10 Takeaways From Intel Partner Connect 2018

The Future Of Intel

Intel's shift from a PC-centric company to a data-centric one is well under way -- and the company is rolling out sweeping changes to benefit its channel partners during the transition. That's the message coming out of Intel Partner Connect 2018, the conference formerly known as the Intel Solutions Summit.

"Intel is going through the biggest transformation in our history," said Ricardo Moreno, vice president and general manager of global partner sales at Intel, during an interview with CRN at the conference in National Harbor, Md. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company used the conference both to signal its change in strategy -- toward focusing on solutions and a better-connected ecosystem of partners -- and to unveil new initiatives in areas such as data center, Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.

What follows are CRN's 10 biggest takeaways from Intel Partner Connect 2018.

Intel Is Shifting The Focus To Solutions

Intel is continuing to make a big push to help partners and customers understand which hardware and software are best for certain scenarios, including data center configurations. Like with IoT Market-Ready Solutions for Intel's Internet of Things business, Intel Select Solutions aim to lower the complexity for partners when it comes to selling data center products and services. "What we've done is we've said, 'OK, we're launching new data center products, but the reality of it is people buy software, hardware maybe even services all together, and it's better for us to try and tune that to their need as close as we can before they get it and implement,'" said Shannon Poulin, vice president and general manager of global markets and partners. In simpler terms, it's all about making things "channel-ready," he said.

IoT Market-Ready Solutions Are Scaling Up

For roughly the past year, Intel has been offering "market-ready" solutions for industrial Internet of Things to enable faster and easier IoT deployments for partners. Now, the program is expected to see 5X growth in deployment in 2018, Moreno said. "I think the scale is going to come from three areas: selling more of the current solutions with the current partners, new partners coming up and new solutions coming up," Moreno told CRN. "We now have 61 of those [IoT market-ready solutions] that've been deployed and are commercially available. We're going to have more. I don't have a number, but we're going to have more options for the partners. The menu is going to increase."

Intel's Data Center Business Is Accelerating

As evidenced by Intel's most recent earnings report, the company is seeing a lot of success in its data center business. "The data center business right now is, quite candidly, phenomenal," Poulin said. For channel partners, that means the opportunities are "almost endless" in 2018. A lot of that comes down to virtualization, whether it's for storage, compute and now networking. "Our partners are looking at that and saying, 'OK, how can I get in there and sell into those companies, those accounts that are virtualizing their compute, their networking, their storage all together,'" Poulin said. The data center business is also getting a boost from companies that are using Intel's processors for artificial intelligence computations. "Inference today is happening largely on Xeon-based servers and largely by our channel customers … and OEMs who supply to increasingly large companies," Poulin said.

Optane Is A Big Opportunity For Partners

Launched in the second half of last year, Intel's Optane NVMe SSDs are designed to bridge the gap between high-performance DRAM and lower-cost NAND memory. Optane is relevant to a broad set of channel partners and is ultimately poised to be a "multi-billion-dollar opportunity for us and our partners," said Poulin.

Michael Schwab, co-president of Harrisburg, Pa.-based D&H Distributing, agreed that Optane is a major opportunity for the channel. "Leaving this event, we're going to place big bets on Optane because we see that as one of those catalyst technologies that allows our customers to facilitate great end-user solutions," Schwab said. "When you get these catalysts of new innovative technology that give you performance with non-volatile memory, it's a huge impact. And it's a story that needs to be told, quite frankly. It's a well-kept secret today. ... We will be doing fast and furious marketing and merchandising [for Optane] at our trade shows."

Intel Still Sees PCs As A Growth Area

Intel executives told CRN that the PC business remains important for the company even if it's not growing as fast as the data center or IoT businesses. "We believe there is still a lot of opportunity there," said Todd Garrigues, director of North America reseller channel programs at Intel. Garrigues pointed to products such as Intel Unite -- conferencing software that aims to enable better and more secure meetings, and which runs on mini PCs that use Intel vPro processors. Meanwhile, the gaming PC market is an area of increasing focus for Intel (more on that in the next slide). "PC remains super strong -- we're growing, it remains very profitable," Moreno said.

