CRN Interview: Lenovo Data Center Leader On HPE/Dell Competition, Meltdown And Spectre Strategy, And Game-Changing AI Push In 2018

Lenovo's Channel Push

Leading the channel charge for Lenovo's data center organization is sales veteran Stefan Bockhop, who said Lenovo will outpace its server and hyper-converged competition through technology differentiation as well as new initiatives around artificial intelligence and the SMB market.

"AI is going to be a game-changer for a lot of our partners," said Bockhop, executive director of North American channels for Lenovo's Data Center Group, who has been with the vendor since 2005. "We are taking a very forward-thinking position with our alliance teams, our solutions teams and our partners, saying, 'Hey, let's help our customers through this journey.'"

In an interview with CRN, Bockhop talks about the biggest partner initiatives in 2018, market competition, and how the company is working with Intel to combat the global Meltdown and Spectre security issues.

What is one technology Lenovo is betting big on in 2018?

A wild card that I'm hawkish on and an enthusiastic for is, you always look at TAM [total addressable market] ... and one area that's going to be incremental in a lot of cases for our industry is going to be around artificial intelligence. I'll throw out a stat from Forrester [Research], it's $1.2 trillion – that's not the market opportunity -- that's what businesses who adopt AI are likely to capture from peers who don't adopt AI. So you're talking about customers thinking about, 'What am I going to do to be successful and be competitive?' AI is going to be a game-changer for a lot of our partners.

Where is Lenovo investing around AI?

We are taking a very forward-thinking position with our alliance teams, our solutions teams and our partners, saying, 'Hey, let's help our customers through this journey.' We set up a number of AI innovation centers. We have a number of consultative steps to walk a customer though this AI journey. It is a journey. Everyone is on a different level. Some have their data sets in order, some don’t know even where their data is.

What is the partner opportunity around AI?

It's not like you're replacing something you had before with AI. This is a net-new spend to harvest business opportunity from their competitors. That's really a differentiation we can bring for forward-thinking partners. That's very compelling and a lot of partners are trying to figure out how to harvest that. They know there's an opportunity that is on the minds of our customers. It's about partners figuring out how to solve business problems for customers, and we hope they do it with us because we have a pretty robust process to do it, and the technology and services to do it. That becomes an interesting conversation because this spend is likely incremental.

What is Lenovo's strategy to deal with Meltdown and Spectre?

We're continuing to work closely with Intel. As information becomes available, we're following the guidelines and processes we agreed to with Intel to make sure we stay as close to this as possible to make sure our partners and customers have the information as soon as we can give it to them. That's the model we're using. I don’t think it differs hugely from anybody else.

Are channel partners coming to you with customer concerns around Meltdown and Spectre?

I won't dispute it's a conversation point, but again, as long as we're flowing the information as readily as we can and continuously as we can to everyone -- that's what people are looking for. There's no effort not to continue to do that. We'll work with Intel like we always have. We're very tight in partnership with them as it unfolds.

What differentiates your hyper-converged technology and strategy from Cisco, Dell and HPE?

We deliver the very best stability from a tier-one customer standpoint. On the core technology, you want to make sure the underlying technology is solid and you're not going to have a problem with it. We have outstanding ratings for customer satisfaction – so almost perpetual quarters of No. 1 rankings from companies like TBR [Technology Business Research] that say, 'When you deploy this technology, you're having a good outcome.'

We're also looking at the ecosystems and these technologies as, 'Which is the best one to solve the customer's problem now?' If you work for a hyper-converged vendor who only has one hyper-converged solution, I guarantee that if you're a sales rep from that company, you are trained to say, 'This is the best hyper-converged solution.' But if you're talking to a Lenovo specialist, we take that step back and say, 'What are you trying to do? What is the best outcome?' It may drive us to a conversation around Nutanix, or it may drive us to a conversation around Pivot3, or another technology.

Why does having hyper-converged options benefit partners?

Because that gives partners the differentiation and ability to be better for their customer. So we have rock-solid technology, then this flexibility and openness of an ecosystem that really is what the customer community is looking for. They don’t want to get locked in. Vendor lock-in is not a good thing from a customer's point of view. Let's give the customers what they're looking for, which is that agility, flexibility and diversity to deliver the value of their IT.

What differentiates Lenovo's server business compared to Cisco, Dell and HPE?

We have technologies built for workloads. For example, if you're deploying an SAP HANA installation … we have products that are optimized to run in those kind of big data environments. If you look at where does SAP deploy their SAP HANA, it's on Lenovo hardware. That's a pretty strong and compelling conversation for a customer who is thinking, 'I have to move into this in-memory SAP application. I have to look at HANA as a competitive opportunity for me to be better than my competitors. What am I going to run that on?' If you're a channel partner, we have a pretty compelling conversation.

What else can a server reseller bring to the table to win against the competition?

You can layer that server conversation all the way down through conversations around our vSAN ReadyNodes and other technologies that we work with alliance partners like Nutanix to build an appliance ready to hit the customers' needs and scale as they need it. As you look at the different outcomes and technologies, we're not just saying, 'Here's a really great x86 architecture and it's rock-solid,' but we're giving partners the ability to deliver the best business outcome with these various partnerships. That differentiates us in the marketplace.

Whether you're deploying Red Hat, Nutanix, or you're doing Microsoft Azure and looking for that hybrid cloud – we have that broad portfolio of solutions we bring to market.

If I'm a channel partner, how can I be most profitable in 2018?

We're going to focus heavily on our much wider portfolio. In June, we launched a full portfolio of products. So we're going to spend time, effort and education on our partners and customers to make sure they know that Lenovo is not an x86 company -- we don’t just make compute. We make storage, networking, software – that full envelope, that wider ecosystem conversation will be prevalent in our conversations with our partners. For partners who haven’t yet seen the light and experienced the joy of being a Lenovo partner, they can see that, 'Hey, I got a full partnership and full data center vendor here that I can go to market with and capture some incremental revenue.'

What's another big channel push?

The other segment we're going to heavily focus on is SMB. We have teams both on the sales support side as well as on the technical side to support an SMB customer set. We're going to have a lot more promotions and a lot of our features are going to be focused around SMB. That's not to say we're offering lesser technology, but more pre-bundles, more pre-configurations, help them get to that reference architecture to quickly deploy in the SMB space still with that enterprise-level technology. We're really going to focus on that part of the marketplace.

What's the channel charge for 2018?

For our next fiscal year, the focus is on really leveraging the strong foundation we set up in 2017 and getting our channel set up, getting support for it, getting all the things in place where we need to be successful. We're going to build up on that base. The changes were based on the feedback from our partners. They told us, 'Hey you need to have certifications. You need to have some specialization. You need to have some stratification. You have to get your deal registration at a place that we feel good about.' So all these things we've been doing over the course of [2017] is starting to pay off in terms of engagement, revenues and we hope to really accelerate it now.