According to Andy Shepperd, networking division general manager at Computer 2000 (C2000), selling networking successfully to corporates depends on your skill set. Corporate resellers in particular need to sharpen up their act.
"The challenge and the opportunity for corporate resellers is to reposition themselves in the value-added space. Part of that is a differentiation based on general skills and what I call 'second-generation reseller' skills," he says.
Corporate resellers used to be able to concentrate on selling technical networking and integration, but now they need to have web integration and ecommerce systems that reach beyond the Lan and Wan.
"It is about having the technology and the means to support customer solutions and ebusiness solutions. In the past it was simply a case of installing a network. Now there has to be a real continuity between the networking and the business solution. The barriers have come down," says Shepperd.
Neil Cleasby, business development director at specialist network systems supplier ML Integration, believes there is a noticeable shift in the emphasis required to sell networking into the corporate sector.
"The rate of growth of traditional resellers is declining as a result of the investment being made in emerging IP integration technologies by the leading manufacturers of voice and data products," he says.
"Vendors recognise that many of their historic partners are 'box shifters', and very few have the skills and expertise to implement true converged solutions."
ML Integration focuses on voice and data, but these are not the only technologies to which this reasoning could be applied within networking. The key areas are the applications rather than the technologies.
Previously, says Shepperd, building a network infrastructure within an organisation had been seen as a largely technical and practical task, one that was wholly unrelated to the applications that operate across the structure.
"That has changed because ecommerce has become such a vital part of business strategy. The network has to support the ebusiness processes and that means delivering the right bandwidth to the right places, the right level of security and access, the right degree of performance aggregation and traffic prioritisation," he says. "It is necessary to understand the machinations of the ebusiness applications that they are designed to enable."
Corporate organisations are now desperate to find IT suppliers that have this mix of abilities. But few of the established corporate businesses have the right blend, says Shepperd.
Cleasby agrees. He claims there are not many organisations with the right set of skills or structure to serve the corporate market effectively.
Most corporations need IP connectivity over a number of sites, links to the internet for Lan users, firewall protection and remote access for mobile users. They are also looking for hosting services and a secure environment for the corporate website and email server, as well as a structure that is voice over IP (VoIP)-ready.
Cleasby says: "Things have changed when it comes to selling networks. The old way was 'network in a skip' comprising a collection of routers, leased line or frame contracts - possibly a router management package and a usage-reporting package.
"High prices dominated leased lines and a complex cost model occurred. The user was beset by poor link utilisation and capacity planning, and needed Wan skills to manage the connectivity."
IP has changed all this, and many of the larger organisations are looking at using virtual private networks (VPNs) to deliver a flexible structure that will work over the internet. The ability to understand, design and deliver all this technology, along with quality of service, have become the essential technology skills.
Malcolm Money, business products channel manager at IBM subsidiary Tivoli, which develops enterprise-level network management systems, says the internet has been a huge influence on the networking strategies of large companies.
"Decisions are having to be made that were not considered before," says Money. "Should the networking be outsourced or in-house? Are new technologies needed for the network management system or can it be run on existing systems? Do more staff need to be recruited to meet the enterprise's developing network needs? There is a shortage of people who really know about the ins and outs of networking."
This new set of corporate networking requirements has evolved very rapidly and as a result, many of the larger resellers that had provided technical solutions, are unable to adapt straight away.
Big isn't always best
Smaller resellers with the right skills are finding more openings. In some respects, they have an advantage over large integrators. Shepperd says: "I don't think you ever really needed to be large to sell networking to corporates, but it has become easier to sell upwards while corporate resellers cannot really sell down."
Changes have also been taking place in the structure of larger organisations, making them more amenable to smaller suppliers. "Some corporate businesses behave like SMEs. They may have 20 branches, with no people on site with specific IT skills and no direct support from the central HQ. For that reason, they will roll out services to proximity resellers, even if it is to only re-configure a hub," he says.
According to Shepperd, smaller and more specialist networking resellers also have the ability to influence the purchase of the corporate buyer much more. They are, he says, more prepared to look at innovative solutions and larger customers will respond to their initiative.
They are also more successful than their larger counterparts at proposing solutions that address the supplementary needs of the corporate organisation for managed services, content and web services, security and other 'plug-ins' to the networking system, he claims.
Simon Boyle, marketing director at specialist network integrator Dimension Data, says it is the very latest technologies that interest the corporate networking buyer and ecommerce is the principal driver behind it all.
