The 2013 CRN Tech Elite 250

Once a week, World Wide Technology CEO James Kavanaugh gets on a WebEx conference call with 200 or more company managers and employees to talk about the solution provider's advanced technology strategy, reviewing the latest intelligence gleaned from vendors and leading-edge customers to get an idea of what technologies and services the company should be investing in.

It's just one of a number of ways that St. Louis-based World Wide Technology stays ahead of the curve in such red-hot technologies as cloud computing, big data and virtualization. Another is the $20 million-plus Advanced Technology Center the company built on the headquarters' campus last year that's used by the company, its customers and its partners to develop, test and demonstrate state-of-the-art solutions.

"I sum it up in one word-innovation," said Bob Olwig, WWT's business development vice president, when asked about the company's philosophy about staying current with technology trends and leveraging that expertise for competitive advantage.

[Related: Channel Certified: CRN 2013 Tech Elite 250 ]

Sponsored post

That's why WWT is among this year's CRN Tech Elite 250, the definitive list of solution providers with deep technical expertise and top-level certifications from IT vendors. Those certifications, in fact, are the core criteria for making the Tech Elite list. Why so much emphasis on vendor certifications? Solution providers today who do little more than resell hardware and software products aren't going to thrive-or even survive. Solution providers have to be trusted advisers-and that requires a deep understanding of IT vendors' products and how they can be incorporated into complete solutions for customers.

Some VARs may chafe at what they see as vendors' increasingly demanding certification requirements. Savvy solution providers, however, see meeting those requirements as a means of gaining a competitive advantage in today's marketplace and the certifications as badges of their technological prowess.

"It's a huge job. And it's a huge expense. But I think it's core to what we bring to our customers and what we bring to the marketplace," said Mont Phelps, president and CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based NWN, which has "hundreds" of certifications from Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, NetApp and other vendors. Phelps' philosophy? "If you're going to do something, be good at it. And if you're good at it, get certified."

"In order to be the best at what we do, we have to be highly knowledgeable, from engineers all the way to sales," said Thatcher Alexander, corporate president at Alexander Open Systems, an Overland Park, Kan.-based solution provider with operations throughout the Midwest.

Alexander estimates that AOS spent more than $500,000 last year on employee education and certifications. That includes certifications from Cisco, EMC and VMware for the company's account managers and technical architects, and from those vendors plus Microsoft for AOS engineers.

Many of those certifications relate to cloud computing technology and services. "It's based on our customers' expectations of AOS who demand that we be highly knowledgeable," Thatcher said. "They've made our motto, not us," he adds, referring to the company's "Expect The Best" tagline.

The company has focused on Cisco, EMC, Microsoft and VMware because AOS management sees those companies as the industry leaders in the key technology areas on which the company focuses. En Pointe Technologies has more than 500 certifications from Cisco, Dell, Microsoft and VMware. With Microsoft technologies accounting for almost half of the Gardena, Calif.-based solution provider's business, the relationship with that vendor is particularly strong-as evidenced by the pool of more than 80 engineers with Microsoft certifications. Case in point was a recent project the company undertook to upgrade a customer's 20,000 Microsoft Exchange mailboxes-a job entrusted by the customer to En Pointe because of its certified resources.

NEXT: Meeting Customer Expectations

While the need to meet vendor requirements is certainly a driver behind the certifications, "there's the customer-facing value of the certifications and the credibility they bring in the industry," said Herb Hogue, senior vice president of engineering at En Pointe's professional services operations. Another factor: En Pointe represents multiple vendors and customers who want solution providers with the expertise needed to combine those vendors' technologies into "holistic solutions," Hogue said.

That's also a driver behind the certification efforts at Meridian IT, part of Deerfield, Ill.-based Meridian Group International. There's a gap between the technologies that vendors provide and the business solutions that customers need, said Meridian IT president Lisa Pettay. "We're seeing more and more of our opportunities come up because of this gap," she said.

That requires advanced expertise on Meridian IT's part-and the certifications for the company's technical and sales consultants that demonstrate that expertise. The company spends "a lot of money" achieving and maintaining more than 300 certifications from principal vendors like Cisco, IBM, NetApp and VMware, as well as vendors deemed potentially strategic to Meridian IT's future direction, such as Citrix, Commvault, Nimble and StorServer. The solution provider particularly values certifications for its core big data, cloud computing, mobility and collaboration practices.

Cloud computing, specifically hosted Cisco collaboration software, is also a big part of En Pointe's business and it's no surprise the company has Cisco certifications in unified communications, FlexPod data center platforms and Vblock systems. The company has eight employees that hold the much coveted Cisco Certified Internet Expert (CCIE) designation.

Some 700 WWT employees-more than one in three of the solution provider's workforce-hold at least one professional certification, many in the company's core technologies: networking and security; collaboration and business video; and data center and virtualization. The company has 268 Cisco-certified professionals, for example, including 73 CCIEs, 48 Cisco sales experts, and others with various Cisco networking, voice and security certifications. WWT's certification tally from VMware includes 45 certified professionals, 56 technical sales professionals and 86 sales professionals. Certifications from EMC, Hewlett-Packard, NetApp and Citrix round out the solution provider's certification tally.

Altogether, the company invests some $10 million annually in vendor certifications. "It's a stamp of approval and validation that we really know the technology, how it can be applied to customer situations, and how we can design and implement solutions based on those technologies," Olwig said. Last year, the company even created its own "cloud platform architect" certification, combining internally developed and vendor-supplied training and tests.

Sharing all that knowledge and expertise is also a key practice at WWT. The first half of the weekly conference call led by Kavanaugh focuses on current customer projects and what can be learned from them. The second hour is devoted to a discussion of technology trends-led by a subject-matter expert-including what WWT is hearing from leading customers and what strategic vendors provide. Big data, flash technology, software-defined networking and OpenStack Infrastructure-as-a-Service technology are currently on the solution provider's radar screen. And WWT invests heavily to bring its expertise to its customers. The most obvious example is the $20 million Advanced Technology Center, built last year on the company's St. Louis campus, where leading-edge technologies are assembled into reference architecture solutions for demonstration to customers. One current project involves the use of flash technology for desktop virtualization. All these investments help solution providers stay on top of what technologies and services customers will beasking for in the future.

En Pointe, for example, developed its cloud services (including its dinCloud process for migrating business processes to the cloud) long before "cloud computing became a Super Bowl ad," Hogue said. The company is already mulling how to incorporate big data technology and services into its solution offerings, he said.

Who the Tech Elite 250 Are

The Tech Elite 250 is comprised of solution providers in the U.S. and Canada who have the highest level and most certifications from Cisco, Citrix, Dell, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, NetApp, Symantec and VMware. Companies are chosen through online applications as well as editorial research.

The list is also available for purchase by contacting Laurie Condon on the East Coast and Nora Uriarte on the West Coast.