Just weeks after
as its first UK Master, the networking vendor's channel is already divided over
the new top-level specialist certification's value.
Having passed its final audit for the unified communications (UC) Master, Cisco Silver partner Touchbase will now enjoy the same discounts as Gold partners on the vendor's UC portfolio.
Gold partner 2e2 told CRN it is also undergoing its final audit for the UC Master.
As the two VARs celebrate their new status, CRN asks what the Master will mean for the Cisco channel, how it has been received by partners and if the new certificate is all it has cracked up to be.
In February, Cisco chief executive John Chambers, revealed Advanced Technologies (ATs) such as UC, security and wireless had begun contributing more to the networking giant's top line than its core routing products.
At its Partner Summit in San Diego in March, Cisco announced two changes in its partner programme.
While Gold and Silver partners would now have to pass exams on all four of its core technologies – routing and switching, security, wireless LAN and UC – Cisco also unveiled a rigorous new top-level specialisation, branded Master.
As the highest level of expertise a partner could obtain on a given AT, it was hoped the Master would foster greater depth in Cisco's channel. So far, Master specialisations have only been launched for security and UC.
The first thing to note is that UK resellers have been slower on the uptake than their US counterparts. Berbee, a wing of US corporate reseller giant CDW, was the first Cisco partner worldwide to clinch Master status back in November, with several other US outfits having since joined it.
But John Donovan, managing director of Cisco channels UK and Ireland, is satisfied that the roll out of the Master band is progressing smoothly in the UK.
He revealed that four UK partners have obtained or are close to passing the UC Master, with another two working towards the security Master.
"Master is a very select programme and the barriers to entry are high because we wanted to ensure it was a highly differentiated accreditation," Donovan said.
"We're delighted to have Touchbase on board as the first UK Master UC partner. It reinforces Cisco's channel strategy in that we're focused on value not volume and want partners that can build solutions and focus on customer business problems. It also shows how committed we are to improving our partners' profitability."
Mike Danson, UK managing director at Touchbase, is among the certification's supporters.
He said: "Cisco's technology is changing and it's had to change its partner programme to reflect that. What it needs is a new breed of partner that can push into applications such as contact centre and mobility.
"We now have the ability to differentiate those areas in a busy market. The Master proves we have the capabilities in sales, design, delivery and support in its UC portfolio."
Steve Niven, sales director at Cisco channel services firm Networks First, said: "Cisco has traditionally focused on the bigger players. The Master is a sound idea because it allows smaller partners to compete commercially."
However, not all of Cisco's partners see the Master in such a positive light. The managing director of one large Gold reseller, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "The Master is a poor man's version of Gold. It allows companies who can't support the overheads of four CCIE [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert] engineers to have a standing in security, wireless or UC."
The fact that Touchbase, which was until recently an Avaya house, was the first to gain UC Master also rankles with some of Cisco's longer-serving allies.
"Cisco has been courting Touchbase for a long time with the intention of targeting the Avaya end-user base," one Gold partner claimed. "But I don't believe if someone has been sold an Avaya box as the biggest and the best one year, they'll be so naive as to accept that a completely different product can be the best the next year."
Several other partners have expressed concerns that Cisco hasn't done enough to market the Master concept.
Scott Nursten, managing director at Cisco Gold partner and security specialist s2s, said: "I like the concept of the Master, but the public knows nothing about it, so it won't have a huge boost in terms of public perception. Cisco has to get a few partners certified first and then the word will spread into the marketplace. "
Danson also urged Cisco to crank up its marketing machine: "I think thereís a job to do to ensure the value of Master is clear. It's about shouting it from the rooftop and it's incumbent on both Cisco and us to do that."
Donovan said: "Now partners are coming on board there will be an increase in promotion for the Master accreditation."
For other Gold partners, the Master is merely something they expect to pick up during the normal course of business.
Les Cooper, sales and marketing director at Gold partner Minx, said: "The UC Master is something weíll obtain, but weíre going for it because weíre making those investments anyway. Weíre not doing it for the badge like a boy scout.
"We have two engineers going through the [CCIE voice] training, but we need them anyway. We have most of the demo equipment, so we wonít be making an investment over and above what we would do to conduct normal business."
However, those who have made the investment are adamant Master represents Cisco's most arduous certification to date.
In the case of UC, Master resellers must possess a CCIE certification in voice and demonstrate a capability to integrate multiple UC solutions through five customer references.
VARs are also required to make significant investments in demonstration equipment and managed services.
Jeremy Humphries, UC business director at 2e2, which is also a Cisco Gold partner, said: "I'd say UC Master is harder than getting Gold, where the audit is not as in-depth and firms do not need a managed services centre and all the BSI [British Standards Institution] certifications.
"VARs also need a CCIE voice engineer, which is more challenging than obtaining engineers for routing and switching because there are far fewer individuals with it in the market."
There are reputedly just 450 CCIE voice engineers worldwide and less than 20 in the UK. Those with the qualification can command a salary of up to £100,000, according to sources.
Nick Grossman, corporate business development director at 2e2, added: "We are continuing to win significant deals because of our breadth of services and technical specialisation. Master UC is core to that and will help us stand out from the pack.
"I think Master will very quickly rise to the top of the stack because people look for peace of mind in selecting solutions providers."
Finally, the introduction of Master – which partners can obtain regardless of their certification level – may well have a major impact on Cisco's channel skyline by reducing the number of Gold and Silver partners.
Though the Master may be tough, some insiders estimate the amount of investment needed to achieve Gold and Silver status from scratch is much higher, perhaps as much as £750,000 and £500,000 respectively.
One high-ranking Cisco partner, said: "Resellers only really go for Silver and Gold for the discounts. Firms can now get the same discount by becoming a Master, which is less expensive and involves less training. The number of Gold partners will therefore decrease. VARs will look at the investment they have to make, take a step back and opt to go for a Master in security or UC instead."
The source also alleged that some top-level partners were considering walking away from Cisco altogether.
"I know of at least two Gold partners that are asking questions about the overall cost of being a Cisco partner, the margin it provides and the difficulties of engaging with Cisco. If one decides to go, we could see an exodus."
However, Donovan stressed he was not anticipating any significant flux in the volume of Gold and Silver partners when the deadline for re-accreditation comes around in March 2008.
Donovan said 17 out of 32 Gold partners and 10 out of 15 Silver partners had met all the specialist requirements to re-certify under the new system. Most other partners have passed three of the four exams required to make the grade, he added.
"Partners had a two-year window to migrate to the new programme and in the UK we're well on track," he emphasised.
Cisco to crown UC Masters
Highlander MD Steve Brown tells CRN about the skills he learned on the pitch and brought to the boardroom
Reports suggest Dell is pursuing a straightforward IPO, contradicting existing plans to buy out tracking stock holders
Analysts predict upturn in PC market next year, but 2018 to remain plagued by components shortages
Neil Sawyer claims he has 'never seen so many conversations about a new method of investing in workplace technology'