There's a famous scene in the Monty Python film Life of Brian where the Judean People's Front (or is it the People's Front of Judea?) discuss what the Romans ever did for them. Eventually their leader says: "Alright, so apart from sanitation, irrigation, the roads and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" I'm paraphrasing, but you get the drift.
There is a similar feeling in the channel when it comes to networking products: "What have the networking vendors/distributors ever done for us?"
"Well, apart from inventing a range of technologies, marketing them and generating demand for newer and more complex applications - thus enabling resellers to make margins on consultancy, services and after-sales care and replacing these technologies with newer, more expensive and complex products (once the existing ones become commodities) - not much," the vendors reply with raised eyebrows.
But at the coalface, it is the resellers that do the dirty work and generate the turnover for successful companies. Defining what represents real incentives and finding examples of vendors working in resellers' best interests is difficult, if not impossible. In the meantime, the question of how to sell, and more importantly, what to train to sell, remains paramount.
It is here that the old adage, 'Keep an eye on the future; that's where the money is' comes to mind. But again, don't rely on vendors for impartial advice or you might find yourself actually believing it when you next tell a customer that Wap is the future of mobile communications.
Shooting in the dark
So what credit do the vendors deserve? They obviously define markets, and the sensible ones also make products to service those markets. But often they are shooting in the dark and hoping that there is pent-up demand for their products. Now the days of large co-op marketing budgets are over, vendor influence is more subtle.
One thing to remember is that vendors pay bucket-loads of money to analysts for reports which, unless the evidence is totally to the contrary, tend to support a vendor's view about a market. Scott McNealy, chief executive of Sun Microsystems, famously said that if he wanted to get higher market share from the analyst companies, he would simply commission a few more reports from them.
But despite some doubts about their veracity, these reports are read by users and have great influence on buying decisions. A good example is in the field of web-to-legacy network integration.
In a recent report, Managing the Network and Web Infrastructure for Performance, analyst the Aberdeen Group says: "In the age of internet business, web services and networks come together to form one infrastructure, and they must be managed as one unified whole.
"Furthermore, management solutions should be capable of actively and dynamically aligning the web infrastructure with changing business objectives and requirements. To do otherwise severely restricts the runtime and fiscal performance of critical IT resources."
Although it is aimed at a US audience, you can guess the message is that businesses can already see the reasons for integrating existing network and web infrastructures, and getting them to do so is not difficult.
Ian Kilpatrick, group managing director of networking distributor Wick Hill, says: "There are a number of areas where resellers should be looking. We are getting a lot of feedback saying that legacy-to-web connectivity is a huge growth area."
The Aberdeen Group report says: "Management of a web infrastructure means that new platforms such as web servers are inseparable from the management of an organisation's network. Plus, to the extent that a website requires access to back-end services, information and processes, management of the infrastructure requires integration of new and old management solutions.
"Smart organisations will be in a position to adopt any technology that will offer business advantages and be able to do so without compromising site performance. Those organisations caught flat-footed will find themselves ceding hard-won ground to more agile competition."
Tools for the job
The second half of the Aberdeen Group report says that the tools to back this are available already from vendors such as Computer Associates (CA). It has been making a play for network management for a couple of years, with its NetworkIT and MasterIT products. These cover most of the necessary requirements of network-to-web integration, but only if you convince the user to invest in both products.
Of course this is good advice. Once you have convinced the customer of the business need for web/legacy network integration, you are opening up a treasure chest of other opportunities, such as load testing, load balancing, management support tools, high-availability products, and if you really want to push it, managed security.
Selling Ethernet cards is not going to make you a millionaire. But bagging a large voice-over IP contract could mean you can afford to upgrade that Mondeo. Integrating an existing network with the web could mean changing to a BMW.
The web infrastructure market is growing exponentially. According to Kilpatrick, it is like "selling Levi's in the gold rush".
He says: "The great thing about the web is the extras that go with it. There is security, web management and access. Most websites were set up by the marketing department and evolved along very fragmented lines. But now there is a need to integrate the website with back-office systems, and then there are the high-profile companies that have screwed up. A couple more of those every month is what we need."
As a reseller you are probably better off not relying on the marketing departments of your suppliers to help you translate product availability into hard sales. It is better to follow your own instincts. Instead of learning by rote the capabilities, qualities and speeds of networking and ancillary products, sell the systems on the business benefits. And remember to speak in a language business managers can understand.
