Q&A: Channel Chief Bill Lipsin On NetApp's Plans For SolidFire's Channel -- And Beer

SolidFire Acquisition Closed, NetApp Now Looks To Integrate The Channels

NetApp's acquisition of all-flash storage vendor SolidFire gave it a scalable flash storage solution to complement NetApp's original All Flash FAS enterprise and EF high-performance flash storage offerings.

But SolidFire is more than technology. The flash storage-focused startup brought to NetApp a channel-only sales focus that Bill Lipsin, NetApp's vice president of global channels, said can teach his company a thing or two about simplicity.

Lipsin also told CRN he is looking forward to trying beer made by a SolidFire channel exec who also happens to be a master brewer.

For more on NetApp, SolidFire, the channel -- and the beer -- turn the page.

What are the plans for the integration on the channel side?

We've already started integration with them. We're trying not to interfere with either their Q4 or our Q4 to keep on driving the momentum and trajectory they're on right now. That being said, in the background, we are working through both the system integration, but even as important, program integration. ...

We're trying to figure out what they have that ensures the best of both worlds, and that's the plan. Aug. 1 will be the rollout date for both the NetApp and SolidFire partner programs.

You're talking about combined programs?

No, one program for all partners.

(Now) some of the NetApp partners who've also dealt with SolidFire won't have to go off the record any more when talking about SolidFire, because they don't want NetApp to know that they're also dealing with SolidFire.

No, you're right. We're trying to find that formal long-term consolidation. Prior to providing the new NetApp/SolidFire partner program for FY17, we're trying to make sure we're not getting in anybody's way. There's quite a high overlap between the SolidFire partners and the NetApp partners. If we can find a way to keep them both buying and selling the products, we're trying not to get in the way of that. And, if we can, accelerate that as well.

Actually, that is my next question. How much overlap was there?

Over 60 percent.

So over 60 percent of the SolidFire partners also sold NetApp?

Yep, exactly. [And] vice versa.


There were a lot more NetApp partners who were out selling SolidFire than we anticipated.

That's because every time they talk to me they'd say, "Don't use my name. I don't want NetApp to know."

Will NetApp partners who didn't have good SolidFire relationships and vice versa be automatically grandfathered into the program?

What we're trying to do, first of all, is define what the right enablement plan is for the SolidFire partners that don't have NetApp and vice versa. We're in the process of doing that right now. Simultaneously, as we start to design the program, we'll start to make those kind of decisions as to what we need. We're going to be doubling down on flash [storage] here as well. We believe that SolidFire brings more than just technology. ... They have ways of doing things that are just easier and faster and more nimble. We're going to try to see if we can grab some of that stuff as well.

So the enablement plan and the program plan will all be defined and rolled out, from a definition perspective, for our new fiscal year, but Aug. 1 is our target to have a brand new program.

By the way, are you allowed to use the word "nimble" since Nimble Storage is one of the companies out to bash NetApp?

We have bigger things to focus on.

How much of SolidFire's S calable hyperscale data centers business is going to go through traditional solution providers for whom flash is a performance tier rather than for the very small number who actually deal in hyperscale?

Selling performance flash is one thing. Selling the all-flash enterprise [solution] is another set of capabilities. You're going to this brand new hyperscale data center scale-out type of capability -- that's a brand new set of skills. To go back to your point about enablement and programs, you have to make sure that you don't just roll right into what you already have. Instead, you've thought this through so that you can continue to have your current partners that are selling all-flash technologies gravitate more towards NetApp. But I think we have that competitive edge with SolidFire ... to get some of those partners enabled so they can get up there as well.

It's a different sale, you're right.

With the closing of [the SolidFire acquisition], how many channel partners does NetApp have?

Globally, 9,500 that are inside the NetApp reseller family. Active, probably 3,500 on average. And that ebbs and flows. I believe that you're going to see even a more active channel community now because everybody wants to talk flash. Now that we've got that broad portfolio, we believe the broadest portfolio, it's going to expand not just the number of partners, but the engagement they have as well.

To me, the key is not just focusing on flash, but making sure you tie that into the unique [proposition] that NetApp has with the Data Fabric so that you can have those partners not just solve a performance or an enterprise or a next-gen data center requirement, but give a little bit of that future-proofing for our mutual customers [by] using Data Fabric to help address that. Also, making sure they can lean into the cloud as opposed to run from it.

When you look at SolidFire's channel program, what are the things that you saw in there that made you think, "You know, I gotta have this for NetApp?"

Simplicity. If I had to pick one thing, it's simplicity.

What do you mean by simplicity. You know I can't let you just get by with saying the word "simplicity."

I know. I know.

The SolidFire partner program had a lot of the same elements as NetApp, but with [only] six SKUs and a limited number of partners and primarily a one-tier model. It didn't have all the specialization nor the hurdles that you have in a traditional partner program. I think what they've forced us to do is take a step back and reflect on what we already have and how much we really need going forward versus what we've invested in. ... I think it's more of a design as opposed to any one thing that I would change.

Yes, but given the size of NetApp compared to SolidFire, the number of customers, and the ... let's face it, SolidFire was a one-trick pony, whereas NetApp has a wide range of SKUs. Can you simplify it?

It's a balancing act, but we have to simplify. I feel so sorry for the partners to have to figure out the difference between our different technologies, our competitors' technologies, our programs, the competitors' programs. ... It's a full-time job just to understand the programs. So we're going to be forced to get more simple.

SolidFire has motivated us to take that big step back and realize, going forward, where do you put your focus? Where you put your money is as important as where you put your focus. Hopefully the two are tied together. And then, how do you find ways just to simplify the entire program and process? That also includes, by the way, increased automation, which is further down the road, but an area we're going to invest in.

What is happening to the SolidFire channel team? I know [former Vice President of Marketing] Jay Prassl left. How does that team now fit in with NetApp?

The date of acquisition was Feb. 3. On that day, we gave job offers to a number of the SolidFire employees, including channel programs people that have now come into the NetApp side of the business. Even though they're in the NetApp side of the business, they're going to help us refashion, reform, our overall program. We left the channel managers and [Director of Worldwide Channel Sales] Mark Conley in their roles in SolidFire until the end of our fiscal Q4, which ends in April. So we just keep that trajectory going. Don't get in their way, just keep on selling stuff. But in Q1, they're going to be folded [into] the overall channel organization, so we become one big happy family.

Did you lose anybody on SolidFire's channel side?

Nobody we did not want to lose.

In fact, on that point, we went to extra lengths to make sure that we made the transition as seamless as possible and show all the SolidFire people, sincerely, how much we wanted them to join NetApp. Because they really do add something to our organization, and I think we're just as excited as they are.

Have you tried SolidFire's beer? Brian Lutz, SolidFire's national partner manager, is a master brewer in Boulder.

I heard that. I haven't been invited yet.

You should get yourself an invite. Really good beer. Last year he made Scale-Out Saison.

I've got to see this.

You know what we should do? At some point we should both be up there. We should be drinking their beer and then maybe talking about the new program.