Why I hate the Internet of Things with a passion!

21 Jan 2015

There, I've put it out there. I know, I own an IT security company so you're expecting me to explain the security issues associated with putting your central heating online...nope.

Don't get me wrong, I could go into the very real security issues of controlling your cooker from the office. But my question is much more simple: do we really need the Internet of Things?

Manufacturers are keen to push their new designs to us. To be cool is king and having a touch-screen fridge freezer that's on the internet certainly ticks that box for some.

Hold on, why do I need a touch-screen internet-enaWoman and child look in fridgebled fridge freezer?

-It will tell you it's operating temperature when you're at work.

-It tells you how many times the door has been opened.

So I can find out how many times I've opened my own fridge freezer door from work and discover that it's running at 3 degrees Celsius, like it has been every day since I turned it on.

-But it will tell you the temperature has risen and that maybe the compressor has failed.

That's great, but I'm at work. What am I going to do about it? I'm still going to end up with a defrosted freezer by the time someone has come out to repair it.

A novel idea might be to save the £200 difference (currently being quoted) between an internet-enabled fridge freezer and one that isn't and get some new food.

If my fridge could beam food straight into itself from the store, that might be different. But it can't; that Star Trek technology doesn't exist.

It might want to order the same replacement food from an online store, but I like variety and how does it know when I'm at home to take the delivery?

-But it's great to have central heating online, so you can turn your heating on before you come home.

That sounds wonderful. If I didn't have a timer I might use this.

But I do have a timer and even if I came home early within 10 minutes my house has warmed up anyway.

-But you could turn on your oven before you get home.

I don't like several thousand watt appliances running when I'm not at home and what happens if I get held up on the way home for an hour in a jam with no internet access?

Then there are the security issues associated with all these devices being connected online. If someone finds a buffer overflow vulnerability for my Hotpoint fridge freezer, a malicious hacker could get in and defrost my roast beef! That's just not acceptable!

Or perhaps a malicious hacker might order ten more joints of beef and then I wouldn't have room for my beer!

At Foursys we sell Sophos next generation firewalls with IPS and reverse proxy technology that can help secure appliances. It even supports country (IP) blocking, which might just have helped Sony.

However in the world of security, reducing your attack surface is always a good plan.

Do we really need to put our fridges and ovens online?

I know I'm sounding like an old man (before my time), but do you agree?

James Miller is managing director of Foursys

Valuing diversity

13 Jan 2015

Denise Bryant 2014

Selling often gets a bad press.

Stereotypical images of sales people include smarmy used car sales executives, door-to-door window replacement salesmen or unwanted telemarketers making anonymous phone calls from a cubicle.

A quick search on the UK’s most popular course search site brings up just 11 undergraduate courses in Sales and only four in Business Development compared to 4,430 for Business Management.

Even if students choose economics or business, they’re much more likely to study accounting practices and financial statement analysis than to learn how to build a sales pipeline.

So what can we do to improve the perception of the sales profession to recognise the value it brings to the business and the rewards it can offer individuals in terms of career and personal fulfilment? Obviously sales qualifications and best practise standards are vitally important.

However I believe the key to increasing the professional image of sales is to create a better balance in the mix of genders within the sales profession. Earlier this year, I attended an event hosted by the Sales Leadership Alliance (SLA), a group of senior sales practitioners, organisations, thought leaders and academics from within the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).

The focus for the event was a discussion around a new paper published by the CIM entitled ‘Women in Sales: does the sales profession need more women?’

The conclusion, which was based on research conducted across the SLA Fellowship, was that improved financial performance is one of five business benefits that can be derived directly from creating a more balanced mix of genders across sales teams.

Up to this point I had seen how the stereotypical characteristics that are often applied to women in business –logical and structured in approach with a lower appetite for risk, – had been beneficial in creating strong and successful teams within the businesses I have been involved in during my career in IT sales and business management.

However, I realise that my experience may not have been typical and therefore I was keen to see how the facts supported my own belief that greater gender equality is the key to better business and to making sales a more professional environment to work in.

The discussion paper highlighted five key benefits of promoting a more even mix of women and men at all levels of a sales operation – each has the potential to make a major impact on business performance: Better alignment to customers The most compelling argument in favour of creating gender balance in sales is that it helps organisations better align to their customers.

