New Microsoft Channel Program Debuts, For Real

Microsoft on Monday launched the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN), the next iteration of its channel program that's heavily focused on helping VARs make the transition to cloud computing.

MPN is Microsoft's answer to partners who've long complained about the diluting of the Gold partner brand and have been craving differentiation within Microsoft's massive channel. The Microsoft Certified Partner and Gold Certified Partner designations are now defunct, but Gold and Silver will live on as indicators of a partner's skill level within the 29 distinct MPN technology competencies.

Microsoft is asking partners to increase their skills investment in order to qualify for the new MPN competencies: Partners will be required to hire or contract with 4 Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) to achieve a Gold competency, and 2 MCPs to achieve a Silver competency.

Microsoft's previous channel program focus was on partner enablement, but that was "pretty generic" in terms of clarifying partners' area of expertise, Julie Bennani, general manager of the Microsoft Partner Network, said in an interview.

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Partners that commit to hiring the requisite number of MCPs will be rewarded with Gold and Silver competency status that carries much more weight than in the past, and this will help them market themselves to customers more effectively, according to Bennani. "We're basically making sure partners qualify themselves within competencies and not by level," she said.

Partners seeking Gold competencies must also submit five unique customer references per competency, while Silver competencies require three customer references. Starting in October 2011, Microsoft will also begin requiring partners to hit certain minimum revenue targets as a condition of holding onto their Gold competencies.

Next: New requirements for channel partners

"We're looking for a deeper capacity from partners' perspective. Partners that had three or four competencies under the old program might decide to obtain one or two Gold competencies and one or two Silvers," said Bennani.

Microsoft originally intended to retire the SBSC designation and introduce two new small business competencies, but in May changed its mind and stuck with SBSC. Bennani expects about half of the approximately 20,000 SBSC partners to transition to the new Midmarket Solution Provider competency in MPN.

"We looked at phasing out SBSC, but found that brand actually has a lot of equity with customers," said Bennani. Given Microsoft's "all-in" stampede into cloud computing, it's logical that MPN would include tools for partners that are looking to make the leap from on-premise software.

VARs that re-up in the MPN will get access to Microsoft's Cloud Essentials Pack, a free offering that includes internal use rights for up to 250 seats of Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS). In January, Microsoft will extend this to include 250 seats of CRM Online as well as Windows Azure.

Also new to MPN is Microsoft Cloud Accelerate, a badge for partners that show a high level of proficiency in selling cloud offerings. Partners get priority placement in the Pinpoint directory, local field engagement and unlimited pre-sales support, among other benefits. MPN also reflects Microsoft's growing embrace of social networking and includes hooks to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Next: Microsoft helping VARs make the transition

"You have been asking us for a cloud partner program, and we have delivered," said Jon Roskill, vice president of worldwide channels, in a video posted Monday to Microsoft's Partner Perspectives blog. "Partners that use our software internally are always the best evangelists of that software."

Although some partners are already up to speed in the new competencies and will easily make the transition to MPN, Microsoft is aware that many will need to make some adjustments in order to qualify. With that in mind, Microsoft is offering a transition tool that partners can use to figure out what steps they'll have to take to qualify for a specific competency.

"This is a big transformation for our company, and for some of our partners," said Bennani. "Given the shift the cloud drives from a cash flow perspective, partners are trying to figure out how to make the transition without impacting business."