"We are supplying network migration to support the industry's latest demanding applications: IP telephony, VoIP, content delivery and online network management to support online business models," he says.
"This is why there is such demand for skills in the new technologies. There are more new technologies hitting the market than ever before, such as unified messaging, call centres, video over IP, IPSec and DWDM [distributed wave division multiplexing]. Many of them enable new business models and processes," says Boyle. "Networks are now even more vital, and downtime means the loss of customers and profit. Also, the skills sets are harder to find and retain once you have found them, particularly if they are not used efficiently."
Boyle agrees ecommerce is a driver for networking technology, but says a lot depends on a company's business model. "They will be wrestling with a whole range of new networking problems such as managing content distribution, tackling email and browser flash floods and maintaining track of users when they come from an ISP that practises global address replacement," he says.
"One of our customers summed it up: it is the challenge of managing the rapid deployment of unproven applications."
Nigel Pugh, UK country manager at management software specialist Concord Communications, says the scale of problems for the corporate network administrator is growing and this is opening up more opportunities in a number of areas.
Many have expanded their IP-based networks so quickly that they are "flying blind" when it comes to the management of their networks.
"There is at least one part of the infrastructure that they were not aware needed attention. That is often the tip of the iceberg because more problems are revealed just under the surface," says Pugh.
The high level of interest in emerging network technologies such as Bluetooth, wireless and remote networking and the issues that they raise such as performance, security, bandwidth and management, are compelling corporates to look beyond their normal resources and suppliers.
"Companies will become more reliant on such technologies as mobile speeds increase. Guaranteed availability of these services is a top priority," says Pugh. "Resellers have an opportunity now to specialise in providing solutions for application management of such services. Naturally, highly skilled resellers can profit from helping in migration and integration in these environments, by offering consultancy and professional services."
For the knowledgeable integrator, there are adequate opportunities to excel, says Boyle, although in-depth knowledge of each area is required.
There is no easy route around this particular hurdle either. If there is a knowledge gap, it must be filled, otherwise the cracks will begin to show quickly.
A common mistake
Who you sell networking to within the corporate organisation is also changing. Many resellers fall into the trap of trying to sell the latest box, often hastily put together, to the board. This is "misplaced arrogance", says Boyle. The board may be interested, but not in the technology.
"They want to know how to improve their business processes, communicate with the customer cost-effectively, develop supply chain integration and extract business intelligence from all their company data. Networking is lower down the food chain," he says.
Paul Smith, UK general manager at connectivity products supplier Transition Networks, says there is a tendency for the emphasis to be placed on technical qualities within corporates. But he also still encounters buyers with a low level of understanding of networking in large organisations.
"We deal with network designers and consultants. People at a higher level who may be interested are financial directors. When selling networks, you must have a technology that will benefit the customer technically or financially. Technically, the product must offer what the customer wants and the cost benefits."
The more complex the technology, the less understanding corporates have of them and the more vital it becomes for resellers to show that they possess the appropriate level of skill to pull solutions together. Security is a prime example at the present time.
According to Vic Langford, chief executive of networking security software house Solsoft, most companies have been left behind by the sudden surge of IP development.
"Given the rapid evolution of core networking technologies and new infrastructure technologies such as wireless, and the dependency on them for ebusiness, many organisations do not have the experience or in-house expertise to look after their own networking systems and strategies," he says.
So it is important to emphasise the need for further education in emerging technologies. These are what corporate network users really want and need, says Shepperd. "There is definitely a deficit of skills and knowledge in these areas. Resellers have to absorb the new technologies so that they can take the message to the market."
- The triumph of IP as a protocol has opened up the possibilities as far as infrastructure is concerned, placing more emphasis on the new applications.
- To sell networking to corporates you need an understanding of emerging technologies such as VoIP, security, virtual private networks and content management, and the ability to map technology to ebusiness environments.
- Don't imagine that you will be selling to the board. Although there is much more emphasis on the applications and the benefits now, networking technology is still bought mostly by technical staff.
- Smaller networking specialists that have been quicker on their feet are faring better in meeting the needs of corporate organisations than the larger 'corporate' resellers.
- Further education and investment in key areas such as ecommerce integration, security, bandwidth management and unified messaging are needed to open up more opportunities in the networking sector.
- Who you sell networking to within an organisation is also important. Many resellers try to sell to the board. The board may show interest, but not in the technology.
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