Once little more than marketing schemes designed to promote gear purchases, vendor-sponsored certification programs are fast becoming a respectable way for application service providers and hosts to prove they have survived the service provider shakeout.
This new breed of certification effort, which is proving useful to service providers struggling to gain the credibility they need to move beyond the early-adopter phase, gained a new player last week when Compaq Computer Corp. announced its Compaq SP Certification Program.
Although it is late to the game compared with pioneers such as Sun Microsystems Inc., with its SunTone program, Compaq is working to raise the bar on assessing the quality of a service providers offering by emphasizing best practices for service management, officials said. The Houston-based vendors assessment is based on an emerging set of standards that defines those practices. ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library), a kind of electronic "how-to" set of manuals on how to best run IT, forms the basis of Compaqs assessment. ITIL, started by the British government to define best practices for IT operations management, has grown to become an internationally embraced effort.
"The service management best practices are directly tied to ITIL. People doing the assessments are trained on those," said Jerry Coffey, director of Compaq Business Critical Services, in Stow, Mass.
"We also use our own experience in designing, managing and supporting business-critical environments," said Coffey, who added that the program draws on the expertise of Compaqs worldwide consulting organization for its execution.
Though they are stretching beyond their roots as purely marketing efforts, most certification programs still require a certain level of hardware or software purchases on the part of service providers. Compaqs program, however, does not mandate buying any Compaq products.
"It really should be disconnected from that," said Scott Stanfield, CEO of Vertigo Software Inc., of Point Richmond, Calif., and a customer of Data Return Corp., one of the early participants in the Compaq certification program.
Although other programs require future spending with the vendor, they are evolving to become more rigorous in their assessments of a service providers operation.
When SunTone, for example, was launched two years ago, it "was much more marketing focused, but its changed and gotten more robust over time," said John Madden, an analyst at Summit Strategies Inc., in Boston. Now "when you dig into these programs, you see they are designed to offer service providers not only marketing muscle but help them to improve their operations from a business perspective—to improve their quality of service," Madden said.
"Theres more to these programs than just flashy logos in most cases," said Madden, who authored a report this spring on the programs.
Service providers themselves have had a firsthand look at the changes. For example, Microsoft Corp., in its Gold Certification program, has upped the ante for service providers looking to gain its seal of approval.
"Before, you could be an MCSP [Microsoft Certified Solutions Provider] if you had a minimum number of people on staff [who were trained as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers]. It didnt get down to, Do you know how to best use the software?" said Mark Morrison, director of global alliances at Data Return, in Irving, Texas. "With Gold Certification, they changed that to focus on best practices in the way to deploy their software."
The programs vary in what they focus on, from certifying a service providers infrastructure to the services themselves to the provider as a whole.
"SunTone is geared at certifying specific services," Madden said. "IBMs Hosting Advantage program certifies the entire data center, where they say, This data center and their processes and methods are in good shape, and they can host applications or e-commerce sites on an IBM platform with a certain amount of operational efficiency and credibility and availability."
Compaqs new program provides two levels of certification—one for infrastructure and one for the services themselves. