65 million years ago, the giant lizards that ruled earth were wiped out when a massive projectile slammed into the Gulf of Mexico.
As unflattering as it is to be likened to dinosaurs, some critics argue that IT distribution faces a similarly bleak fate if it does not evolve to fit in with a world where often no physical products exist.
According to Gartner, the public cloud services market will more than double in size to $210bn (£139bn) between 2011 and 2016 as the traditional on-premise IT market continues to struggle. Hosted private cloud services are tipped to grow even more rapidly, albeit from a smaller base.
But whether distribution, a rung of the channel renowned for its credit and logistics prowess, can remain relevant in a world where end users increasingly prefer to buy their software and infrastructure as a service remains to be seen.
Some 35 per cent of the world's species survived the aforementioned apocalypse and distributors we spoke to are making provisions to ensure that - unlike T-Rex - they do not fall victim to the recent shift in IT buying patterns.
Some see their role as centring on enablement, while others have developed their own cloud billing platforms or are even branching out into hosting cloud services from their own datacentres.
Speaking after the European launch of Azlan's cloud billing platform, StreamOne, Azlan's European cloud services director Joel Chimoindes dismissed the notion that distributors will struggle to justify their role in the channel as more revenue moves from on-premise into the cloud.
StreamOne - a partner aggregation and billing platform that has been live in the US for about a year - albeit it in a slightly different form - allows resellers to offer cloud services from the likes of Rackspace, Microsoft and EMC under a single bill.
Research has suggested that most resellers overwhelmingly see working directly with vendors and cloud providers - rather than distributors - as the best route to the cloud.
However, Chimoindes predicted that distribution will be the preferred source where it can prove value-add.
"If all the reseller wants to do is transact cloud services and they have the required in-house skills, tools, professional services and billing systems to do so, they would probably work with the vendor directly," he said. "If they do not have these attributes, this should be the value added by the distributor which is especially true when referring to aggregation of services, either technically or from a billing point of view."
Rival distributor Arrow launched its own cloud billing platform, ArrowSphere, last summer but Chimoindes said StreamOne is different in that it integrates with SAP, meaning resellers do not have to split credit over different platforms.
That said, Chimoindes maintained that StreamOne taken alone is not sufficient to get resellers started in the cloud, highlighting the distributor's drive to educate partners through its TDCloud Academy.
This offers white papers, webinars and - starting this quarter - face-to-face training from the distributor's Basingstoke, Birmingham and Warrington offices.
"When we have had technology changes in the past, most of the time it has been around product - businesses have never really been asked to change the way they sell and report," he said. "[With cloud] how do you bill, how do you compensate staff and how do you market yourself? There are so many things partners have to do and you should not underestimate that - with TDCloud Academy you can provide enough information to get going."
Alex Tatham, sales and marketing director at Westcoast (pictured), applauded StreamOne as an example of how distribution is "reacting and reacting more quickly than anyone else" in the cloud era.
Westcoast is taking a different tack, however, in that it is in the process of kitting out its own datacentre in Wales following requests from reseller partners to host solutions on their behalf.
"Distribution has reinvented itself every time someone has predicted its death," Tatham said. "It is so flexible and is such a cost-effective model that it always puts itself in positions where it creates value, and that is exactly what Azlan is doing with its billing system.
"One day computing will be sold like electricity and that needs to be provisioned, whether that's by the distributor or reseller or a combination of the two. I think the channel is generally more needed than ever before in cloud. There are a whole bunch of cloud service providers going in and selling cloud and these things need product to run on - and I cannot see why distribution does not have an extremely important role in that."
For others, the role of distribution in the cloud era is one primarily of education and enablement.
Kevin Collins, director of cloud practice EMEA at Avnet Technology Solutions, said building a cloud portal is not a priority for the distributor.
"There is a lot of talk about portals and billing engines," he said. "We went out to the vendor, service provider and reseller communities and asked them what they need for us to support them in the cloud. The last thing that came back is a portal. They wanted to know how to stay relevant in the cloud infrastructure space."
Collins (pictured) maintained that cloud is more of an opportunity than a threat for Avnet's business.
"The IT market is flat today, therefore we have to look at the areas of profitable growth - and cloud is seeing CAGR of about 38 per cent. It's about understanding those growth areas and investing in them, so I think there is a huge opportunity for Avnet to re-invigorate itself in those growth areas."
Apay Obang-Oyway, general manager of the Software, Cloud and Mobility Group at Ingram Micro, said cloud means distribution will become more "entangled" with vendor and reseller partners.
"Moving into the cloud requires more than just transactional excellence and the ability to aggregate services," he said. "It is about bringing a collection of resources, tools and programmes to market and helping resellers with business development and generation."
Scott Dobson, managing director of Cloud Distribution, said any distributor focusing solely on acting as a cloud aggregator will struggle.
"Cloud aggregation is a poster on the wall that says ‘we are in cloud' but [this model] will never make any money because there is no value in it," he said. "Resellers can easily sort out whatever aggregation they need direct. Distributors have to bring value from a technological perspective."
Security distributor e92plus is launching an e-commerce platform that will allow its resellers to offer cloud services, as well as its wider portfolio, online.
According to marketing manager Neil Langridge, the platform will enable its partners to provide existing customers with a new procurement method and generate demand among new prospects.
"We manage the whole platform - that's everything from product information, pricing and marketing campaigns to logistics, electronic order delivery and managing licences," said Langridge. "And it's all entirely customisable by the reseller."
Currently in beta, the platform is set to launch this month with the backing of all e92plus' vendors, which include Websense, Cyberoam and Xirrus.
E92plus managing director Mukesh Gupta (pictured) said: "We feel distribution should always be about adding value to resellers and vendors, therefore anything we come up with for the cloud should give value back to them. We have developed a platform we believe provides our resellers with a real new-business opportunity but one that [does not deviate] from the traditional vendor-distributor-reseller relationship."
Big disties choose different paths to cloud glory
Billing itself as a cloud aggregator, Azlan is pinning its cloud hopes on its new StreamOne platform, which gives resellers the ability to aggregate cloud services from IaaS outfits Rackspace and AirVM, Microsoft, EMC-owned backup provider Mozy and hosted video player Videxio. The platform complements Azlan's wider TDCloud programme, which is designed to get resellers generating revenue from the cloud rapidly by plying them with training and enablement resources.
Ingram's cloud strategy currently focuses on education and enablement, although it plans to develop transactional tools for its partners in the longer term. Its quarterly managed service provider university event is designed to help VARs transition their business for the cloud era. The broadliner, which claims to have a 40 per cent share of the UK Office 365 market, has spent recent months building a cloud team in the UK, recruiting several heads from vendorland including Microsoft's Penny Thompson.
Avnet is another distributor focused on cloud education and enablement via the CloudReady category of its SolutionsPath programme. "We look to educate partners on the financial model as well as on what cloud means for how they adapt their technical focus," said Avnet's Kevin Collins. "They need to know how to migrate from solution selling, where they are selling a large piece of hardware relatively infrequently, to a model where they earn a lot less but it is on a monthly basis and it is forever."
Westcoast is developing its own hosting capabilities and is in the process of kitting out its datacentre in Wales. The move follows on from Westcoast's success in scooping one of two Microsoft Spla [service provider licensing agreements] distribution contracts last summer, alongside Ingram Micro. "Lots of [resellers] have been asking us whether we can host solutions for them, and the answer is yes," said Westcoast'sAlex Tatham.
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