Cisco Swallows Up Linksys Partner Program

In a move that's been nearly a year-and-a-half in the making, Cisco Systems Tuesday said it is absorbing the Linksys Small-Business Channel Partner Program into its own partner program.

With the integration -- which will incorporate the Linksys Partner Connection small-business channel program into the Cisco Channel Partner Program -- the networking vendor is amassing a global army of nearly 60,000 SMB-focused channel partners. The company is also integrating the Linksys small business field force with its own.

"For channel partners, it's going to be easier to work with us. There's going to be a single contract, a single place to go for support, a single place to go for enablement. The field force is going to be integrated, so from an ease-of-doing-business standpoint, if you're focused on the 'S' and#91;small businessand#93; market, then this is going to make a difference for those channel partners," said Andrew Sage, vice president of worldwide small business sales at Cisco, San Jose, Calif.

One solution provider said the move will benefit Linksys partners because of its potential to create a much-needed distinction among the Linksys portfolio.

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"The main thing I'm looking for is putting differentiation in place between the Linksys home products and the Linksys business-class products," said Austin Smith, president of Digital Son, I.T. Services, a VAR in Lawrenceville, Ga. He's also hoping Cisco will create lower-end versions of some of its products, such as its Adaptive Security Appliances.

Smith said he's keeping his fingers crossed that Cisco will keep Linksys's affordable product pricing. From a partnership standpoint, he said he's not fearful of getting swallowed up by the larger Cisco channel machine.

"My understanding is that not too much is going to change on the partner side, and that put my worries to rest," Smith said, lauding the Linksys partner program as one of the industry's best.

The channel program integration comes seven weeks after executives at the vendor's Cisco Live conference in Orlando, Fla., said the company is in the midst of a drive to add 300,000 new small business accounts.

It also comes packaged with several other shifts in Cisco's small business go-to-market strategy. The company is augmenting existing segment councils for its service provider, enterprise and commercial businesses with the creation of a Small Business Council, responsible for coordinating sales, manufacturing and engineering for Cisco's pursuit of the sub-100 employee market. The council is led by Sue Bostrom, chief marketing officer and executive vice president; Keith Goodwin, senior vice president of worldwide channels; and Ian Pennell, senior vice president of Cisco's Small Business Technology Group (SBTG).

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With the creation of SBTG, Cisco is bringing the Linksys small-business engineering team into the Cisco fold. Under Pennell, one of Cisco's "engineering rock stars," SBTG will develop products specifically for the small business space, Sage said.

In addition, Cisco has created Sage's role as the global lead for small business sales, a position that reports up to channel chief Goodwin. "It seems natural, but when you think about it, it's actually kind of a big deal because we don't have any of the direct sales number responsibility rolling up into the channel anywhere but small business," Sage said.

Cisco in April, 2007, first disclosed plans to build a single, integrated partner community between itself and the business-focused side of its Linksys division. Now, after focus groups, surveys of Cisco Select and Linksys partner and a year-long pilot program, those plans have come to fruition, Sage said.

"To be honest it took us awhile to execute on the strategy but we think what we've come up with now is pretty impactful," Sage said.

The end result is that Linksys's 20,000 small-business channel partners now have until September 16 to sign up to become Cisco Registered partners, already 40,000 solution providers strong. Allowing for overlap, Cisco expects to have 50,000 Registered partners at the end of the integration process. Add to that the existing 8,000 certified partners that make up its Cisco Select ranks and that brings the vendor to approximately 58,000 solution providers focused on small and mid-sized businesses.

Linksys partners that become Cisco Registered partners will have access to the vendor's small-business portfolio as well as demo equipment, pre-sales support, marketing tools and the rest of Cisco's partner enablement offerings, Sage said. Instead of the contractually-based five-percent discount previously given to Linksys Partner Connection members, those partners will receive ongoing price promotions through distribution, Sage said.

Meanwhile, Cisco partners will have the option of adding Linksys small business products to their lineups.

Cisco is also inviting Linksys-focused distributors to join the Cisco distribution ranks. In the U.S., Cisco's distribution partners DandH Distributing, Ingram Micro, Tech Data and Westcon Group's Comstor division, will be joined by ASI, a Linksys distributor in Fremont, Calif., which will now add the Cisco small business portfolio to its linecard.

The Linksys business-class products will continue to carry the Linksys By Cisco brand and coexist with Cisco-branded small business offerings, Sage said, though he noted that Cisco will continue to evaluate that branding strategy going forward.