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How Will 'Sentinel' Be Greeted In Amazon's Channel?

AWS is quietly building a toolkit to automate some managed services functions for its largest customers. Will it help enterprises bypass the channel, or live in harmony with MSP partners?

In the decade since its launch, Amazon Web Services has nurtured a large and vibrant ecosystem around its league-leading cloud. But a product being developed to offer the largest of customers a toolkit capable of automating services traditionally provided by partners is stirring debate in the channel.

As CRN first reported Tuesday, AWS is working on a new offering -- code named Sentinel -- that will let large enterprise customers manage and monitor their public cloud workloads in a self-service fashion.

CRN's sources said AWS is developing Sentinel because some of its large multinational customers don't want to work with managed service providers and would rather manage their workloads independently.

[Related: Sources: Amazon Web Services Poised To Enter Cloud Managed Services Market With New 'Sentinel' Product]

Some partners told CRN they're worried that Sentinel could intrude on the turf of MSPs. Still others believe the product won't step on toes because it targets customers that aren't inclined to work with partners to begin with.

One partner told CRN he fears Sentinel is a harbinger of greater troubles down the road.

"We're starting to see some cases where conflict is not being resolved," he said of the relationship between the world's largest cloud provider and its channel. "There's conflict in pricing, support, technology delivery."

Other partners have a more resigned view.

Getting upset about AWS' innovations "would be like being angry about the inevitability of the ocean tide," one partner told CRN. The cloud provider is just following the market, leveraging their technology to meet the needs of their customers, he said.

An insider told CRN that Amazon has been working on an MSP offering since around 2013. In October 2014, the domain "aws-sentinel.com" was created and administered by Stephen Farrell, which is also the name of an AWS cloud support engineer based in Ireland, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Negotiating overlap with its partner community isn't a new challenge for AWS. There have been instances where independent software vendors built tools for the platform around instance, security and network management, and then Amazon was so impressed with their functionality that it created similar offerings.


"The conflict is already there in the ISV market," one source told CRN. "The security products at Re:Invent [the annual AWS partner conference] could potentially compete with security vendors. We've seen a lot of that, where AWS created products that could be competitive."

Another source told CRN: "You need to be two steps ahead of AWS if you're creating technology that lives on their platform and works in their ecosystem."

While those tensions have been part of the dynamic with technology partners, the vast network of AWS channel partners -- implementation and managed service companies that have matured their businesses with the growth of Amazon's cloud -- for the most part have operated with the confidence that the provider wouldn't intrude on their province.

But Sentinel raises larger questions about Amazon's core philosophy and ethos, and how those factors embedded deep in the company's DNA will ultimately reverberate through its ecosystem.

"There's a cultural epidemic within Amazon of do it yourself," said one partner. "If they wanted to create a service like that, why not come to a partner?"

Most partners CRN talked to agree the demand for a self-service MSP platform is real.

"In the industry, if you hear Fortune 500 companies talking about it, that's what they say," one partner said. "We don't want partners to manage it but we need AWS to help us."

As to whether Amazon would risk irking some in its channel by building a product to accommodate those customers, "it wouldn't surprise me at all," that source said. "That wouldn't surprise anyone in the ecosystem."

"AWS is ultra-sensitive to what customers are asking for," another partner said. "Sometimes customers want you to take care of that, so AWS is trying to do that."

While Sentinel potentially threatens the MSP business model, some of those partners find relief in AWS' indications that it intends to sell the product to only a handful of large customers.


One source told CRN his strong suspicion is that Sentinel -- based on what he understands the technology will look like when released -- won't create channel conflict because it will appeal to the kind of customer already not particularly inclined to contract with an MSP.

That customer has a profile: a large, tech-savvy enterprise with a sophisticated internal IT department that's calling the shots on hiring consultants, and seeking greater agility for its infrastructure.

Such companies often want a solution provider to help them get bootstrapped by choosing the software and platform they will use for self-management, do the initial architecting and implementation, and then hand over the keys when done.

"For the class of customers that don't want to hire MSPs, it makes sense they would have an MSP-grade toolkit," that partner said. "VMware provides such a toolkit and most of those customers are coming from the VMware world."

But even though the service, once it debuts, will be geared and priced for an elite stratum of customers, "that’s a market everyone is after," said one partner.

Some partners aren't thrilled with Sentinel, but accept the presence of offerings like it in the market and the larger trend toward greater automation.

While the natural tendency of tooling upgrades is to diminish the need for services, that's part of an inevitable evolution always pushing partners further up the value chain, one partner told CRN. "It’s a natural consequence of our business."

Another partner said the biggest threat to the channel from Sentinel is perception, not reality.

"The optics are that you are competing with AWS," he said. "But I think they are terrified of having upset customers."

It's important to remember that Sentinel will have its limits, some partners said, and is apparently designed for only a simple set of narrow workloads that don't involve customized software.

"I see AWS focusing on automation, but there is so much customization that automation alone doesn't solve the problem," one partner said.


Other partners said they believe Sentinel's capabilities could be entirely overblown.

"What AWS is trying to do isn't easy," one source told CRN. "Sentinel will only service a very small percentage of the app loads out there. A lot of the workloads and products and services out there won't be able to use it effectively. It's tricky and not easy for AWS to build it correctly."

Because Amazon does offer an MSP certification for partners, the provider will undoubtedly tread carefully with Sentinel, avoiding stepping on partner toes by limiting the product to a toolkit and never straying into its own brand of managed services, one partner said.

The greater threat is that "the traditional MSP business model is disappearing," another told CRN. "There's just less value in providing an army of support staff to watch blinking lights."

Any AWS-affiliated solution provider -- whether an MSP, systems integrator or technology partner -- should expect Amazon "to offer 80 percent of what they do, and focus on finding the 20 percent that makes them different," one partner told CRN.

On Tuesday, in response to questions about Sentinel, an AWS spokeswoman told CRN in an emailed statement: "We don’t comment on rumors, but will note that we always build services with our partner ecosystem in mind, enabling our partners to leverage and extend whatever we build to create unique value-added solutions for customers."

Kevin McLaughlin contributed to this story.

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