CRN In Depth: 2 Days, 4 CEOs

CRN editors share the key takeaways from the four mainstage CEO interviews they conducted at the XChange Best of Breed Conference with the leaders of Nutanix, SentinelOne, IBM and ControlUp.

Artificial intelligence, security and the competitive landscape were all hot topics at the 2023 XChange Best of Breed Conference, held Oct. 9-10 in Atlanta. Hosted by CRN parent The Channel Company, the event included four onstage interviews where CRN’s Jennifer Follett and Steven Burke drilled down on key industry trends with the CEOs of Nutanix, SentinelOne, IBM and ControlUp. Here’s a look at the key takeaways.

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[Video transcript]

Jennifer Follett, Executive Editor, CRN: Welcome back to CRN In Depth, where we delve into a big story happening on crn.com right now. I’m Jennifer Follett, and I’m here with Steve Burke of CRN, and we have just come back from the XChange Best of Breed conference hosted by our parent, The Channel Company, where Steve and I had a chance to sit down with four of the industry’s most prominent CEOs and get their take on what’s going on in the channel. So Steve, let’s get right to it.

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We had, like I said, four great CEOs. But let’s maybe start off with Nutanix, Rajiv Ramaswami. He had some really great things to say about what partners need to do as the Broadcom-VMware acquisition looms, what was your take on it?

Steven Burke, Executive Editor, News, CRN: Couldn’t be more timely. With Broadcom’s $61 billion acquisition of VMware set to close in the next several weeks Rajiv came on and hit it dead on and told partners to get ahead of what he sees as a lot of potential chaos and issues, including prices going up from VMware with Broadcom taking over, roadmaps potentially getting shrunk, some products being divested and even support levels going down. He also talked about the potential of the top 2000 accounts to go direct, which has generally been the Broadcom playbook when they’ve made these acquisitions in the past, and just talked about the opportunity for partners to team with Nutanix to go in and have those critical conversations with customers about multicloud and even the opportunity to get margins around VMware takeouts and also the potential they’re looking at also to provide some new incentives when this deal closes around, you know, providing some additional investment there to go after that VMware install base.

So it’s a big, big deal. It’s a huge opportunity for partners, and you’ve really got to give it to Rajiv for hitting it dead on.

Follett: Yeah, I think his message really resonated, especially where he was talking about how partners shouldn’t just wait for this to happen. They should get in there and make sure they understand what their customers are thinking and where the opportunities might be. But then to step in with Nutanix if it’s appropriate.

Burke: Well Jen, to that point, and this is something that happens a lot in the channel, and Rajiv pointed it out. Customers are going to be looking at making these decisions, and what Rajiv told partners is that they’ve got to get ahead of this or they could find themselves losing their customers, with the customer making a decision with the partner not even knowing about it. And that’s usually, that happens a lot when there’s a big change in the channel.

Follett: Yeah, so Rajiv was great, of course. Another fan favorite at the event though was Tomer Weingarten of SentinelOne. Of course, SentinelOne is an Israeli-based company, and right off the top we asked him about the situation, and he gave a really heartfelt response and talked about the spirit of the Israeli people and how it wouldn’t be broken. Of course, you know, an issue close to his heart.

But then we did move on to business things, and you addressed with him, I think really well, the rumors that had been in the press lately, can you tell us what he said there?

Burke: Well, the biggest thing there is there have been rumors about SentinelOne potentially being acquired, with pressure on its stock price and of course SentinelOne has been a huge AI innovator. It’s constantly pushing the envelope there and it’s done some great innovation and, as Tomer said, they’ve got $1 billion in cash. They’re in a very good position with the product portfolio and there’s, just as he said, simply no reason for them to look at a sale. And that in fact he thought maybe it was being put out there by companies trying to pressure them into a deal.

Follett: And then he also addressed the recent news of Cisco-Splunk, that acquisition.

Burke: Very interesting to hear him say that he sees the SIEM platform as antiquated in terms of this approach to security and said to look for SentinelOne to come up with a product there that would really leapfrog that.

Follett: We were really thrilled to have IBM CEO Arvind Krishna back. This was his third appearance on the BoB stage, third year in a row. So that was amazing that he came back, and he really talked about the support, two things really, the support that he has for the channel and also the AI opportunity.