Women not only represent the majority of buyers (60 per cent according to McKinsey & Company), they are also the key economic stakeholders of the future: women are forecast to own 65 per cent of wealth by 2025 and now influence over 70 per cent of buying decisions.

So it makes sound commercial sense for organisations to ensure they have a healthy balance of men and women in the sales force.

A more compelling brand

A balanced gender profile improves market perception, especially when it comes to its ‘hiring brand’ and ability to attract new talent. According to research from McKinsey, 69 per cent of companies that increased diversity also posted an increase in their brand strength.

Gender diversity drives innovation

Studies also demonstrate a strong positive link between diverse workforces and innovation.

In a study of 28 teams by Henley Management College, diverse teams exhibited a higher level of creativity and a broader thought process. So teams with a more equal mix of women and men are better at problem solving and perform more strongly.

Improved governance

Creating gender balance in sales could also help improve organisational governance. A recent study of business boards indicated that better gender-balanced boards are more likely to identify the criteria needed for measuring strategy and for monitoring its implementation.

They are also more likely to adhere to codes of conduct and have better communication, both internally and with customers and other stakeholders.

Financial performance

Finally, the SLA found statistical and anecdotal evidence that suggested that companies perform better financially where there is a more equal gender mix, both at the team and organisation level.

For example Credit Suisse research found that companies with at least one female board member delivered 26 per cent more value to shareholders, a 33 per cent higher return on equity, four per cent lower gearing and 40 per cent higher average rates of income growth.

Historically, the sales profession has been seen as a male dominated world with many areas of sales traditionally seen as men-only business, so the question is how to redress the balance?

The SLA Fellows noted that it tends to be counter-productive to impose quotas as women dissociate themselves from the negative concept of being positively discriminated, which ultimately leads to a decline in female retention. However, targets are viewed as an essential way of achieving further diversity going forward.

Ultimately the facts speak for themselves. The gender issue in sales is actually a business issue and one that affects men just as much as women so it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do.

 

Denise Bryant is the UK sales director at Arrow ECS

All that glitters ain't Gold

01 Oct 2014

In the quest for completeness of partner resources - ensuring the now ubiquitous ‘partner portal' is fully stocked with anything that any reseller partner could ever need - many IT vendors are in fact missing the central purpose of their partner strategy: the quest for effectiveness. If a big fat partner portal risks draining resources that could be better spent instead on proven, targeted channel activities, then we would all be better off without it.

I've long taken issue with the futility of overinflated partner portals, but theExclusive Networks' Barrie Desmondre is another branch of vendor complacency to expose: the accreditation programme.

Partner accreditation programmes used to be Gold, Silver and Bronze, mirroring the Olympian prizes for ‘best', ‘almost best' and ‘recognition for trying your best', and signifying rarity as well as value. Now you'll find Platinum, Diamond and - for all I know it - Asteroid. In many partner programmes, the exciting new names represent the sum total of the imagination that anyone has ever invested in them.

Incidentally, Platinum isn't the most valuable, or rare, metal. Students of the periodic table will be familiar with Rhodium (Rh), known for its shininess, density and ability to appear new despite its age. Like a few reseller salespeople I could mention!

The purpose of the partner programme is to efficiently run individual partner relationships at the most effective level possible, investing the vendor's limited technical and pre-sales resources where they count most, and providing a strong and equal commercial framework for rewarding and incentivising sales activity that makes a real difference. Partner programmes are also the communications point for knowledge transfer, new opportunities, propositions and other important sales and technical information.

Often, these objectives are simply lost in the context of a tiered accreditation programme. And as with the partner portal argument, resources are wasted where they could so easily be focused on driving great results.

Indeed, many vendors are sucking their thumbs with partner programmes - getting comfort from a fake substitute for some genuine care and nourishment.

Here are some examples:

- The communications flow is frequently ‘broadcast' orientated rather than a real two-way conversation where partners feel they are listened to and where the vendor can apply its expertise to channel issues.

- Tiers are typically based on size rather than commitment, meaning a big partner with minimum commitment is better supported than a smaller partner with total commitment.

- Too little effort is invested in understanding the DNA of the most successful partners, and trying to copy, develop and improve their blueprints for success

All IT vendors that pursue a tiered accreditation programme do so to avoid giving a ‘one-size-fits-all' solution to every partner. Think of it like a T-Shirt - the one-size-fits-all never fits anyone! But providing Large/Medium/Small, in the manner of Gold/Silver/Bronze is not the answer either. Remember we are talking about partners creating market opportunities for disruptive, high margin enterprise technologies. They will benefit from tailored support, and benefit the vendor in return.

