New Lease On Life? Curvature Pits Its NetSure Tech Support Service Against Cisco's SmartNet

Fresh off a major rebranding initiative, Network Hardware Resale is repositioning itself as a full, end-to-end network infrastructure solution provider rather than just a reseller of Cisco pre-owned gear. And, as the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company -- now known as Curvature -- continues to make that shift, the crux of it all lies in NetSure, an alternative to Cisco SmartNet that Curvature says will open up significant opportunities for Cisco VARs while saving customers from unnecessary costs for years to come.

Since its introduction in 2011, Curvature's NetSure has served as a third-party alternative to Cisco SmartNet, the networking giant's technical support service. The idea, according to Curvature, is that NetSure allows Cisco customers to extend the life of their Cisco equipment by providing technical support for products that Cisco itself no longer supports.

It's an option, it seems, that Cisco customers find appealing; Curvature said NetSure adoption has grown 192 percent since its launch in 2011 to the end of 2013.

[Related: Cisco Touts Partner Opportunities With SmartNet]

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"Clients are saying, 'I want to extend the life of my hardware and I want to lower my operating costs,' " said Kenneth Rotman, managing director, global strategic alliances and channel development at Curvature, in a recent interview with CRN.

Rotman said the NetSure service represents a major opportunity for Cisco solution providers, which -- now that Curvature is shifting more of its sales indirect -- can offer NetSure to customers that don't have the capital budget to invest in the major hardware upgrades that are often needed to ensure SmartNet support.

Curvature Says It's Debunking The Cisco Refresh 'Myth'

According to Rotman, the NetSure service debunks two popular "myths" that were created and, for years, have been perpetuated by Cisco. The first, he said, is that most Cisco networking gear should be refreshed every three to five years.

Rotman argued that Cisco essentially "forces" customers to upgrade their equipment roughly every five years -- even if it's perfectly good gear -- by dropping support, including SmartNet technical support services and software upgrades, for that piece of equipment.

Citing a 2013 study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Curvature, Rotman said up to 79 percent of organizations refresh their wired networking infrastructure every one to five years, as guided by their vendors. What's more, he said, the study showed that 85 percent of the IT decision-makers surveyed said they would have kept their legacy networking gear if their vendor continued to support it.

"If you are a true enterprise, giant company and you can't be protected, you are forced into a refresh," Rotman said. "You literally have to get rid of gear that works and completely refresh."

Andre Kindness, principal analyst at Forrester, said these "forced" refreshes tend to happen because customers adhere so closely -- and exclusively, really -- to the refresh cycles dictated by the very vendors, including Cisco and others, from which they're buying their equipment.

"A lot of customers are beholden to the vendors and they don't realize [hardware] lifetime cycles might be longer," Kindness told CRN. "It's like the fox guarding the hen house."

Kindness noted that, in some cases, and depending on the specific piece of equipment, networking gear can have a potential life span of up to 10 or 15 years. He also referenced a recent study from systems integration giant Dimension Data, which found that obsolete gear, or hardware that's been deemed end-of-life by vendors, actually has a lower failure rate than new equipment.

"The reality is, end-of-life and end-of-sales [announcements] should not be the determining factor of you replacing equipment," Kindness said.

Next: Curvature vs. SmartNet

Curvature's NetSure, which offers both technical support services and guaranteed hardware replacements in the case of a failure, gives Cisco customers a way to maintain their legacy hardware and still have the peace of mind that that hardware is fully supported, Rotman said. It also, of course, eliminates the possibility of customers making premature, or unnecessary, upgrades.

Raja Sundaram, vice president, worldwide partners and alliances, Cisco services sales, said that Cisco customers are actually "extremely supportive" of Cisco's refresh cycles, embracing them as an opportunity to deploy not only higher-performing products, but to enable a new set of services that they need drive their businesses forward.

"If you look at a [new] generation of products coming into Cisco, they begin to do a set of things. It's not just the better innovation or that it's faster or quicker. It's the services that it delivers. It's better security. It's the ability to impact application performance and be able to ensure that critical applications are prioritized over others," Sundaram said. "So, the refresh cycle is not for the sake of [a refresh]. The refresh cycle either delivers a business-outcome-based service to the client or it delivers a better TCO."

Sundaram said, in general, the cost of SmartNet is between 7 percent and 10 percent of the list price of the Cisco product it supports. Curvature, for its part, said the price of its NetSure service varies, depending on the type of product, whether it's new or pre-owned equipment, whether it's been declared end-of-life, and other factors.

In general, though, Curvature says its NetSure service saves customers an average of 60 percent when compared to SmartNet.

That said, customers don't have access to Cisco's IOS software upgrades through NetSure like they do with SmartNet.

But Rotman argued that some Cisco hardware, especially switches, don't need or receive IOS software upgrades from Cisco as often as other boxes, such as firewalls.

Kindness agreed, noting that Cisco IOS updates, as an example, tend to rarely target Cisco edge or access switches.

"Most -- I would say 99 percent of those software updates -- are for new bugs or enhancements to the core of our network. Typically, a lot of them don't really fix the edge switches because they are more of a commodity," said Kindness. "So, a lot of people buy [SmartNet] when they don't really need it on their edge switches or access switches."

