Goodbye, Silver: Cisco Overhauls Partner Program With An Eye On Cloud, Managed Services

Cisco Systems Tuesday unveiled the most significant overhaul to its global partner program in years, a move that will require more Cisco partners to make the leap to selling cloud and managed services and to target new customers outside IT.

"We look at [today's] market transitions, we listen to customers, we listen to you, we listen to the marketplace and then we go from listening to sharing -- that's what we do a lot of at Partner Summit. We share with you what is coming," said Edison Peres, senior vice president of worldwide channels at Cisco, addressing 2,000 Cisco partners at the Global Partner Summit in Las Vegas Tuesday. "And then we move from sharing to incenting. We incent you to go there. And from incenting, we eventually make a change in our partner program where we require those new capabilities."

Peres introduced the Next-Generation Cisco Channel Partner Program, which includes a number of changes to Cisco's partner certification structure -- most of which are focused on managed services and cloud -- and bundles all of Cisco's deal registration programs, including the Cisco Opportunity Incentive Program (OIP) and Teaming Incentive Program (TIP), into one.

Cisco, however, said no major changes are being made to its Value Incentive Program (VIP), and that the 11-year program will continue to be refreshed every six months, as usual. "One thing that is not changing in our partner program is our philosophy that it's all about value, not volume," Peres said.‚Äč

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Cisco's revamped partner program comes on the heels of the company announcing its official entry in the public cloud market, where it will go head to head with cloud titans including Amazon Web Services, Hewlett-Packard and VMware.

Among the changes introduced by the Cisco Next-Generation Channel Partner Program is a new partner certification structure that will eliminate the Silver designation and require Gold status partners to invest more heavily in Cisco Powered Cloud and managed services offerings.

Under the new program, partners at the Gold level -- still the highest possible tier -- need to be actively selling a minimum of four Cisco cloud or managed services offerings, and can only meet that requirement by selling at least one cloud service and at least one managed service.

Cisco said these cloud products could include either Cisco Powered Cloud Services, such as the Cisco Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS), or Cisco cloud-based services such as WebEx or Meraki. Managed services could include partners' own Cisco-based managed services offerings, or any of Cisco's 11 Cisco Powered Managed Services, which include managed services for data center, security and collaboration.

Also new for Gold partners is that they must have a member of their staff achieve the Cisco Business Value Practioner certification, a new certification also announced at Partner Summit that's focused on selling to lines of business customers rather than IT.

As in the past, Gold partners are still required to have a minimum of four Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts (CCIEs) on staff, and still need to hold at least four Cisco Advanced Architecture specializations, with two of them being the Security and the new Enterprise Networks Architecture specializations.

"I think it's going to help differentiate who really makes an investment in the Gold partnership and who has been in it year after year just because they have the required CCIEs," said Sean Finnegan, director of sales at Wachter, a Lenexa, Kan.-based Cisco Gold partner. "We are also trying to strengthen our managed services. and we are definitely happy to see that [emphasized] here today."

The new Cisco Channel Partner Program eliminates the Silver partner level, which had, in the past, been the second-highest ranking after Gold. Cisco said it's retiring the Silver level based entirely on partner feedback, and that Silver status, in the past, had generally been a "stepping stone" to the Gold status, anyway.

Cisco said there are currently around 70 Silver partners in the U.S. and about 285 worldwide. These partners will have until April 1, 2016 to either transition to Gold status, or choose to drop down to Premier status -- the next level down -- but with Master specializations. According to Cisco, the idea is to have these legacy Silver partners choose to either build out the breadth of their Cisco practice by moving to Gold, or their depth in one specific Cisco technology segment by getting a Master specialization and moving down to Premier.

One Cisco Silver partner did not take the news well.

"This is incredibly disappointing to us and will force us to reevaluate our vendor relationships," said Tim Savage, principal and managing director at ENS Group, a Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Cisco partner, via email . "While we have four CCIEs we serve a tertiary market and moving to Gold has never really made sense. Cisco says they want to focus on the midmarket but this sends a signal to smaller partners that have invested heavily in Cisco that it isn't enough."

Partners at the Premier level under the new program are required to be selling at least one Cisco cloud or managed services offerings, and must also hold either a Cisco Express or Advanced Architecture Specialization.

Cisco said Gold and Premier partners will have between 16 and 24 months to meet the requirements under the new program. There are no changes to partners at the Select status.

NEXT: Cisco's New Deal Reg, Technology Partner Programs

The new program also includes two new Master Architecture Specializations: Enterprise Networks and Service Provider Technology. Cisco said the new Enterprise Networks Specialization comes from the former Borderless Networks Specialization, which has been broken out into multiple specializations, while the new Service Provider Technology Specialization focuses on carrier and service provider architectures.

This means there are a now a total of five Cisco Architecture Specializations: Data Center, Collaboration, Security and, now, the new Enterprise Networks and Service Provider Technology.

Cisco also introduced an entirely new set of Specializations called Solutions Specializations. These, Cisco said, will be based off of current Cisco partner competencies, but, in some cases, will also involve some third-party requirements from Cisco technology partners. Out of the gate, Cisco is offering five Solutions Specializations: Flexpod, VSPEX/Vblock, Desktop Virtualization, Enterprise Mobility and Cisco TeleHealth.

Cisco's deal registration programs are also being shaken up under the new program. Namely, Cisco said it's rolling its separate deal registration programs -- including its Opportunity Incentive Program (OIP), Teaming Incentive Program (TIP) and Solutions Incentive Program (SIP) -- into one.

Cisco said that the combined "umbrella" program, called the Cisco Deal Registration Program, will have multiple tracks of partner rewards, many of which will be based requirements similar to those in the former three programs. For example, Cisco partners will still be rewarded for bringing on net new customers, as they were under OIP, and will still be rewarded for building out end-to-end customer solutions are they were under SIP. All rewards earned under the new program can be stacked, Cisco said.

The combined deal registration program, which Cisco said is meant to simplify the deal registration and rewards process for partners, also offers up to 8 discount points for registering a deal, rather than 5 points as was given in past.

The new Cisco Deal Registration Program will go live by the end of the calendar year, Cisco said.

Cisco also announced Tuesday a new partner program for technology and ISV partners called the Cisco Solution Partner Program that it said will help its channel partners go to market with new applications and solutions that are specifically targeted at a unique vertical market or customer line of business.

Cisco said the type of ISVs or technology partners participating in the Solution Partner Program will be, for example, software developers creating industry-specific applications for the Internet of Things that will run on Cisco infrastructures. They will also include existing Cisco technology partners like NetApp and EMC.

The idea, Cisco said, is that these technology partners will be able to sell their solutions through all of Cisco's 68,000 global channel partners. For solution providers, Cisco said the new Solution Partner Program will give them access to a slew of new applications and even hardware that's been validated to run in Cisco architectures.

Cisco said it will connect its solution partners with its channel partners through an online Cisco Marketplace, and that channel partners can access a Marketplace Solutions Catalog to search for a particular application, service or product that they are interested in selling.

Lastly, Cisco made changes to its Global and Multi-National partner program -- or Global Partner Network (GPN) -- that reflect the Silver status being eliminated and, according to Cisco, will lower the barrier to entry for partners to get into the program. In the past, for example, to be a Multi-National partner, solution providers had to hold Gold status in at least three countries and Silver status in at least three countries. Moving forward, partners will only need to hold two Gold and three Premier statuses to achieve the Multi-National certification.