Font Size

- Aa +

Sun 13 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Full capacity

High-end storage has always been a sophisticated sell that requires channel partners to understand what it is that makes an enterprise organisation tick. But as companies seek more bang for their buck, vendors are having to ensure they are fully engaged with their channels to stay ahead of the competition.

Full capacity
Havier Haddad, EMC.
Full capacity
Mohamed Halawa, Dell.
Full capacity
Juan de Zulueta, NetApp.
Full capacity
Walid Gomaa, HP.

High-end storage has always been a sophisticated sell that requires channel partners to understand what it is that makes an enterprise organisation tick. But as companies seek more bang for their buck, vendors are having to ensure they are fully engaged with their channels to stay ahead of the competition.

The mainstream distribution sector has become a key conduit for storage vendors in recent years, allowing them to reach small and medium businesses with scaled-down versions of their technologies. But this propensity for building comprehensive second-tier channels capable of targeting the reseller masses doesn't conceal the fact that the market remains hugely one-tier in nature.

Storage projects carry a reputation for being complex and protracted, explaining why vendors have traditionally favoured single-tier structures that support greater interaction between themselves, the customer and the reseller.

At the same time, virtually all of the leading storage providers have close relationships with the market's most established systems integrators.

"We have a tier-one partner channel that buys directly from us and goes directly to the market, and we have that highly-skilled channel to mainly service enterprise customers and some medium-sized business," explained Mohamed Halawa, enterprise marketing manager at Dell Middle East, referring to the vendor's route-to-market for its EquaLogic series and EMC-based storage systems.

In contrast, Dell's branded PowerVault offerings, which range from direct attached storage to tape libraries, are typically sold through the distribution channel.

Such a distinctive, some may even say polarised, model is quite common among storage vendors. Take EMC for instance, which has a network of 40-plus core integrators that belong to its Velocity Partner Programme. It regards the Middle East as a unique market because it is one of the few regions where the company operates a completely indirect model.

"We can divide our Velocity partners into many categories, starting with the large systems integrators such as Dimension Data and the big VARs that can sell products as part of a solution. Then we have distribution, where we are putting more focus because of the SMB business," said Havier Haddad, channel sales manager for the Gulf and Levant at EMC.

"With our channel in the region, the main challenge is to develop the partner landscape so that we have the right geographic coverage, the right technology coverage and the right vertical coverage. That is a non-stop strategy," said Haddad.

The importance of balancing the right number of experienced tier-one partners with proximity resellers that can move volume lines is not lost on the market's largest providers.

HP Middle East, which operates a multi-channel structure in the region, says that partner quality sits top of its agenda. "We have a number of Gold specialised partners who are trained from a sales and technical perspective and they undergo extensive certification programmes to support customers," revealed Walid Gomaa, StorageWorks business unit manager at HP Middle East. "In addition, we work through value added distributors who are well-trained on our solutions and can support the systems integrators from a sales and technical perspective," he said.

The real challenge facing vendors right now is to ensure partners possess the necessary skills to address the changing demands of the market. Whereas partners could once sell storage on the basis of price and volume, they now need to demonstrate an extensive array of sales and technical skills.

"We need our partners to be more focused and we really want them to specialise in whatever they are good at," admitted Haddad at EMC, who says the vendor has made enhancements to its channel programme that encourage and support this.

He also insists VARs need to evaluate their delivery mechanisms and invest in high-margin areas like professional services as the business becomes less about single products.

Storage provider NetApp tweaked its partner programme earlier this year by enhancing the quality of its marketing support, financial incentives and technical assistance. It believes the enhancements to the VIP Partner Programme - since renamed the NetApp Partner Programme - will make the channel more competitive.

"The main motivation at the beginning of our fiscal year was to improve the terms and conditions of our partner programme and align them at worldwide level in order to have a consistent global flavour when our partners deal with us," explained Juan de Zulueta, VP channel EMEA at NetApp. "If I would summarise the driving factors of our strategy, it would be that we want to increase market share, diversify by working with different sets of channels, improve efficiency and ensure our partners are protecting their margin."The discussions being driven by vendors predictably involve the word ‘solutions' these days, but it is something that resellers can't afford to take lightly in the current environment, argues HP's Gomaa.

"Solutions around areas like consolidation, high availability, disaster recovery, compliance and life-cycle management are what actually bring value to a customer," he stressed. "Most of our engagements with partners are now based around how they can articulate the value of the solution from a storage perspective, rather than letting it become a product or feature sale."

He claims it is also becoming more important for storage resellers to ensure they have adequate follow-up policies in place to keep track of customers' concerns and ensure the kind of messages they are trying to deliver do not get diluted.

Dell remains a subscriber to the solutions way of thinking too, revealing that it closely monitors the solution-selling capabilities of enterprise partners in the region. Halawa insists that, contrary to belief, post-sales proficiencies are just as important as pre-sales expertise in today's market.

"We are talking about equipment that requires a lot of skills to implement and deploy," he explained. "It is not usually just storage equipment either, but an end-to end solution that will probably have applications, servers and networking. A key person in all of this would be the project manager and we look at all of our partners to certify that they have the right project management and implementation capabilities."

Halawa says it is no longer valid to regard partners as pure storage players because storage is invariably just one critical aspect of a wider conversation that resellers will have with prospective customers.

"The point is that in order to discuss enterprise storage, you require a highly skilled channel and a highly skilled channel will most probably not go into a customer and only talk about storage," he said. "These highly skilled channels usually handle the large end-to-end opportunities that extend from networking to servers and so on."

To turn that to its advantage, Dell recently launched its Partner Academy Programme, which gives the sales and technical staff of its systems integrator partners the chance to receive first-hand information from its own team as well as the teams of its alliance partners such as Intel and Symantec.

Significant developments have taken place within EMC's partner community too, particularly as its Velocity Programme has become more focused. It recently started deepening its relationships with companies capable of delivering managed services on behalf of telecommunications providers and other enterprise organisations.

"We are increasingly trying to sell our solutions and services to these types of partners so that they can include them as part of their solution," explained Haddad. "There are companies like NavLink in Lebanon, which is a big name in managed services in the telco sector, and Wipro, which is offering many services in the UAE."

As mentioned, NetApp recently overhauled its EMEA channel programme in an effort to tune it to the needs of the market. The changes it made included revising the financial incentives on offer to reflect the difficult business conditions that resellers in most countries are now facing.

"Prior to the crisis we were giving yearly targets that were split quarterly, but due to the difficulties with focusing the business on a yearly basis we have decided to give quarterly targets instead," explained de Zulueta. "And the partners start to receive benefits when they achieve 90% of the target rather than 100% of the target."

The nature of enterprise storage commands a high-touch relationship between vendor and partner. All of the major brands proclaim to support the channel with comprehensive sales and technical resources.

Dell, for instance, employs enterprise account executives to accompany partners at customer briefings and solution consultants that support the implementations offered by the reseller, while EMC insists the introduction of a global financial solution designed to facilitate business is one of the most significant moves on its part in the region this year. It says the availability of various payment and financial facilities provides the extra flexibility that partners and clients are looking for in the current climate.

Gomaa, meanwhile, says regular product and solutions updates are an essential part of HP's channel strategy. "We are providing our partners with lots of tools that will help them ensure the right execution from a sales perspective," he said. "We try to make sure partners are aware of the extensive list of courses and training material that we offer."

With end-users finding it difficult to source credit and sales cycles reportedly becoming ever more stretched, achieving success in the enterprise storage channel is looking increasingly like it will come down to which vendors can best execute the high-touch approach they all claim is so important.

For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.