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As Sales Approach $1B, Splunk Makes Its Pitch To The Channel

With ambitions to become a multibillion-dollar company, Splunk needs solution providers to help it quickly scale sales and develop new use cases for its operational intelligence software.

Jim Kinney, president and CEO of Indianapolis-based solution provider Kinney Group, makes a bold observation about Splunk, the big data software developer that his company has partnered with for four years.

Splunk and its technology "sure has the feel of being on the front of something gargantuan," Kinney says. "This has the feel of VMware back in '05 or '06."

Splunk, founded in 2003, is hardly a startup. But the developer of operational intelligence software for instantly searching, monitoring and analyzing machine-generated data is getting more attention these days beyond its core IT operations and IT security customer base. Splunk's platform is finding its way into an increasingly broad range of business analytics and big data applications, and the company is positioned to be a key technology player in the nascent Internet of Things arena.

[Related: Splunk Expands Machine-Learning Capabilities Of Its Operational Intelligence Software]

It's also attracting more attention from solution providers as the company, after relying primarily on direct sales for the first decade-plus of its existence, has been ramping up its channel efforts in the last two years.

The channel should take notice. Splunk (whose name comes from the cave exploration term "spelunking") is closing in on $1 billion in annual revenue, having recorded 43 percent sales growth in the first half of fiscal 2017 to $398.7 million. Analysts have put the vendor's total potential market at $46 billion to $58 billion, and observers say the company's sales could hit $5 billion as soon as 2020.

The San Francisco-based company's customer base grew from approximately 10,000 as of July 31, 2015, to more than 12,000 on July 31 of this year, according to a recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

CEO Doug Merritt, speaking at Splunk's .conf2016 customer and partner event in Orlando late last month, said he thinks "at least half" of the company's sales should ultimately go through the channel.

"When I walked in we were [following] a more direct-centric model," said Merritt, who joined Splunk in May 2014 as senior vice president of field operations and was named the president and CEO in November 2015. "I came in the door jumping up and down about the channel, about partners in general. It felt like an opportunity for growth for us."

Merritt, both at .conf2016 and in an exclusive interview with CRN, acknowledged that Splunk was slow to leverage the channel. "Splunk has been difficult for people to understand," he said, and recruiting resellers is a challenge "when you're an early pioneer, and you're evangelizing a new [technology] category.

Splunk does not disclose what percentage of its sales go through the channel today or how many channel partners it works with. The recent SEC filing, for the company's second fiscal quarter ended July 31, said the company "expect[s] that sales through channel partners in all regions will continue to grow as a portion of our revenues for the foreseeable future."

Splunk's software was initially developed to collect and analyze operational log data from IT systems for system administration tasks. But Splunk and its more forward-thinking customers have come to realize the technology can be used to collect and analyze almost any kind of streaming real-time data, from IT operations and IT security systems, to data produced by machines on a factory floor, to sensors that make up an Internet of Things network. That positions Splunk to play a pivotal role in the burgeoning big data market.

Merritt and other Splunk executives make it clear that as the Splunk Enterprise flagship product evolves from a toolset for programmers into a data management platform with a broad range of use cases, the channel will play a critical role. The channel will provide both "feet on the street" for the sales scalability that wouldn't be possible with the vendor's direct sales force, and the vertical industry and domain expertise needed as Splunk's software is used for new applications.

Merritt, in a press briefing at .conf2016, said Splunk's growth depends on getting the platform into hundreds of thousands of accounts, "and the channel, in particular, is going to be incredibly important for us to get there."

"We look at how many [sales] people we can hire and train [for] carrying Splunk to our customers, versus how many people the channel has," Merritt said. "[If] we enable them properly, there is so much more capacity in the channel than there is [inside] Splunk."

Splunk CTO Snehal Antani, speaking at the same event, said partners would be especially critical as the use of Splunk's software grows beyond its core IT DevOps and IT security applications into broader business analytics and Internet of Things use cases.

"The channel and partners become really important in IoT and business analytics," said Antani, the former GE Capital CIO who was named CTO in May 2015. "You need to have retail domain expertise, or healthcare domain expertise, or financial domain expertise to really get the value out of that data. We've got the enabling technology, but [partners have] got the domain expertise.

"For us, getting the channel right is important for [sales] scale. But getting the channel right is especially important for us to move into other types of use cases that are much more domain-specific," Antani said.

So Splunk understands its need for the channel. What does the channel say?

Trace3, an Irvine, California-based solution provider focused on big data and cloud technologies, has worked with Splunk for five years and built a Splunk practice that generated $7 million in revenue in 2014 and $14 million last year. The company, an Elite level partner, was Splunk's 2015 North American "Partner of the Year."

