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Microsoft Azure: 5 Key Takeaways On The Partner Opportunity

Azure is now a much better fit for solution providers than it was just a few years ago. CRN speaks with numerous solution providers to hear why.

The past few years have seen Microsoft Azure transform from an offering with numerous hurdles for smaller partners to a more manageable service that represents one of the fastest growth opportunities in the channel, solution providers told CRN.

A variety of factors have now come together to make Azure a far more attractive offering to bring to customers of all sizes, including many SMBs, according to solution providers.

[Related: Microsoft Channel Chief Schuster On Why Multi-Cloud Partners Are 'Doubling Down' On Azure]

Azure is "a great fit for the SMB market," said Travis Adair, principal partner and vice president at Columbia, Mo.-based InfiniTech Consulting. "Microsoft has made it a lot easier for us to understand and to make money off the product."

Kelly Yeh, president of Chantilly, Va.-based Phalanx Technology Group, agreed, saying that Azure is now "applicable to most businesses."

"Microsoft's focus on how businesses actually use their product is superior to anyone else," Yeh said.

In a statement to CRN, Microsoft said it views solution providers as pivotal to bringing the Azure cloud to businesses on the smaller end of the spectrum.

"More and more SMBs are moving to the cloud and looking for help on their cloud journey, but many small- business owners have concerns about cost, complexity, and the security of cloud solutions," a Microsoft spokesperson said in the statement. "Partners are helping customers ease those concerns and enabling customers to realize the benefits of the cloud by enabling MSPs to more easily scope, size, deploy, manage and support small-business customers using Azure."

What follows are five key takeaways on the Azure opportunity for solution providers.

Azure Is A Top Priority For Many Solution Providers

Fifty-two percent of solution providers expect "moderate to high growth" in customer demand for public cloud services over the next 12 months, according to a survey of solution providers conducted by IPED Consulting (which is owned by The Channel Company, the parent company of CRN).

And Azure is winning over more solution providers than the competing public clouds: Forty-four percent of partners said they see Microsoft Azure as a strategic supplier for their business, compared with 34 percent for AWS and 17 percent for Google Cloud.

That's the case even though AWS has the larger market share overall than Azure. Yeh said that while his company works with both AWS and Azure, "the AWS environment is one thousand times more complicated."

"It is difficult to manage, and it's expensive," he said. "You can bleed money in an AWS environment super easily. Azure is phenomenal."

Focusing Just On Azure Can Have Its Benefits

While some solution providers opt to partner with multiple public cloud providers, Chicago-based 10th Magnitude has chosen to focus only on Azure. And that has given the solution provider a "true uniqueness in the market," said Jason Rook, vice president of market development at 10th Magnitude, which this year became the first pure-play partner to achieve prestigious Azure Expert MSP status from Microsoft.

"Today there are 161 Azure services in general availability," Rook said during The Channel Company's XChange 2019 conference this week. "There is no way that anybody can know everything about Azure, everything about AWS, and everything about [Google Cloud Platform]. That focus has really helped us with talent acquisition, talent management, and our message to the market."

Azure is driving sales growth of up to 90 percent this year at 10th Magnitude, with 300 percent growth in Azure managed services. "We've been on a constant triple-digit growth path," Rook said.

Azure Has Come A Long Way In Terms Of Simplicity (And Profitability)

Solution providers said that Microsoft has removed a number of the hurdles in terms of working with Azure in recent years.

Microsoft has "covered most of the bases" in terms of tools for partners working with Azure, said Miguel Zamarripa, CIO of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Simpleworks IT.

"The toolset has come a long way for people like us to manage it a little bit better, and it also helps us to sell it a little bit better," Zamarripa said. "They've been going through a lot of iterations of this, and I think they've worked out a good majority of the kinks."

Meanwhile, interacting with the Azure interface has "improved significantly in the last few years," Adair said. Previously, Azure's complexity was a "hurdle not only for the end user, but a hurdle for partners like us to guide the end user," he said.

"And frankly, they've made it so that we can make money. I can make the same margin whether I put it in Azure or sell an on-premise server," Adair said. "That makes us more interested in being able to take this practice to market."

Distributor Programs Can Be An Asset

Many smaller partners still are looking for help when it comes to getting up and running with Azure. Cloud distributor Pax8 launched an Azure program about 13 months ago, and within the past two months the program has kicked into high gear, executives from the cloud distributor told CRN.

Pax8 is now helping one to two partners per day move into production on Azure, up from one to two a month originally, said Aaron Garza, vice president of business development at Pax8.

"Two years ago, if you'd asked me about Azure, I probably would not have recommended it for the MSP," Garza said. But Microsoft has made huge strides in simplifying the platform and programs such as the one from Pax8 have supplemented the offering with professional services for partners, he said.

Pax8's program includes a "flight plan" to address the major challenges for partners in moving to Azure, access to Azure experts—including pre-sales engineering, cloud architects cloud engineers—as well as intensive Azure bootcamp trainings for qualified partners.

"When working with Microsoft we firmly believe that you need a wingman," Garza said. "Our goal is to simplify that process."

Jaimy Thornton, senior director of business development at Denton, Texas-based GSATi, said his company has had a "fantastic" experience working with Pax8 around Azure. Pax8 "bridges the gap" when it comes to Azure infrastructure projects that GSATi is working on, he said.

"Pax8 has the technical resources on staff and professional services to be a one-stop shop for us," Thornton said. "It'd be a lot harder to architect these solutions without them."

Third-Party Tools Can Also Help Some MSPs

While Azure is simpler to work with than it used to be, tools for automation can sometimes still help ease the transition to the cloud. One such tool is Nerdio for Azure, which provides automated provisioning of IT environments for Azure along with features such as intelligent autoscaling of desktops and servers.

At Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Ability Technologies, Nerdio has enabled a dramatic time savings on Azure projects, said Eric Kim, CTO at Ability Technologies. Using Nerdio for Azure, Ability was recently able to complete an Azure migration in two weeks that normally would've taken four to six weeks, Kim said.

"Obviously, there's an added cost to start using it. But in my experience, the amount you save from labor and effort outweigh those costs," Kim said. Nerdio for Azure has the potential to give MSPs "an inroad to really starting an Azure cloud practice," he said.

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