Burke: I think the big one there for me is the AI opportunity. IBM has really gotten its act together with AI as a great product line. And of course, I think Arvind has made the company, you know, much more competitive in those two big areas. He said it from the beginning when he took over three-and-a-half years ago, hybrid cloud, and AI and this AI thing has come along and they are all over it and that was the big takeaway for me. The opportunities around WatsonX and just his personal advice to partners on how to make money with AI. This is what’s great about the BoB conference, having these CEOs talk about what the partners need to do to team with them to make money and, as Arvind said, 80 percent of the opportunity around this AI, generative AI and the AI frenzy is going to be partners implementing it. It’s the consulting, it’s doing the working, the models, it’s the engineering the implementation.

On the on the social front, Arvind has been the most upfront about I think the potential for AI to really drive ROI benefits and customer service, he even talked about a lot of the things, some of the things that IBM’s doing there with their human resources department to automate, whether it’s some human resources functions and some other functions within the company. So super exciting to have him there. At this time, this moment in history, you couldn’t have had someone that’s more knowledgeable about what’s really going on in business with AI.

Follett: Yes, and he came in three years ago and really made a commitment to boosting the channel profile at IBM, and so far he’s delivered on that.

Burke: He’s absolutely delivered and one of the things that he talked about is continuing that momentum and a big part of that is moving from 30 percent of total revenue going through partners to 50 percent of revenue. So he’s really elevated the role of partners. They’ve also added, what is it, 4,000 new partners in the last 12 months. So they’re picking up the partner pace and it’s so exciting to see because here’s IBM which was kind of, you know, it had kind of become somewhat irrelevant for the channel, and they couldn’t be more relevant than ever under Arvind, right?

Follett: And I think a session that was near and dear to both our hearts was our emerging growth session. We welcomed Jed Ayres of ControlUp. Now Jed most recently was CEO at IGEL. He had been at AppSense before that but really came into our sphere as part of his 15 years prior to that when he was actually a solution provider. So now at ControlUp he came onstage and really talked to partners about this emerging opportunity in ...

Burke: Digital employee experience. It’s really hot, especially with work at home, it’s changed everything, and what’s exciting about ControlUp is they’ve got a platform that spans from the 700 million enterprise desktops to the data center to the cloud, integrating with Teams, Zoom, ServiceNow. So it’s really an emerging high-growth area that’s really being followed now by Gartner and Forrester, and a real potential there to change the game for partners. And I know some partners, there’s a lot of partners who are really are huge fans of the product and are looking forward to the margins and the channel investments that are going to come under Jed, you know, that the big thing there is partners are already who are working and seeing, like, 80% increase in response times, a huge reduction in ticket times, service ticket times. So this is a this is a really important area because, we all know, with digital employee experience that the productivity, whether it’s a dropped Internet connection or whether it’s long boot up times or…

Follett: How long it takes to sign in.

Burke: … incompatibilities, but the work at home thing raises the ante up considerably. So it was just great to hear him talk about what they’re doing there around Microsoft Desktop as a Service opportunity. They’re coming out with Intune integration to add to some of the integrations they’ve got. But this opportunity as he said that to you know. To really go in and provide a solid digital employee experience around those 700 million desktops, it’s probably the biggest opportunity, but the other big story there, and Jed talked about it, but he’s had, he had so much success at IGEL taking them from a thin client, German hardware maker to a recurring revenue endpoint OS company. So this is all about software and recurring revenue which is what’s the driving force in the channel right now, right.

Follett: And he talked a lot about how the heritage of the company so far has been direct sales, even though the product itself actually was developed way back when, when the company had initially started out as a solution provider. So it really was built as a solution provider tool, became a standalone company, started with the direct sales strategy, but now clearly, now has brought in Jed to really ramp up that channel effort, and he brings that unique CEO viewpoint having been informed on what it’s like to be a solution provider. So I think that’s a really exciting opportunity to come for a lot of channel partners. And as you’ve said before, a lot of solution providers know and love Jed and have followed him from place to place.

Burke: That’s a big thing, and he was flying from the BoB conference to a couple of day meeting with some of the company’s biggest partners to really hammer out and pledge the 30% margin recurring revenue. Yeah, so you couldn’t have bigger channel commitment, and I think that’s just such a great opportunity for partners. For me, it was really exciting to see that at the BoB conference because, again, it’s about partners making money.

Follett: And he kind of took a lid off a little bit and let us know that there’s going to be some big things coming in the new year as far as getting all that channel strategy in place and really moving forward, so a lot of good things to look forward to there.

So it was a really great show. And in particular, those four interviews really resonated with the audience really well, I think.

If you’d like to see more about what went on there, you can find our coverage on crn.com. Thanks for joining Steve and me on CRN In Depth.