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Cisco Casts Network Net

For Cisco Systems channel partners, it's time to think software. In its quest to dominate the VoIP market, Cisco is putting increased emphasis on the applications that tie into a voice system to provide true unified communications solutions.

VoIP communications

The vendor is looking beyond just basic integration with messaging and CRM packages to software that addresses the business needs of vertical market customers. Since those offerings are not part of Cisco's vast arsenal, it is looking to its growing community of ISV partners to bring them to the table.

Now, with the launch of a new virtual platform, it is nudging channel partners to make connections with those ISVs and start building their offerings into full solutions.

The company a few weeks ago took the wraps off its Cisco Industry Solutions Partner Network, a channel that aims to introduce certified Cisco partners to predefined solutions that combine Cisco technology and applications from ISVs.

"ISPN is one element of an overall initiative of creating more solutions selling on the part of our partner community," said Keith Goodwin, senior vice president of worldwide channels at Cisco, San Jose, Calif.

Cisco is encouraging its solution providers to add more applications expertise to their portfolios and put more focus on selling solutions. Partners that take those steps are securing larger deals and higher margins, said Andrew Sage, Cisco's senior director of worldwide channels market development.

The move comes at a critical time. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is expected to unveil Office Communications Server 2007 and several other products at a launch event in San Francisco on Oct. 16. Those products will serve as the platform for Microsoft's push into the voice space.

Microsoft itself is looking at its partnerships with other software players and the opportunities channel partners will find in connecting its unified communications efforts with other applications as one of its key differentiators, said Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of the Unified Communications Group at Microsoft, Redmond, Wash.

"If you can integrate into the most critical business applications that an enterprise is using and help drive the business forward, that is ultimately a lot more powerful," Pall said.

Cisco is thinking along the same lines. As part of the initiative, Cisco has prequalified 30 vertical solutions in conjunction with ISVs and VARs that have developed their own applications. ISPN members that sell the solutions will earn the extra margins afforded through Cisco's Solution Incentive Program (SIP). Until now, partners participating in SIP could only earn financial rewards for solutions they themselves developed.

"Now they can get the SIP discount as if they had created the solutions themselves," Goodwin said, adding that Cisco is now working on a pipeline for the next 30 solutions to be added to the program.

In addition, Cisco is rolling out a new Cisco Partner Space virtual community platform, a Web 2.0 offering that seems like a cross between MySpace and Second Life. In that environment, solution providers can visit virtual "booths" set up by ISVs to educate potential partners on solution offerings, see the status of other community members and initiate chat conversations with representatives from the ISVs.

In the future, Cisco will tap the same platform to foster partnerships between VARs and to bring customers to VARs, Sage said.

To that end, VARs can also set up their own online profile pages within the Cisco environment. By October, links to those pages will then appear in Cisco's online partner locator tool, putting them in front of end-user customers who are looking to work with a channel partner.

Cisco is hoping the platform will encourage collaboration between its partners, helping them overcome inevitable trust and account control issues that crop up when one partner brings another into an account.

Cisco solution providers and ISV partners said that the initiative should help them find new business opportunities.

"We intend to be very involved in looking to identify other trusted partners Cisco brings to the table. It's not something we've done a good job of. Because of this, we see there are other opportunities," said Bryan Tate, chairman and CEO of Digitel, an Atlanta-based solution provider. Digitel currently partners with Cistera Networks, a Cisco ISV partner that offers communications applications.

Derek Downs, president of Dallas-based Cistera, said partners that find each other through Cisco's program will still have to work to hammer out joint business plans and develop trust. But his company's participation in ISPN could help bring Cistera and Cisco solution providers together.

Solution providers that join ISPN have to commit to building practices based on repeatable solutions and designate sales and technical resources to support the practices. In exchange, partners will receive training and other educational resources, access to proposal-based joint marketing funds and access to collaborative tools such as Partner Space.

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