CRN Exclusive: Cisco Launches New ACI Program For Partners To Build Apps, New Services Around SDN

Cisco is launching a new hands-on training program aimed at partners to develop new services practices through learning how to build applications on top of its application-centric infrastructure (ACI) open APIs.

The networking giant's first two-week ACI Rotation Program is offering Cisco's advanced technology partners the opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with ACI engineers and technical marketing teams on its tools and software capabilities, according to Joe Onisick, principal engineer for Cisco's Insieme business unit.

"One of the gaps that our traditional channel partners have is programmability and automation," said Onisick. "We're bringing them in for two weeks to sit them down next to the technical marketing team and the engineering teams developing the ACI and Nexus 9K products. … They spend time building an application that drives customer value on top of that platform -- we have them build real-world applications. They leave with tangible deliverables, so they actually leave here with an application that they wrote that they can take back to add to their practice."

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Cisco is seeking to help traditional VARs capitalize on industry transitions such as software-defined networking (SDN), IT-as-a-Service and bimodal IT.

The program hopes to help partners "demystify" the concept of software-defined and create new revenue streams, according to Nirav Sheth, senior director of the Americas partner organization at Cisco.

"This enables our partners to grow profitability with us in so many different ways -- whether it's driving more profitability as a part of their professional services practices, developing net new professional services capabilities that they could monetize on, [or] developing applications that they can take to market," said Sheth.

Sheth said it's no longer about selling hardware to customers, but building new service practices to maximize profitability.

"Really, our focus here is not about, 'Hey, let's train you on something,' our focus here is how can we help our partner develop and build net new practices capabilities that they never had before, and help them capture this whole focus on SDN and bimodal IT," said Sheth.

One of the small handful of partners involved in the pilot of the rotation program was General Datatech (GDT), a Dallas-based Cisco partner, ranked No. 45 on CRN's 2015 Solution Provider 500.

GDT engineers were able to get hands-on programmatic training, exposure to real-world problems they'll need to solve for customers and the opportunity to create products based around ACI, according to Matt Duncan, director of GDT Labs.

"For us, it's preparing our engineers to be able to deliver services in the future and be that differentiator with customers," said Duncan. "It's the enhancement of being able to provide even more services in the form of automation and programmability."

Duncan said he sees the future of ACI services being tied to programmatic experience.

"If your engineers and staff are not able to speak to that programmatic experience, … I don't think they'll be able to deliver ACI services in the future," said Duncan.

Sheth said the rotational program works adjacent to Cisco's new Application Developer Program -- part of the networking giant's Intercloud strategy.

Cisco is aiming initially at training its more than 170 advanced technology partners, and then expanding the program to a much broader partner base.

Cisco is undertaking a broad investment plan to support traditional VARs as they establish software-defined practice capabilities to unlock new professional services opportunities, says Sheth. Other than the new program, recent investments include Nexus 9K Programmability Workshops, a DevOps Playbook and its first partner DevOps forum, held at Cisco Live this month.

Over the next 12 months, Cisco says, thousands of partners will have participated in some type of software-defined workshops or practices.

"We're seeing an immense amount of traction and momentum globally for Nexus 9K, which is the foundation of ACI," said Sheth.

As of third quarter fiscal year 2015, there are more than 2,650 ACI and Nexus 9000 customers globally and about 585 customers using application policy infrastructure controller (APIC), which automates and manages the ACI networks, according to Cisco.

Onisick said that while other vendors with SDN offerings provide partners with products to sell, no one has taken this type of training approach.

"No one has taken this approach of, how do [partners] take that product, and make it a holistic part of their business, wrap around the services and consultant engagement, to not only make them better to their customers, but more profitable as a company?" said Onisick.