Barrie Desmond is chief operating officer at Exclusive Networks

Softcat's a channel success story, but where next?

12 Jun 2014

Softcat chairman Martin Hellawell confirmed to us yesterday that the £400m-turnover VAR has given thought to the possibility of an IPO.

Hellawell was at pains to point out that a stock market flotation is just one of a range of "long-term" options Softcat is examining as it grows from a small into a large company, the most likely option being that it simply remains as a privately held entity.

"Part of my role is to make sure we understand all the options and to keep those options open," Hellawell (pictured, bottom) explained. "It's all that corporate governance stuff Softcat has not done in the past but is trying to get more professional abousignpostt."

But it got us thinking how few publicly listed resellers there are in the UK, compared with some other countries.

The US has Insight, CDW and Systemax, Germany has Bechtle and the Nordics has Atea and Proact, for instance.

With the obvious exception of Computacenter – which these days bills itself as more of a services firm – the vast majority of home-grown firms in the upper echelons of Top VARs are privately held. Even more so since Morse was bought. Alternative Networks, new Redstone owner Coms and Accumuli may be among the exceptions, but these are small-to-mid-sized firms on AIM, not the main market of the London Stock Exchange.

Of the real big guns, SCC doesn't appear to be a candidate while Kelway seems intent on completing a trade or private-equity sale by this autumn. Another candidate, 2e2, went bust last year.

So what would be the benefits for a firm such as Softcat to go public?

If Softcat is to displace Computacenter and SCC at the peak of the UK channel, the firm must move beyond its SMB and mid-market stronghold and deeper into the enterprise market. To do that, it needs to build brand awareness among the UK's largest blue-chip firms, something a listing on LSE would undoubtedly bolster.

Taking the IPO plunge would also improve its access to funding, which could be used for acquisitions or general working capital purposes.

Arguably, Softcat doesn't need the cash, and why meddle with a winning formula? After all, its sales have ballooned from £219m in 2011 to a projected £480m this year and that growth has come organically. But as Softcat grows larger still, the 30, 40 or 50 per cent sales hikes that have been the norm will get harder to come by, making bolt-on acquisitions more desirable (Softcat even recently revealed it is open to the idea of making a smaller acquisition for the first time in its history).

And opening up its shares to Joe Public would net Softcat's oSoftcat's Martin Hellawellwners a tidy sum: with an operating profit of £28.2m last year, the firm's market value would be well into nine figures. Computacenter currently commands a market cap of about £860m, roughly 10.5 times its adjusted operating profit last year. Although it's doubtful Softcat would command as high a multiple, on the same basis it would have a market cap of £296m.

Then there are the downsides. Moving from private hands onto the stock market would mean increased regulation and red tape, and would subject Softcat to the prying eyes of investors.

Even more worrisome for a firm as fiercely entrepreneurial and independent as Softcat would be the fear that listing would spark a shift in the VAR's culture.

And note that Softcat is still not nearly as large as Computacenter when it listed in 1998 with revenues of £1.6bn.

But according to Gavin Lyons, chief executive of AIM-listed security services firm Accumuli, the upsides outweigh any challenges. Softcat may lack the annuity revenue streams investors so prize but it is a leader in its field, meaning it would be a hit on the stock market, Lyons said.

"Multiples are sometimes based on whether someone else could come in and do the same thing and it would be very hard for someone to establish the customers and the relationships Softcat has," he said. "Clearly, Softcat has a high degree of brand presence and so therefore I'm sure it would be worth a premium."

Lyons picked out access to capital and brand exposure as two of the main benefits of being stock-market listed.

"The third benefit is about supplier credibility," he said. "If you're a PLC, people know there is a bunch of compliance required and your accounts are publicly available." There are no major drawbacks, Lyons maintained, although he warned liquidity can be an issue for smaller stocks. "Being a PLC has been excellent for us," he added.

All this means there's plenty for Softcat to consider as it peruses its long-term growth options. If – and this is a big if – Softcat does one day take the plunge, then at the very least it would cement its status as one of the UK channel's biggest ever success stories and mean the UK has not one but two publicly listed super-VARs.