Bob Cox, president of Nothing But Net, a Phoenix-based solution provider that partners with Cisco and just this year partnered with Curvature, said he has seen a similar pattern with his customers.

"[Customers] do have to keep up-to-date and continuously fight the threats out there," said Cox. "So with the firewalls and the rest of Cisco's security products, SmartNet make sense, but for the rest of the Cisco products, from my point of view and my company's point of view, this NetSure offering makes sense."

Cisco's Sundaram, on the other hand, said Cisco's IOS software, and keeping up-to-date with that software, is the "most critical" component for not only ensuring network security, but for other tasks, such as making sure applications are being routed correctly throughout the network. He also argued that securing edge devices, such as access switches, is necessary for true, end-to-end protection of the network.

"As a network designer and a former CCIE, [IOS] is the most critical component," Sundaram said. "The entire network is the sensor, and the entire network is key."

Jamie O'Brien, director of licensing at MCPc, a Cleveland-based solution provider and Cisco Gold partner, said one of the key reasons he is wary of third-party maintenance options is because they can't provide those IOS updates.

"It's been our stance that we are staying far away from third-party maintenance contracts for Cisco. There are no plans, to my knowledge, that we are going to be looking into that, and one of my concerns with that is that with third-party maintenance replacement how do you address the IOS updates and with the end license agreements? That's a big component," O'Brien told CRN.

Next: The NetSure Opportunity For The Cisco Channel

The NetSure Opportunity For The Cisco Channel

As part of Curvature's recent makeover, the company, for the first time, is shifting a portion of its business indirect. And, according Rotman, the company's early and future partners stand to gain big from bringing NetSure to market.

One of Curvature's early partners is master agent and connectivity services distributor WTG. Through the partnership, WTG will offer Curvature's pre-owned Cisco equipment, in addition to its NetSure offering, through its more than 1,200 solution provider partners.

WTG CEO Vince Bradley said he expects NetSure, in particular, to be a game-changer for WTG solution providers and customers alike.

"[Cisco's] end-of-life gets out there and it could be great equipment that could last 10 years longer and [customers] have to throw it out. Well, those days are gone, because ultimately now they can extend that end-of-life, their maintenance contract and keep that equipment, save that capital and ultimately use it in other ways for their business," Bradley said in a recent interview with CRN.

"[Solution providers] are getting more and more frustrated with their margins, so this is an additional revenue stream for them and typically the commissions are going to be extremely competitive and high," Bradley continued.

According to Rotman, there are two major opportunities for Cisco partners when it comes to NetSure. The first, he said, are customers who want to extend the life of their existing gear because they don't have the capital budget to fund a refresh, after Cisco has stopped offering support.

"If they don't have the authorized capital budget to make a capital expense, that's the guy you would sell an extended service plan [to] that enables him to save so much money on opex that it funds his capex," Rotman said.

Secondly, Rotman said, partners can offer NetSure to customers who need extended support on existing equipment that they are in the process of replacing, an effort he said can sometimes take up to a year or more.

"It's really hard to go and literally restock your entire network," Rotman said. "[Customers] run out of time and, all of sudden, there is no longer support [for their legacy equipment]."

Cox, for his part, said he decided to sign on as a Curvature partner because some of his customers have started to rally against SmartNet, declaring the service, in some cases, a "waste of money." He said this is especially true of smaller and midsize companies with greater budgetary constraints.

"It's getting harder to justify the cost of SmartNet. That's the deal," Cox said. "It's becoming harder and harder to sell with some of the other options that are out there."

Next: 'A Big, Recurring Cost'

An executive from one Cisco Gold partner, who asked not to be named, said very few customers have actually complained of feeling forced into Cisco refreshes because of end-of-support dates. That said, he continued, some customers are definitely starting to grow weary of SmartNet, seeing it as a "big, recurring cost," and are exploring ways to reduce that cost.

The partner also noted that Hewlett-Packard's recent Lifetime Warranty 2.0 program, which for select HP networking products offers customers free software downloads for the life of the product, along with free technical support for up three years, has put new pressures on SmartNet.

"Typically, by the time [Cisco products] go end-of-life, you are talking seven-plus years that these things have been out there. Unless it was something built for a specific application within that infrastructure or business environment, [customers] are looking to refresh," the partner said. "I don't see that as much as I see them wanting more value out of what they are paying for."

John Bristol, practice director at Trace 3, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider, agreed that some customers are looking to squeeze more value out of SmartNet, but said Cisco has already taken steps to deliver more value to both its customers and partners.

Bristol pointed to Cisco's Smart Care Services, which makes the partner, not Cisco, the first line of support for the end customer, and to Cisco SmartNet Total Care, which provides device diagnostics and alerts.

"Definitely, over the last several years, we have seen SmartNet as kind of the cost of doing business with Cisco," Bristol said. "And I think Cisco has started to recognize that."

MCPc's O'Brien said MCPc has realized a significant opportunity in wrapping its own value-added services around SmartNet through programs like Total Care over the past few years.

"We will take SmartNet Total Care components, add MCPc's support services within that specific environment and, on top of that, also offer SmartNet assessment services," O'Brien said. "So you get a real blend of all these layers of value-add around SmartNet, both on the post- and the pre-sales side."

This article originally appeared as an exclusive on the CRN Tech News App for iOS and Windows 8.