Cisco Partner Summit: VARs Seek Clarity Of Execution To Back Up Bold Vision

Cisco channel partners have a lot on their minds, and as the annual Cisco Partner Summit kicks off Monday in San Francisco, they'll be coming at Cisco's top channel brass with plenty of loaded questions.

Everything from the Unified Computing System (UCS) to cloud strategy, the just-completed acquisition of Tandberg and the future of collaboration is fair game, it seems. So is discussion of Cisco's backed-up supply chain and its attendant solution provider woes.

But several partners interviewed by also had another message for Cisco heading into the partner conference: thanks. Cisco has emerged from the downturn posting positive growth, and it partners credit the mighty Cisco channel machine for doing right by them in a brutal 2009.

Most expect the mood at Partner Summit to be upbeat, in other words.

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"I always look forward to the opportunity to meet with the Cisco people. This is the venue to do it," said Gia McNutt, president and CEO of Special Order Systems, a Campbell, Calif.-based solution provider. "You know so many people, you meet new people, and they always do a good job of offering time to talk about what's on my mind."

What's top of McNutt's mind is the range of opportunities Cisco will bring to bear in the Cisco channel between now and next year's Summit. From the just-completed acquisition of Tandberg -- which is poised to give Cisco the No. 1 worldwide market share in videoconferencing -- to the continued rollout of UCS and Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers' visions for the "30 adjacencies" he sees Cisco competing in, there's a lot to wrangle with.

All that vision means plenty of excitement for the channel. But coming out of the worst downturn most VAR businesses have seen in a decade, it also means Cisco has to make good on that vision and offer partners brass tacks information on what their product- and service-based opportunities are, as well as how to execute.

"We're really marching after the data center market space, and we're excited to understand the integration for the storage partners playing with Cisco," said Peter Belyea, vice president of Teracai, a North Syracuse, N.Y.-based solution provider. "It's great to announce products and announce vision and direction but I would love to have a lot of our questions about how UCS comes together answered formally -- how does all the vision play out as deliverable products? It's a very exciting product set, but we're not willing to step away from our other server platforms either."

Part of Cisco's UCS and overall data center strategy rests with the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) coalition, which it launched with EMC and VMware.

Kari Yent, vice president of strategic alliances for Crofton, Md.-based partner Force 3, said still more was needed from Cisco to understand how to sell Vblock, the pre-configured cloud infrastructure package that relies on technology from all three vendors.

"We've had enthusiastic adoption of Cisco UCS from our customer base," she said, "so I'm really interested in how that overall vision translates into a coordinated effort."

Next: The Vision Thing And The Execution Reality

Mont Phelps, president and CEO of NWN, Waltham, Mass., is among the many VARs urging Cisco to move past hype and excitement around the Tandberg integration, the expansion of UCS and other key pieces of the Cisco vision and offer partners rock solid recipes for success with those things.

"One thing that Chambers has always done is he likes to say we're in a transition and that creates opportunities, we just need the technology and gear to do it," Phelps said. "That's true, and great, but it's important to hear what we're actually going to be able to sell and install."

Kent MacDonald, vice president of network services at Long View Systems, Calgary, Alberta, said the early buzz on Partner Summit holds that Cisco will do exactly that, as well as address opportunities for Cisco partners in the cloud and even with other, sometimes competitive, vendors.

"I heard there's going to be a session on Cisco UC and Microsoft UC practices," MacDonald said. "That's supporting the channel. We're in a spot where the market is asking us to support both of those rather than having to deal with two large corporations. Cisco wants an end-to-end solution but they're also recognizing that partners are being caught in the middle and they can make it less painful for them."

Rus Healy, chief technology officer of Annese & Associates, a Herkimer, N.Y.-based solution provider, also requested that Cisco focus as much on execution in the channel trenches as it does on vision.

"What I see and hear a lot is a vision that's such a high level that it's hard to imagine where the execution is going to land," Healy said. "The video conversation, that's been going on for the last couple of years and it's been hard to translate into any sort of reality. The Tandberg acquisition will give them the tools to create that reality."

"It's not always been easy to connect the dots between the bigger marketing message and the nuts and bolts in terms of products and solutions," added SOS' McNutt. "There's been a lot of vision-painting and I'm looking to have it filled in. I'm also looking for anything coming down the pike in terms of programs for us to understand. How will all these new things translate in VIP, OIP and PDF? Those programs are all central to our business now and should anything change with one of those, it's a big deal for us."

Next: Supply Chain Aggravation Hits Home For VARS

Something that might linger a little too obtrusively at the Cisco Partner Summit is the networking titan's ongoing supply chain issue. According to numerous channel partners, Cisco has been plagued by product backorders throughout much of the past year, and while Cisco hasn't addressed the situation formally, many partners continue to wonder if it signals broader internal problems at Cisco in the midst of so much inspired vision.

"It's not exactly a well-oiled machine to begin with. They see the road ahead so well and a lot of the internal logistics are just a disaster," said one solution provider, who asked that his name not be used. "I suspect Cisco's going to hear a little bit more partner fatigue than they're used to at the Summit. Granted, with the year we all just had, maybe that's to be expected anyway."

"Calling it 'partner fatigue' is an overstatement," said Teracai's Belyea. "But there is a lot of messaging out there for those market adjacencies. I think the bigger challenge is, with all of this focus on those adjacencies, are they taking their eye off the ball operationally?"

Still, say most VARs, Cisco inspires optimism, too.

"The supply chain issue certainly isn't unique to Cisco," said Force 3's Yent. "Steps can be put in place, and I know they are putting them in place. It's good to know you can rely on them."

One Cisco partner who definitely won't be at Partner Summit is Adam Steinhoff, president and CEO of Steinhoff Consulting, a North Palm Beach, Fla.-based solution provider.

According to Steinhoff, he relies on Cisco products for the internal data center he uses for hosted solutions, but for many of his SMB customers, he's been emphasizing more cost-effective HP ProCurve gear.

That might be a discouraging message for Cisco's channel executives, who are expected to push Cisco's inroads into small business and the opportunities they present for VARs at Partner Summit.

"I don't think they ever defined SMB appropriately," Steinhoff said of Cisco. "SMB to them has always seemed to mean sub-500 nodes. In my world, 500 nodes isn't a small business. They aren't the only vendor that does that, but feel like I'm always sitting back and waiting for Cisco to announce that they understand SMB and can hit it on the head."

Any mention of HP does manage to get a rise out of his Cisco contacts, however.

"I have to admit that I brought that point to them about six months ago and if I mention HP, magic happens," Steinhoff says. "What I'd prefer is let's not jump through hoops every time. I shouldn't have to go and get a price deviation every time I need a product."