Softcat has grown at break-neck pace in recent years and now stands at a crossroads, as symbolised by its promotion this year to the category of "Large business" in the Great Places to Work rankings. All its suppliers and customers will be hoping that – whatever its long-term corporate trajectory – Softcat can remain the lean, mean sales machine it is today.

Can Samsung channel success?

02 Jun 2014

Despite its huge success in the mobile device market in the last two years, Samsung largely remains a bit-part player at best in the enterprise IT kitbag of most channel players. But the Korean giant has big plans to make a much bigger impression in the B2B space, having spent more than a year steadily trying to boost its credentials in the market ahead of the launch of a global partner scheme today.

It will be interesting to see how it approaches a channel that has had its share of grief from PC makers in recent years. Acer is the most famous - but surely not the only - example of a vendor to have suffered from the fallout of declining sales and a bloated inventory. And resellers will need no reminding of the unedifying ‘will they-won't they?' saga of HP's half-cocked attempt to exit the market.

Meanwhile Apple seems to engage more or less on its own terms with pretty much everyone who wants to buy or sell its products, such is the clamour for its wares. Samsung has already emulated the Mac-maker's success in creating tremendous consumer demand for its kit, even launching a range of stores this year - including up to 40 in the UK in partnership with Carphone Warehouse.

The Galaxy manufacturer will be hoping the demand for its products is impossible for resellers to ignore. VARs, meanwhile, will be hoping Samsung is equally unable to overlook the channel in the way Apple has often been accused of doing.

Sam Trendall is special projects editor at CRN

Could Microsoft do with more warmth and less hot air on XP?

08 Apr 2014

Having been launched in 2011, Windows XP is considered ancient in operating-system terms. But perhaps, in seeking to understand why it is seemingly having such a hard time getting users to upgrade from the 13-year-old software, Microsoft should take some genuinely ancient lessons on board.

Aesop's fable of The North Wind and the Sun teaches that brute force is not as effective a show of strength as gentle persuasion. The sun proves its power, and gets the traveller to do as he wishes, with pacific warmth, while the wind's bullying bluster is just met with more and more resistance.

One reseller has characterised Microsoft's attempts to convince users to migrate as "scaremongering". It is certainly fair to say that the vendor's awareness campaign has focused a good deal more on the claimed security perils of staying on XP past today's end-of-support date than it has on the benefits of adopting its newer technologies.

Much like a child with a cherished toy, it can prove impossible to strong-arm someone into parting from a technology they know and trust, and that still works. The most effective way to separate a child from its favourite plaything is invariably to capture its imagination and its attention with a toy it loves even more.

XP is clearly a product that people love and, rather than huffing and puffing, perhaps Microsoft could trade a little more on the warmth generated for its brand by the ageing software.

Cisco and Las Vegas; Confused? You will be...

27 Mar 2014

clock striking twelve with pound signIt's an oft-cited factoid that the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip have no windows and no clocks, so as to cultivate an environment where you lose track, not only of time, but of the reality of the outside world.

Having been here for five days now, I feel I can confidently confirm that this is just one of many ways in which this, frankly ridiculous, city tries to disorient you. The two hotels I have stayed in this week - while varying wildly in both price and pomp - have at least one thing in common: they ushered me to my room via the casino, and its attendant assault on the senses of noise, flashing lights, scantily clad women, and hard liquor.

Even in the early spring, the weight of the afternoon heat is enough to beckon you inside, where the hard-to-resist combination of pervasive air conditioning and ice-cold beer awaits you. And, once you're in, it can be very hard to get out. The mind-boggling monuments to excess that are Strip hotel-casinos are crowded, noisy, and labyrinthine.

And if do you get out - no doubt by having to circumnavigate a cornucopia of attractive hostelries, restaurants, and high-end boutiques - you join a boisterous but slow-moving bacchanalian parade of party-seekers openly guzzling enormous novelty drinks, while you all run a gauntlet of the opportunistic and the down-at-luck aggressively competing for a little bit of your attention - and your money.

(As a native Londoner, I'm no stranger to the variable merits of buskers. But this week marked the first time a street musician has met my usual quiet disinterest with an invitation to physical confrontation. Such a characteristically excessive reaction is enough to drive a man - at least this man - to drink. And air-con. And a comfy sofa. And - oh, look: that slot machine's progressive payouts are building nicely - surely 10 dollars can't hurt...?)