Intel Is Making Moves In Enthusiast Gaming

As mentioned, Intel sees a lot of promise in the PC gaming space -- especially with the rising popularity of esports, the term used to describe competitive gaming. At Intel Partner Connect, Moreno unveiled the company's new Enthusiast PC specialty program, which launched this week and will focus on gaming, virtual reality and content creation. The new program will give partners access to special promotions, discounted software (starting with the 2017 game "Star Wars: Battlefront 2"), technical webinars and free passes to local esports events. The aim is to support partners that are already strong in the enthusiast PC market while also giving others a path to find new sales opportunities, Moreno said. "There are going to be incentives associated, but it's also a visibility perspective. We want the market to know [that] this partner has performed with Intel and indicated that they are very good in this area," Moreno said.

Wallace Santos, CEO of Intel partner Maingear, Kenilworth, N.J., said the new program is a validation of his company's enthusiast PC business and shows promise for a bigger market. "It's going to open up the [total addressable market] even more. The more people understand the space, the more people are going to inquire about it, and it just elevates our business because we've been doing it for so long," he said.

AI Is Also Receiving Partner-Friendly Investments From Intel

In addition to the new Enthusiast PC program, Intel rolled out a new specialty program for partners in the artificial intelligence space, set to launch in the third quarter of this year. While Intel didn't divulge many details, Moreno provided a hint of what partners should expect. "The whole idea is to work with experts in that field, partners that have a practice around AI, that are building their solutions leveraging the Intel AI architecture," he said.

Intel has been involved in the AI space so far through its data center business -- where customers are using Xeon processors for inference tasks -- and through Movidius, the division that produces specialty chips for computer vision and deep learning. Poulin said the company is hoping to make more inroads with the training side of AI, which is mostly being done on competing chips right now. "We are entering that space in multiple different ways, either with new optimized compute engines that we're putting into that space or with Xeon that we're optimizing for the training space," he said.

Intel Is Focused On Not Missing The Next Big Thing

Two partners on the board of advisors for the Intel Technology Provider program told CRN that they believe Intel is making a strong effort to be part of the next waves of technology -- even though there are big risks to the approach. "Personally, I'm thrilled with the changes," said Brad Jens, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Contec Americas, Melbourne, Fla. "I feel like Intel was bloated for a long time -- not forward-looking -- and they've really brought in some outside blood and made changes."

Intel is "very driven because they obviously missed out on smartphones, and they don't want to miss out on the next big wave," said Richard Newberry, CEO of KMC Controls, New Paris, Ind. "That's why they're very involved in IoT and these other new technologies." On drones, for instance, there are applications "that would save a lot of money -- inspecting buildings, defense -- so many opportunities," he said. "They're just making sure they're in the middle of that conversation so their technology is going to be used."

How Will Partners Participate In Some Of The New Areas?

While Intel made the largest acquisition in the company's history with its $15.3 billion purchase of startup Mobileye last year, it remains unclear what role, if any, partners could play in the connected car and autonomous vehicle space. When asked about partner opportunities for Intel's autonomous vehicle and drone businesses, Moreno said he's not currently looking to "drive those to a scale level" for partners. "I think [automotive] is a critical area for us, but it's an area where the go-to-market conversations are still happening," he said.

Poulin echoed Moreno's comments and said the channel opportunity for connected cars and autonomous vehicles will be limited initially on the data center side. "If you think about volume economics, though, you also have to think [that] the ability to get one thing that runs in multiple different vehicles would be important," Poulin added. "So when we bought Mobileye and we look at compute, we think about, how do I get volume economics to play here?"

There's Much More Change Ahead For Intel's Partners

With such a huge transformation under way at Intel, there's a lot for partners to get used to. However, according to D&H Distributing's Schwab, the messaging about Intel's changes at Partner Connect "has been extremely positive and would resonate quite well downstream with the D&H SMB resellers."

And the evolution will be ongoing, Intel executives said. "We're telling [partners] that there's a lot of change coming. Intel's changing, the industry's changing, you partners are changing. That's why we're bringing a whole new strategy," Moreno said. "Partners can definitely expect more to come. ... And at the same time, there are things that don't change, [such as] our commitment to them. We are a partner-oriented company. We go to market with partners, we depend on partners. So the principles remain very strong."