F5 Channel Program Expands With Sales, Tech Accreditation

F5 Networks on Monday went live with new sales and technical accreditation programs designed to help partners leverage its data networking products in a range of different scenarios.

Many channel partners understand better the role of application delivery controllers (ADC) in virtualization and cloud computing environments, said Dean Darwin, F5's vice president, worldwide channels. But many are also realizing the benefits of ADC in the greater context of the data center, including as a complement for security, storage, software and other forms of infrastructure.

F5's goal? To sell more F5 through partners using those inroads.

"We're the Swiss Army Knife of the data center," said Darwin in an interview with CRN. "Historically, we had so many networking partners, but now we're getting storage, and into the Microsoft, VMware and Oracle partners. I've got to get them up to speed on F5 and all the ways to use the technology."

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As F5 has grown, so too have its routes to market, and among channel partners, the company now includes global integrators, telecom service providers and embedded partners as well as traditional VARs and distributors.

Darwin said that in recent years, F5's partner recruitment had been deliberately paced; it's grown the number of overall channel partners it has in its ranks by less than 3 percent. But now that the company is picking up so much interest from market segments adjacent to ADC but that touch the data center, it's time to to "turn on the spigot a little bit more," he said.

"This is business we weren't getting access to in the past," he said. "Am I going out to 10,000 Microsoft solution providers out there and hitting home runs with all of them? No. But there are a bunch now that I'm aware of, and they're aware of us. We're a bridge. We can have conversations and if you add virtualization, they get us pretty fast."

F5's new programs include 12 hours of technical training and 10 hours of sales training, offered in 12 modules. Each module is self-paced: Web-based e-learning accessed through the portal of F5's Unity Partner Program. Each includes a test and as partners take and pass each test, they can brand themselves as F5 solutions specialists in particular categories.

Of note is that there is both technical training and sales training, Darwin said, because F5 wanted to offer a program for sales managers to answer customer questions and get trained for field scenarios even if they don't need the deeper technical expertise an engineer would require.

The programs are open to any F5 partner, and they cost nothing for partners. Darwin declined to put a dollar amount to how much F5 has invested in the program, but said it's "very substantial" and consists of staff as well as cash.

Darwin said F5 signed off on fully funding the program because it sees long-term returns for having many, varied partners fully up to speed on how F5 solutions can be deployed in the marketplace. Accreditations aren't required for partners, but there will also be long-term incentives for those who get them.

"I'm going to give six months and let [partners] digest it," Darwin said. "Then I'm going to start tying tiers to it. I'm not going to force these guys to do anything, but there will be carrots at the end of it."

Ultimately, Darwin said, F5 is pushing toward a new level of partnership in the Unity Program whereby partners will be able to call themselves masters, and also specialize in particular areas -- including security, virtualization and acceleration -- related to ADC's use in the data center.

"We'll have this is in 2012," Darwin said. "This idea of an F5 architect -- this is not trivial."

NEXT: F5's Continued Growth

F5 saw about 35 percent percent year-over-year revenue growth from FY09 ($653 million) to FY10 ($882 million), and projects revenue between $265 million and $270 million for its fiscal first quarter 2011.

According to Gartner, it commands 61 percent share as the No. 1 player in the application delivery control market, and with a $1 billion run rate, said Darwin, things are "all going in the right direction."

Its success has made it attractive; among major hires in 2010, F5 pried David Aronica, now senior director of worldwide field readiness, away from years of partner enablement executive roles at VMware.

On the channel side, F5 has been successful in recruiting many of the national and global VARs well-entrenched with some of its rivals. Johannesburg, South Africa-based Dimension Data -- one of Cisco's top global strategic partners -- finally signed on with F5 in November 2010 after what Darwin described as five years of wooing.

Its longtime partners have celebrated the company's gains, too; many F5 VARs told CRN during last year's F5 partner conference that their business with the vendor had increased more than 100 percent even during a tough economic year.

The recession caused many solution providers to re-evaluate their practices, Darwin noted, but many also pushed their practices away from integrated solutions and back toward siloed technologies they knew they could sell in tough times.

That might have helped keep business afloat, Darwin said, but it also meant they missed opportunities to provide integrated solutions -- networking and virtualization, say -- and expand their value proposition.

"Many got caught off guard," Darwin said. "You have your FishNets and your Accuvants who did expand their offerings, and where did they take their market share from? The ones that didn't do it correctly."