarm" approach to partnering, where it goes all in with select best-of-breed vendors. The swarm mentality was simple: partner with companies at the top of their game and get to know everything about them. In that quest, Salesforce and Google became the top dogs.
"Let's pick the leaders, let's have an opinion, and let's treat them like customers," Barbin said of the strategy.
And it worked. Appirio has handled 700-plus projects in roughly 200 enterprise customers. It has written 3 million lines of cloud code. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Barbin said.
"The market is still very early," he said, estimating that the cloud is in 90 percent of IT discussions, but only about 5 percent to 7 percent of the purchases. And as the on-ramp, that means big things for Appirio's services and products.
That depth and experience sets it apart from the cloud Johnny-come-latelys. "Not all cloud is created equal," Barbin said. "We're not just cloud for cloud's sake.
Cloud Sherpas Guide
Cloud Sherpas is also climbing high on the cloud mountain. And as the top Google Apps partner, the Atlanta-based solution provider has earned that spot.
While only two-and-a-half years old, Cloud Sherpas focuses solely on Google Apps, the search giant's cloud application offerings. But it is by no means a one-trick pony.
"What it means to 'go Google' is becoming a much more sophisticated business," Cloud Sherpas CEO Jon Hallett said of Cloud Sherpas' drive to deliver Google Apps to medium and large enterprises.
Cloud Sherpas' business model supports three key lines of revenue: pure resale and packaging of Google Apps; building and selling its own SaaS offering; and professional services.
"A lot of our competitors are pushing product and we don't want to be in the commodity space," Hallett said. He added that he's noticed some "resistance of the traditional VAR to move into a cloud reseller model because they have to cannibalize their own bread and butter."
Hallett said Cloud Sherpas' avoidance of the commodity space has resulted in an average customer size of 2,008 seats and zero percent churn.
And Cloud Sherpas takes a unique approach to the space in that it built out its own software in its SherpaTools, a free application available in the Google Apps Marketplace that offers IT management functions for administrators and adds new features to Google Apps, such as directory management, user management and access control.
"It was really born out of direct customer needs," Hallett said of SherpaTools.
Cloud Sherpas currently sits on the threshold of 1 million user accounts, growth that shows it got into the Google game at the right time, before there was too much competition. Now, however, Hallett said some solution providers are coming around and in a year or two more rivals could emerge. Still, Hallett is confident that Cloud Sherpas has built up a solid reputation and enough differentiation to stay ahead of the pack and continue its reign as a Google Apps colossus.
"Last year it was just the pioneers looking into it," Hallett said. "In 2011, a lot of people are going to be pulling their heads out of the sand and saying, 'Where did this come from?'"