Cisco Cultivating Elite Class Of Cloud Partners

As of this week, Cisco partners can begin applying to become Master Cloud Builders, a specialization that builds upon the Cloud Builder designation but requires significantly more involvement on the part of partners -- for significantly more benefits.

Cisco unveiled the Cloud Channel Program at its 2011 Partner Summit in New Orleans as a way to organize Cisco partners around their potential cloud computing opportunity with the vendor. According to Cisco figures culled from various research reports, the market opportunity for building cloud infrastructure is on a roughly 24 percent CAGR over the next four years and could hit about $112 billion by 2015. Cloud services, meanwhile, are on a roughly 35 percent CAGR, expected to reach $113.6 billion by then.

"The market is equally large in both infrastructure and everything-as-a-service," said Susheel Chitre, director, cloud go-to-market for Cisco's Worldwide Partner Organization, in a recent interview with CRN. "Our guidance to partners is that they need to have a holistic strategy as they approach customers in the cloud discussion. They have to be able to address customer needs both for on-premise and multitenant environments. It's not enough to focus on one or the other. Customers will have a mix of requirements."

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The Cisco Cloud Channel Program has three partner categories: Cloud Builders, Cloud Providers and Cloud Services Resellers, and each has grown ahead of expectations, according to Chitre. The Cloud Builder category, for example, now has 130 solution providers certified, while there are now more than 50 Cisco-certified Cloud Services partners offering more than 70 "Cisco cloud-powered" services, from hosted unified communications to SaaS applications.

The Cloud Services Reseller opportunity is just getting under way thanks to the first two categories gaining strength, Chitre said.

The next phase of Cisco's channel plan is the Master Cloud Builder Specialization, which will combine the Cloud Builder specialization as it is now with other major product and service competencies, such as Cisco's Data Center Architecture specialization. Partners also will be required to be up to speed on major Cisco ecosystem plays such as FlexPod, Vblock or VDI -- solutions that combine Cisco with products from its strategic allies -- as well as be certified with those allies in areas such as storage, virtualization and cloud management. In addition, Master Builder applicants must submit to a formal audit by a third-party testing service, which will require customer references, checks on proper people and processes, training, up-to-date demand generation and other criteria.

"These are the partners that have the greatest depth and breadth in capabilities for deploying cloud infrastructure to customers. They are cloud practice builders," Chitre explained.

Current Cloud Builders will have about 12 months to transition to the Master category if they choose to pursue it, Chitre said. They will be able to use top-level certifications with storage vendors (NetApp, EMC, Hitachi), virtualization vendors (VMware, Microsoft, Citrix, Red Hat) and cloud management vendors (CA, VMware, BMC), as well as their cloud-centric professional service credentials to help qualify as Master Builders. Chitre said he expects most of the 130 current Cloud Builders to be able to achieve Master status, and for other Cisco partners to become Cloud Builders as the baseline program becomes more mainstream.

In return for reaching Master Builder status, Cisco partners will receive better branding in the Cisco partner ecosystem, have deeper engagement with Cisco's sales team, receive more Value Incentive Program benefits, including a back-end rebate that they couldn't get otherwise, receive higher priority status for Cisco's Teaming Incentive Program and receive more demand generation tools and cloud MDF. They also will be eligible for financial incentives to help with collaboration services and be part of another new Cisco cloud offering, the Cloud Partner Marketplace.

The Marketplace is a portal, open to Cisco Master Cloud Builders, Cloud Builders and Cloud Service Providers, through which partners will be able to advertise what cloud specialty services they offer and what multiparty solutions they can design and build, as well as network exclusively with each other. It's free to participate in for those qualified partners, Chitre said, and is essentially a piece of real estate on -- a microsite -- on which partners decide the content and post everything from success stories to promotions to partner requests.

Tiffani Bova, vice president, sales strategies and channel management worldwide at researcher Gartner, credited Cisco for working hard to align its programs to support how customers want to purchase cloud solutions and ensuring their partner ecosystem is skilled to meet that demand.

Larger Cisco partners are already positioned to take advantage because of their breadth of offerings, but the program could benefit highly specialized smaller partners, too, she said.

"This is no longer about 'reselling' products, but rather about delivering measurable business outcomes and solutions and that takes a different, more highly advanced skill set," Bova told CRN. "Larger partners are the natural first adopters due to their size, existing customer base and investments already made in advanced offerings. This does not mean smaller partners are not eligible to become a Master Cloud specialist, it just means they may need to be more focused than broad across the entire portfolio in order to justify the investments required."

Many vendors now have formalized cloud programs in place but it's too early to determine which offerings will be most effective for partners, she said.

"At this point, many providers are playing catch-up to get partners educated and trained around advanced solutions including, but not limited, to cloud," Bova explained. "This is not a game of who can create the richest 'incentives' for partners to join their cloud partner program, as the economics of building and running a cloud business is very different than that of a resale-oriented business. 'Margin and incentives' are not the primary revenue driver in a solution."