By Cisco's own admission it has spent the last couple of years in a state of flux.
When Chuck Robbins took over as CEO from Cisco royalty John Chambers in 2015, he started the vendor on a journey that would see it finally bite the bullet and shift its focus away from its colossal on-premise business - turning instead to software and as-a-service offerings.
This transition is now bearing fruit, as shown in Cisco's quarterly results, and at the recent Cisco Partner Connection Week in the Bahamian capital of Nassau, the underlying tone was one of clarity - not just from Cisco itself, but from its partners.
Speaking to CRN on the last day of the event, Cisco VP Nirav Sheth said the optimism felt within Cisco is now filtering down into the channel.
"I think the sentiment and the perception internally is very positive and certainly we're seeing it from our partners as well," he said. "I think there has been a lot of confidence in our leadership.
"There have been some tough decisions that have had to be made over the last couple of years, but I think there has been confidence that these decisions make sense, and even if there has been a little bit of short-term pain, ultimately it is for the long-term success and health of the company."
These tough decisions have seen Cisco place bets on emerging areas of IT, for example artificial intelligence, analytics and multi-cloud infrastructure.
With its own strategy now in place, the vendor is nudging its partners down a similar path. While Cisco is not forcing its traditional partners to evolve beyond their on-premise hardware business, it has made it clear that this is not where it sees the vast majority of its growth occurring.
Chris Gascoyne, director at Cisco partner Natilik, said that partners are now seeing a clearer vision from Cisco than they have done in the past.
"What they're positioning with the multi-cloud, and datacentre and cloud strategy, seems more coherent than it has ever been," he said.
"They had the false start with Intercloud a few years ago which didn't really work, but with acquisitions and the way they're positioning the coming together of the software-defined stuff and the analytics, there is a lot of confidence that they have a coherent strategy now."
Wait for me
With Cisco undergoing such a radical change in direction there is a danger that some channel partners will get left behind.
But Sheth said that partners should not be concerned about the pace of change, pointing to the vendor's track record of evolving with its partners in mind.
"Technology moves fast and as it moves you have to adapt, and we have always chosen to adapt and do so in a way where our partners have opportunities," he explained.
"A lot of our competitors have on-again off-again relationships with the channel and I think that is another reason why partners have stayed on the journey with us.
"Partners have a long memory and they know that despite the adaptions we've made over the years we've always done it with them, and I don't think they can say that confidently about our competitors."
Neil Pemberton, director of Cisco partner ITGL, said that Cisco has a history of making bold decisions in order to adapt, adding that the partners that onboard the vendor's new offerings first will see the most success.
"One of the things that has made us very successful is that we've always been early adopters of what Cisco has been doing," he said. "Whether it's IP telephony in the late nineties or software now, we always go straight in as a partner.
"That comes with some pain because it doesn't always work quite right in the early releases, but we found over the years that if you're prepared to leap in early you go through a steep learning curve and you take some pain, but you come out of that first year or two and you're a long way ahead of everyone else.
"Much more often than not Cisco will get to where they want to be because they'll make it happen. Maybe they'll need to adjust and find their way as they do things, but they'll get there."
Size doesn't matter
This latest shift is perhaps different to any other transformation undergone by Cisco, in that it opens up the vendor to smaller partners, rather than solely the channel's largest players.
Sheth said that, more than ever, Cisco is targeting niche and regional channel firms. He explained that these partners will find Cisco more accessible in a world of consumption models and managed services, compared with when Cisco was hardware and capex focused.
"I'm excited because that space represents new opportunities and white space for us," he said.
"It's not a scenario where it's a share shift between one partner type to another partner type; it is new opportunity for new partners.
"One of the ways we're helping people is through the partnership with ConnectWise [where] we offer Cisco in a box. No other provider offers a combination of network, collaboration and security in a box to manage in a single pane of glass. If I'm a regional MSP it is like a customer's business operating system can be delivered in a one-stop shop."
Cisco's smaller partners may in fact be well placed to steal a march on the larger Gold partners.
Where the biggest VARs and systems integrators are in the process of figuring out how to move some of their revenue away from traditional capex business and towards services, small VARs - in particular born-in-the-cloud players - don't require this period of transition.
ITGL's Pemberton said this creates an opportunity for smaller, more agile partners to take advantage while their larger competitors are still trying to adapt.
ITGL in particular was founded specifically to focus on Cisco's next-generation offerings. The firm was set up by the team behind Cisco-only partner Skynet Systems, which was sold to BT in 2005.
"While [the larger partners] have huge might in the industry, they take a long time to adapt - and this is massive move," Pemberton said. "If you take the oil tanker analogy, this isn't just a couple of degrees, it's potentially turning it around and going the other way.
"This creates a challenge for Cisco themselves. Whether they admit it or not, naturally they would gravitate to the big Gold partners, but I think in fairness to them they're realising that a lot of this transition will be driven by boutique innovative partners.
"There is a lot more thinking about how they enable these partners. I'm not saying the bigger partners won't make the transition, but inevitably they'll move slower."
The good old days
Earlier in the week at Partner Connection Week Cisco's global channel boss Wendy Bohr told CRN that partners still seeing success selling traditional hardware should regard now as the perfect time to broaden their offerings.
Despite this, Sheth said there is still a market opportunity for resellers that are not yet ready to evolve into the new breed of partner, pointing to Cisco's recent record quarter in compute as proof.
When asked if Cisco is seeing any reluctance from partners to offer new technologies, he said it is more a case of partners choosing to continue capitalising on existing opportunities, rather than a fear of moving into new areas.
"I don't know if I would say it's pushback; I think it is more of a business decision," he said.
"Some partners are investing and building out new capabilities, such as in analytics, and there might be other partners out there that are just throttling their investments because they already see so many opportunities.
"Despite all this growth in public cloud, in Cisco Q2 we enjoyed our largest quarter ever in our history for compute - nearly $1bn globally.
"It appears that 2018 is going to be a strong year for IT for the industry and certainly partners might be making decisions because of that. It's not reluctance, it's more like ‘let me capitalise in this space of the market, because times are good'."
One UK partner still seeing success selling traditional infrastructure hardware is CAE and, speaking to CRN at the Cisco event, CAE CTO Lee Gatland said there is nothing wrong with continuing to thrive in traditional areas, but added that all channel firms need to at least consider new solutions.
"We're an infrastructure reseller and we're good at what we do," he said. "Customers still want switches, firewalls and everything in between. We're doing well at steering people away from a-la-carte solutions to the new software, but we're still just enabling the network.
"I think we all, as businesses, need to make the shift to AI and the analytics pieces - so we need to change as a business and become a software business, but we've changed in the past."
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