All of which makes Sin City a curiously apt location for this year's Cisco Partner Summit; "We want to make you uncomfortable," CEO John Chambers told VARs this week.

The vendor has big plans to progress way beyond its roots as a belt-and-braces networking company, and has outlined its intention to be considered the world's leading IT player. Its vision of the evolution of this industry centres on the so-called Internet of Everything, a somewhat confusing but highly impressive world in which items as diverse as rubbish bins and stalks of corn become connected devices.

Rival HP - which, coincidentally, is holding its channel get-together down the road this week - provided a salutary lesson in the havoc that can be wreaked by bewildering and upsetting a vast network of partners with a strategic about-turn. Cisco must know that its plans are a huge bet that could see it win big, or lose the shirt on its back. But that's Vegas, baby.

And it openly admits that not all its current set of loyal partners will ultimately follow it on the path it has mapped out. Chambers told attendees that one in three of the companies gathered in Nevada - presumably including his own in thatvegas equation - would not exist in 10 to 20 years.

At least, unlike its competitor further down the strip, Cisco is giving partners plenty of notice of its intentions. This intended next phase of its channel development began - at least publicly - at this event last year. But, as it gets more serious about cloud, smart cities, and the Internet of Everything, partners are going to need to place their bets.

Just like a Las Vegas casino, Cisco needs to make sure that, for the channel, the world outside its walls is not where you want to be.

Comrade Meg strikes again

06 Feb 2014

If the terminology of Meg Whitman's "five-year plan" to transform HP has a Soviet-style feel to it, her clinical elimination of the top lieutenants around her since she took the helm also evokes images of a supreme leader of an absolutist regime.

This is not a criticism: in times of war even liberal democracies vest their leaders with emergency powers or declare martial law. Whitman effectively HP's Meg Whitmanfound herself in the corporate equivalent of emergency rule upon seizing the baton in 2011. HP's share price and reputation was at a low following a string of CEO changes that, in her words, had "caused multiple inconsistent strategic choices and significant executional miscues".

Four of the top lieutenants Whitman paraded on stage at her first global partner conference in February 2012 have now either left or are rumoured to be leaving. IPG boss Vyomesh Joshi was the first to exit just a month later, shortly before Autonomy boss Mike Lynch - who was briefly given a grander job title of executive vice president of HP's Information Management division - left under a cloud.

And now it seems that former PC boss Todd Bradley and former enterprise boss David Donatelli are also being packed off to Siberia, according to a Reuters article.

Bradley and Donatelli, two of HP's most powerful executives, will leave HP in the coming weeks with seven- or even eight-figure payoffs after both being sidelined last year, sources told the news agency. This means Whitman will have disposed of four of the most powerful people around her when she took the helm as she looks to return HP to greatness.

Both Bradley and Donatelli were exited from their roles heading up its PC/printer and enterprise divisions respectively last summer, Bradley to helm HP's Chinese assault and Donatelli to a role identifying early-stage technologies for investment. They have not been seen regularly in HP's offices for months, sources told Reuters, and both are understood to be interviewing for potential jobs.

What this illustrates is that Whitman is willing to dispose of even the biggest of beasts within HP in her quest to ensure its five-year turnaround plan remains on track. Whitman was not happy with the pace of growth at HP's enterprise arm, while Bradley's CV was stained with his dubious achievement of overseeing the ill-fated TouchPad tablet in 2011.

HP may not have overcome all the obstacles that faced Whitman when she took power - it is yet to enter the smartphone game and shows no sign of regaining the PC crown it lost last year to Lenovo. But, judging from HP's share price, which has more than doubled since sinking to a nine-year low in Autumn 2012, Whitman's style of leadership is working.

It's also clear from talking to partners that Whitman is a popular leader in the channel - alongside Michael Dell she is one of the few that finds the time to sit down one-on-one with top partners.

And she certainly seems to have done a lot of the heavy lifting that will allow HP to become an industry super-power once again. Unlike the Soviets, this might just be one five-year plan that comes together.

A blog that explores the views of some of the CRN editorial team as well as guest bloggers from the channel. Do get in touch with sara.yirrell@incisivemedia.com if you are interested in being a CRN guest blogger for a week.

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