Extreme Partners: New Team Has Kept Promises, Opened New Doors

It's been two years since Extreme Networks named a new CEO, Oscar Rodriguez, and began a painful process of restructuring the company and reinvesting to make sure it was focused on the right things.

Now, heading into the company's Partner Summit next week, the $322.7 million company is on stabler ground financially, and Extreme partners are more optimistic than they've been in years, buoyed by new programs and motivated behind a largely new Extreme management team that intends to double down on the channel and push heavily into data center, BYOD and the education vertical where Extreme is particularly strong.

"We've been an Extreme partner for nine years, and the last couple, with Oscar coming in, we've seen rejuvenation," said Bill Smeltzer, executive vice president and CTO of Focus Technology Solutions, a Seabrook, N.H.-based solution provider. "They've always been a good partner of ours and one of our more profitable partners -- good about protecting our margins. But Oscar and the team have made a strong commitment and they've done what they said they would commit to."

[Related: Extreme Networks Names New Global Sales Chief ]

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Under new channel chief Theresa Caragol, who joined Extreme as vice president, global channels in April, partners will see significant more emphasis on channel enablement programs and marketing -- two areas many Extreme partners saw as lacking in recent years, even with the company maintaining its long-held reputation for strong Ethernet switching and data center technology.

For starters, Extreme recently convened its first-ever global partner advisory council. It consists of 14 members, including a handful each from the EMEA, Latin America and Asia-Pacific regions as well as a healthy U.S. and Canada contingent. Members are appointed for two-year terms.

"Extreme was a pretty decentralized organization," Caragol told CRN in a recent interview. "But we have a global approach to growing the data center business, as well as our campus business, so it's so important for our partners to be represented as one entity, and help us prioritize the biggest areas to help them grow their business."

Smeltzer is on the council, as is Gordon Martin, president of Peak Uptime, a Tulsa, Okla.-based solution provider.

"What you're really seeing is them avoiding the segmentation that can occur with geography, but also trying to get the people together that really would give them direct and specific feedback," Martin said. "I'm seeing this as another indication they're listening to what's going on in the markets, but also looking to get the insight. Extreme has always had a great technical product and they've been known for that, but the fact is that this marketing engine that's very dependent on their channel partners is now getting attention."

According to Caragol, Extreme's partner program itself also has evolved into more of a globally representative offering, with more streamlined ways for partners to receive, track and use marketing funds.

In addition, Extreme is adding what Caragol described as a data center growth fund -- an incremental percentage to partner rewards provided for data center-specific customer opportunities. It also will keep up with programs such as its recent Flip The Switch promotion, which rewards partners and distributors for switching out competitive equipment for Extreme products.

Shortly after Caragol joined the company, Extreme surveyed its global partner base and came back with 85 percent of respondents saying they understood Extreme's strategy and vision -- proof positive, she said, that Rodriguez and his team have done a better job with market focus.

"To have it that high based on where the company was two years ago is a big win for us," she said. "Partners like our ability to interact. With our size, we can give them that close touch that they just aren't getting from other vendors."

Expect Extreme's channel leadership team to continue to expand along with Extreme's corporate team -- Caragol has made a number of key hires and expects to confirm more in the next few weeks.

And along with its ongoing recruitment of data center-centric partners, Extreme plans to "rationalize" its partner base, Caragol said, and cut underperforming solution providers. Extreme has well north of 700 total partners but less than half, about 300, are active and considered strategic in the Extreme ecosystem, Caragol said.

"If they're not willing to lead with us, we're going to need to talk about whether we're strategic with each other," she said.

NEXT: Extreme Partners Like What They're Hearing

Several partners championed Extreme's commitment to price-sensitive, yet feature-packed 1 Gb and 10 Gb Ethernet products and the strength of its data center approach. But they'd also like to see Extreme market its networking wares more as part of converged data center architectures with other vendors they sell, especially EMC, VMware and Citrix.

"As this industry goes through a technology shift, they have to work harder on their ecosystem relationships," said Peak Uptime's Martin. "We have to know what the hypervisor vendors like Citrix, VMware and Microsoft are doing. We need to understand what the storage players are doing. This is something where Extreme doesn't have the balance sheet to be the big player, but they are nimble and can build very strong partner relationships in order to position themselves in the data center. They have the technology, so it's very important for them to be active here."

Peak Uptime's Extreme sales are up 30 percent year-over-year, Martin said, and show continued strength particularly in state and local government and education (SLED) accounts. Those customers like Extreme technology, he said, but are also thinking about how to build more efficient networking and data center assets using converged plays.

"There's a little different nuance to what's going on in the industry now, and they have this leadership position in Ethernet at the right price point," Martin said. "So more of that needs to go into market positioning and relate to that ecosystem of relationships. There needs to be more of a comprehensive approach there because they can be uniquely positioned with their Ethernet speed and price point."

There's greater willingness overall by Extreme to listen to the channel -- through which Extreme fulfills more than 95 percent of orders -- and take their lead on the areas where opportunity is growing, Extreme partners agreed.

"Oscar was loud and clear when he came in that channel was important and that they would focus on channels," said Mike Ferney, vice president of merchandising at distributor ScanSource's Catalyst Telecom unit. "We love the energy they're bringing and that they're working harder at a global channel sales presence."

Even as it's remade its corporate team and focused on areas such as marketing, Extreme also has made sure to keep its technology strength in the headlines, partners said.

"Oscar made a call a couple of years ago that when Extreme came out with new generation products they'd go to the Tolly Groups and Gartners and IDCs and make sure they had the industry endorsement to help us [sell this]," Smeltzer said. "They had some pretty significant accolades. So you have their fabrics, the faster 10 Gig products, the price point and that endorsement. All that has really helped us."

Another thing that helped, Smeltzer and others highlighted, was Extreme's declaration that it would be focused not only on the education market but on the challenges associated with BYOD. A marketing campaign followed that included everything from telemarketing to ad blitzes in education trade publications, and the result of that, said Smeltzer, was that when solution providers went in to talk to higher-education customers about BYOD and building infrastructure to support things such as VDI technology, those customers had already heard of Extreme.

"I'm excited for more of that kind of marketing, specifically around data center," Smeltzer said. "It sounds like we'll be seeing more of that."

One more thing partners will be seeing is Extreme spelling out its role in the emerging software-defined networking (SDN) trend. The company earlier this week revealed its participation in U.S. Ignite, a public/private effort between the government and technology companies to drive high-speed networking -- particularly the transition from 10 GbE to 40 GbE and 100 GbE -- and concepts such as cloud and SDN. And back in June, Extreme put an SDN technology stake in the ground with the announcement that it would support the OpenFlow protocol across all of its ExtremeXOS-based Ethernet switches and support OpenFlow controllers and provide a plug-in for OpenStack.

It's early days for SDN and how it will change Extreme's networking go-to-market, but solution providers say it's important to attempt a leadership position now.

"I will want to hear how they're planting the seeds and how things like virtualization are leveraged in that," said Martin. "This is an important topic. It's not something that's a go-to-market topic right now, but it's not a matter of if it's going to happen, it's a matter of when."