"I think Splunk is certainly still learning and developing themselves as a channel company," said John Ansett, Trace3's director of operational intelligence, of the company's Spunk relationship. Four or five years ago "they were very much a direct company" with some conflict with partners at the sales level, he said. "That's absolutely changed in the last 18 to 24 months."

"Now I see them using the channel and leveraging the partners a lot more than in the past. They recognize that their ability to scale is going to be through the channel and for them to get there they recognize that partners are really the way to get there," Ansett said.

Other partners also paint a portrait of a company in transition. "Are there bumps in the road as they take on more of a channel-oriented model? Sure," said Jim Kinney. "This is a company of fantastic people that are just incredibly passionate about what they are doing. And they treat their partners really, really well. That has meant the world to us."

"From a listening standpoint and ability to work with, they are as good as any vendor partnership I've had," said Jeff Swann, director of solutions architecture at OnX Enterprise Solutions, a Splunk Elite partner and North American solution provider headquartered in Toronto and New York. "They're very interested in working with their partners," said Swann, who works in OnX's Mayfield, Ohio, office and manages OnX's relationship with Splunk and sits on the company's partner advisory council.

Partners generally give good – but not great – grades for the nuts and bolts of its Partner+ channel program. Swann says the partner portal and other tools are "very good" and the marketing materials and content are "very easy to use and modify."

Kinney said he'd like to see more dedicated resources to help partners hire and train more engineers with Splunk expertise for development and customer support. Trace3's Ansett said the partner program lags other vendors in such areas as rebates and revenue-commit offerings.

Splunk's Merritt, at the press conference, pointed to the partner portal and deal registration systems the company assembled and the channel neutrality policy put in place last year as signs of progress, but he acknowledged that those steps are just a start.

The company's channel efforts may have suffered a setback in February when Emilio Umeoka, vice president of global alliances and channels, left to become head of education sales at Apple.

In March the company hired Susan St. Ledger, Salesforce's chief revenue officer, as Splunk's new CRO, overseeing all revenue generating and customer facing operations. In July, Splunk hired Cheryln Chin, a senior vice president at Good Technology, to replace Umeoka as vice president of global partners. Aldo Dossola is area vice president of North America partner sales, reporting to Chin.

In April Splunk hired Brooke Cunningham, a highly respected channel marketing executive with business analytics software developer Qlik, as area vice president of worldwide partner programs and operations.

"I saw an opportunity to come and really help define that partner experience," Cunningham said in an interview before .conf2016, noting that she has the job of taking Splunk's partner program to the next level. "We're really diving into how we continue to mature the Partner+ program," she said, specifically citing "investments in infrastructure" that are in the works for the partner portal and other support systems.

At .conf2016 Splunk announced a new licensing initiative that, starting Nov. 1, will provide free licenses for test and development purposes. Partners said that move would make it easier for partners to help customers expand their use of Splunk by giving them more opportunities to experiment with the software.

Swann pointed to Merritt's plans to expand education and training opportunities for partners – including free online training – and efforts to grow the number of Splunk-certified developers and engineers as promising moves to expand the overall ecosystem.

"They're doing all the right things," said Ansett at Trace3. "They're putting in the right resources [and] they have the right leadership in place. And I'm starting to see them go 'partner-first.'"

But it's the potential of Splunk's software that really gets partners excited.

"Security is certainly the biggest growth area," said Ansett, although IT operations applications now account for the biggest part of Trace3's Spunk-related revenue. Sales for Internet of Things applications are small, he said, but growing.

Splunk is key to OnX's security intelligence, operational analytics and DevOps practices. Swann said a successful strategy is getting Splunk into a customer for a specific application, then expanding the sales to other areas once the customer understands Splunk's capabilities.

"For our organization, it makes us more sticky," he said. "Once we get in, we find lots of other use cases."

Splunk is playing an increasingly important role in two of Kinney Group's core practices: analytics and next-generation data centers. Splunk is now the primary platform for its business analytics services, as with a predictive analytics project Kinney recently developed for a medical equipment management company to better anticipate equipment failures, said Laura Vetter, Kinney's vice president of analytics. Splunk's software was also a component of a major PCI (Payment Card Industry) data security project Kinney developed for a leading IT hosting provider.

Last month Splunk debuted Splunk Enterprise 6.5 with expanded machine learning technology and new features that improved its advanced analytics capabilities. New integrations with Hadoop and simpler data preparation tools helped reduce the product's total cost of ownership – a significant point according to one partner who told CRN that the market perceives Splunk's software to be expensive.

As to his case of VMware déjà vu, Jim Kinney says that in VMware's early days top managers at businesses that implemented the vendor's virtualization software didn't initially grasp the technology's potential. Once they did, VMware sales exploded. Kinney thinks Splunk is reaching the same tipping point as awareness of what the company's software can do expands beyond the data center.

"Our company has made a pretty significant financial wager [on Splunk]," he said, "and it absolutely has paid off and is providing returns."

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