Changing places: redefining the channel for the evolving network market

Resellers and networking specialists are redefining their roles in the networking market to meet customers' changing needs, says Amro Gebreel

The networking marketfinds itself in the position of being the central plank of most of the main developments in...

the industry. Any talk of cloud, mobility or greater flexibility starts with a conversation with the customer about the infrastructure.

As things change and move more towards wireless and even grander ideas of wider connectivity, the same basic questions continue to be raised by customers as they seek the guarantee of a decent level of reliability of the backbone that runs their technology systems.

But there have been consequences of those trends, with resellers trying to add some networking expertise to increase their chances of getting a slice of a broader sale. On the flipside of that, there has also been a fair amount of movement from networking specialists into other areas during the past year.

At a recent MicroScope storage roundtable, one of the comments repeated by most of the vendors attending was to point out that there had been an influx of new partners into their channel programmes and the majority of those were from a networking background.

They had welcomed them because of the extra expertise they brought to the table  and because it meant a wider ecosystem of partners was being created. Very few of them thought this process would slow over the course of this year.

Networking pitch

That channel movement seems to emphasise the need for a solution aspect to any networking pitch,  with some adding storage into their offer and others opting for a security or cloud take on what they can provide beyond the traditional infrastructure package of routers and switches.

Those resellers entering the networking market might find themselves in a good position as the next mega-trends hit the industry. Talking about the internet of things might be all the rage at Cisco events, but it is now starting to ripple outwards to a wider audience and again it is the networking experts who  will find a role in making all of the customer’s dreams come true. There are also plenty of people happy to slip in the SDN acronym to make themselves seem cutting edge with references to software-defined networking.

But regardless of what the big project might be, the best place to start is putting the customer first, finding out what they want solved and then giving them decently constructed answers, according to Sean Paxton, product manager at InTechnology Managed Services.

“As a reseller, it’s important to look at this from a customer perspective,” he says. “The customer buys a network because they have a requirement of some sort to communicate between sites. This could be  devices at branch sites communicating with a stock control application located at head office, or it could be card payment terminals communicating with the bank as part of the card payment process, or it could be staff at one location calling staff at other sites.”

Common requirements

Paxton says there are some common requirements that emerge from customers, including: some UK-wide or global communication infrastructure, routing equipment that sits on the end of circuits, a  monitoring platform to manage the system and some reporting capabilities to give managers a view of network utilisation.

“Resellers need to identify what parts of this network the customer is trying to build by establishing what it is trying to achieve in the short, medium and long term,” he says. “This is particularly important since a network built for one purpose will inevitably end up needing to accommodate other applications at some point. Once a reseller has this information to hand, it can sell to fill the gaps in the network infrastructure.”

Another consideration for resellers that has emerged from the internet and users’ always-on connected  expectations is how they can support that environment for customers.

James Curry from Meru Networks platinum partner Switchshop stresses customers’ need for a high-quality infrastructure.

Challenges for resellers

Life is never straightforward for resellers as they try to help customers move from legacy systems to the flexibility and speed of the latest offerings. Some of the issues are summed up by Sean Paxton, product manager at InTechnology Managed Services.

“The main issues for resellers operating in the networking market are similar to those suffered across the technology industry as a whole,” he says.

“Firstly, customers are demanding experienced and skilled staff to design, build, monitor and troubleshoot the network, and these are in short supply.

“Secondly, resellers also face a dizzying array of WAN technologies, suppliers and tariffs. Cutting through these in order to make clear recommendations can be a challenge for resellers.

“Thirdly, resellers need to ensure they have the right tools, or risk network performance viability. Without these tools, resellers risk broken SLAs and a diminishing customer base. The always-on business need is driving resellers to an expensive business model with staff required on site to identify and rectify network issues at all times.

“Finally, resellers face the challenge of trying to get the best deal from circuit suppliers when perhaps they don’t hold a position of power within the networking marketplace.”

New solution

“The demand for ‘always on’ wireless delivery means that any environment we are asked to propose a  new solution for must be delivered with availability, security, performance and predictability in mind, while offering a simplicity that allows the customer to feel comfortable with their new system,” says Curry.

Finding out the true picture of the existing infrastructure is an ideal starting place rather than steaming   in talking about the internet of things or software-defined networking and trying to win business by sounding fashionable and complex.

Dave Ellis, director of new technology and services at ComputerLinks, offers a few words of caution  about the buzz surrounding software-defined networking.

“While software-defined networking has featured in just about every prediction for 2014 and the rest of  the decade, resellers need to take care not to just jump on the bandwagon and spend valuable time and effort pursuing a trend that is still in its infancy,” he says. “It may offer long-term opportunities as clients consider a gradual transition to a software-defined model, but from what we’re seeing, the number of organisations actively investing today are few and far between and are more likely to be start-ups or greenfield sites.

“Drivers such as the need to reduce datacentre power consumption and rack space usage while  improving performance, are very real and are prompting the development of a new generation of high-density switches. As the complexity of the network grows and multiple vendor solutions are introduced, network visibility becomes even more important to network and IT managers.”

Ellis advises trying to understand how customers expect their businesses to change and to make sure that, as well as solving current needs, there are options to start introducing technology to support an  increasingly mobile and agile workforce.

“With trends like the internet of things, cloud computing and big data, even greater pressure is being put on the backbone of companies’ IT systems,” says Scott Breadmore, UK sales manager at EfficientIP.

His angle is to promote more awareness of networking security and encourage resellers to educate users about the potential implications of opening up the network to improve mobility and reach for flexible staff.

“Security is still a key issue and a lot of companies are focusing on securing the endpoint devices,” says Breadmore. “However, what’s really important for the channel to recognize is that smarter hackers are  now targeting critical network components, such as DNS servers.

“This means that even if anti-virus, firewall or other endpoint solutions are installed, it’s naïve for organisations to believe that they are fully protected when a user’s device can be maliciously misdirected to the wrong server and cause major disruption to, or loss of, service.”

Future challenges

What is clear from the changes that have already happened with cloud and mobility coming with wider connectivity is that the pressure on infrastructure will increase. For many resellers, talking about those future challenges with customers is a useful starting point to establish networking strategy for the next couple of years.

It might be too early to talk about SDN and the internet of things, but any customer with ambitions for the future will need to be guided now by a reseller as they plot the journey to a network that provides more connectivity, greater flexibility and supports even more mobile workers.

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