Good examples of what vendors are doing to define the future for resellers are in the areas of content delivery devices and optical networking. Some analysts put the optical equipment market at $17bn (£11.8bn) within three years. But as ever, vendors and analysts look at the horizon while resellers labour in the trenches.
Critical ebusiness issues
The move to ecommerce means that traditional IT architectures are increasingly complex. Analyst Meta Group identifies 80 components that can be critical in an ebusiness environment, most of which involve some degree of networking.
To address the content delivery market, Cisco has announced a range of appliances to service content delivery networks (CDNs). Cisco is convinced that a market is being created by the advent of video streaming and ebusiness applications.
The company claims that it is trying to overcome network bandwidth shortcomings by placing content delivery devices nearer to end-users, and moving frequently accessed content to the edge of the network into edge-delivery nodes. This reduces the time and bandwidth required to deliver content to the end user.
"Any company that wants to accelerate the delivery of content to the end user could use a CDN," says Brian Walck, director of product management at Cisco.
"That does include service providers, but there's a set of large-enterprise customers out there that could be leveraging this technology to deliver white papers, product specs, human resources information, and video-on-demand to employees and customers."
Cisco sees 35 per cent of its CDN products going into enterprises, with the rest going to ISPs. But this is not going to be a real money-spinner for the channel. It is more an example of how vendors will forever seek new markets for themselves that may, eventually, be serviced by their partners.
Joel Yaffe, senior analyst at Giga Information Group, thinks it could be two years before the technology trickles down from the service provider market to the enterprise level. But he applauds Cisco's CDN moves, saying: "Cisco is paying more than just lip service to content distribution."
Closer to home, Richard Pryer-Jones, managing director of distributor Azlan, says price pressure on established products makes it worth keeping an eye out for the next big thing. The battle is moving into services and the skills crisis there.
"Big companies are investing in training and snapping up talent. A growing number of people are chasing a shrinking pool of talent. There is a lot of talk about the death of the traditional reseller role and companies are looking for new ways to manage their networks," he says.
"Convergence continues to be a hot topic as finally the technology to make it happen comes to market. But there is a job to be done to make it part of the infrastructure. That will carry us through the rest of the year."
Training is keySo, train or die seems to be the message at the moment. And train for a world of managed services. With the rise of ISPs and application service providers (ASPs), the network service providers are not far behind. The underlying message here is that vendors are as desperate to find qualified staff as resellers, and resellers are likely to lose out. In times of skills shortage, your main threat is from your suppliers.
The other market driver, according to vendors and distributors, is the thorny subject of network security. These converging networks - converging in both the data and voice sense, and in the traditional network and web sense - are inherently less secure than the old, safe corporate intranet.
"Every time there is a security scare it is good news for us because it gets people thinking about how they are going to manage [their network] and protect it," says Pryor-Jones. "That is good news for the resellers. It is stoking up the market and then it's a case of drawing up the plan and getting them to take it on board."
The channel being the channel, someone is always muddying the waters. Despite many predictions about the demise of the specialist distributor, caused by the combined forces of the internet and the global broadliners, there are still a few around.
Pryor-Jones says: "Broad-based systems suppliers have been saying for five years that they are going to take over this market. But having a warehouse does not make you an expert. This is a specialist market and takes specialist expertise to deliver quality. You can say you're a brain surgeon, but you have to train before you're given a scalpel."
Outside the share-option holders and the staff who got in early, there are many other IT professionals who have become rich on the back of large successful corporates. Not least of these are those associated with the networking giants.
Today it is the resellers which supported Cisco early who are reaping the greatest rewards. But for those who want to join the party late, there are real questions about what the manufacturers and distributors are doing to help make their partners rich.
While the obvious attraction of networking is the march into a bright technological future and the chance to look smarter than you are, the answer to the question, 'Which horse do I back?' can be a make-or-break one. The consensus is that networking will continue to offer huge profit. But the downside is that resellers will have to run faster to stand still.
- Managed network services form a growing market
- Vendors are becoming less generous, as there are fewer co-op marketing funds
- Specialist distributors still have a great deal to offer
- The products required to achieve convergence are coming on to the market
- Legacy network-to-web integration offers plenty of opportunities
- More products are becoming available to address bandwidth shortages.
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