HP: Expanded Networking Influence A Top Channel Priority

Hewlett-Packard is on a determined mission to expand its influence in the networking channel, and under new CEO Meg Whitman, HP Networking has already received a substantial increase in its operating budget heading into 2012.

Mike Banic, vice president of marketing for HP Networking, declined to say how much the HP Networking operating spend is increasing, but said Whitman's approach has been well-received by HP's top managers since she took over the job from former CEO Leo Apotheker in September.

"We're very happy to have Meg. She's shown up differently on the engagement level with the executive teams," Banic told CRN Thursday.

Whitman has spent some of her first two months as CEO meeting with HP's top sales and marketing executives and looking at HP priorities for the new year. Networking, said Banic, is firmly among them and Whitman has communicated that to HP's top managers.

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For example, each of the HP executives reporting to David Donatelli, executive vice president of HP's Enterprise Servers Storage and Networking (ESSN) unit, had a recent chance to present to Whitman as part of strategizing for 2012. Among them was Bethany Mayer, senior vice president and general manager of HP Networking, and according to Banic, HP Networking has a definite place on Whitman's priority list.

HP, in turn, is trying to incentivize partners to sell more HP Networking, hoping to capitalize on the gains HP made this year against Cisco in the enterprise networking and infrastructure space. About 90 percent of HP Networking business now goes through the channel, according to the vendor.

Earlier Thursday, HP introduced new partner rewards within its PartnerONE and ExpertONE programs, including a renewal of its Catalyst for Change promotion for rewarding partners that replace competitive infrastructure with HP Networking wares.

New to PartnerONE is the Professional Networking Specialist designation, a partnership tier that falls in between HP's former Elite designation for networking partners -- now renamed the Advanced Networking Specialist -- and the lower HP Preferred and HP Business partner tiers. The Professional level requires $100,000 in annual HP Networking gear sold, which is far less than the $500,000 required of Advanced Networking Specialists, but is within reach to many partners currently categorized as Business or Preferred, said Armughan Ahmad, vice president of Americas Channel Sales, HP Networking.

HP sought a way to reward those strong performers by offering better discounts than they'd receive at the Preferred and Business levels, he explained. HP expects the Professional Networking Specialist designation to attract a few hundred HP Networking partners, according to Ahmad, and what HP gets in return is partners that have greater motivation to sell more HP Networking products and services to SMB customers.

As HP grows its networking base, it's also looking to influence customer buying decisions with its Converged Infrastructure strategy, which ties together networking, storage, servers and computing resources as an architectural play.

Several recent analyst reports indicate HP Networking is indeed making strides as an influencer. For example, a recent survey by Baird Research, which interviewed Cisco VARs in the third quarter of 2011 on what they are hearing from customers, indicated that 75 percent of Cisco VARs say HP Networking is now part of the buying discussion with their customers, and HP Networking is influencing customer purchases about 33 percent of the time. Those numbers have increased, from 60 percent and 25 percent, respectively, from a similar survey Baird fielded in the second quarter.

Next: HP Networking VARs Talk Up Year of Gains

Top HP solution providers said HP's bid to increase its networking influence is paying off in spades.

Marc Sarazin, executive vice president of sales and marketing for AdvizeX Technologies, an Independence, Ohio-based solution provider and top HP partner, said AdvizeX's HP Networking sales grew 500 percent from 2010 to 2011 following a strategic decision in November 2009 to build a networking practice specific to HP.

AdvizeX had been an HP VAR focused on storage and servers long before that time, but according to Sarazin, adding HP Networking effectively doubled AdvizeX's market opportunity, and HP Networking is now the highest-margin product set in AdvizeX's portfolio.

"Our average deal size is now $100,000," said Sarazin. "We have more than 250 opportunities in the pipeline."

John Convery, executive vice president of vendor relations and marketing at Denali Advanced Integration, a top HP partner based in Redmond, Wash., said HP's converged infrastructure conversation is resonating with customers, and HP's commitment to the networking channel has manifested in significant investment behind partners looking to grow their HP Networking practices.

Unlike AdvizeX, Denali is also a Cisco VAR. But HP's partner rewards are richer and Denali leads with HP Networking for most of its customer engagements, Convery said.

"There's no company on the planet that builds as much customer value but also generates great profits for partners," Convery said. "We lead with HP if it's not a brand call."

Convery and Sarazin acknowledged that certain customers prefer Cisco simply because they've dealt with Cisco technologies and equipment for years and are predisposed toward it.

But neutral customers are prime targets for HP gains, they said.

"Customers are buying off on the converged infrastructure design and implementing it based on what their needs are," Sarazin said. "If it's an unbiased evaluation taking place, it's HP that's winning most often."

Banic and Ahmad acknowledged that 2012 is a crucial time for cementing HP's gains in networking, not only for its competitive position against Cisco but also because of the challenge partners have had in dealing with HP's very public morale collapse and executive suite overhaul this year.

Banic said HP would strive to highlight what HP offers versus Cisco, particularly the idea that HP-certified partners can combine front-end and back-end incentives and wind up with in some cases double the discount their Cisco-selling peers are used to.

"We think we're a lot better at offering [partners] real benefits," Banic said.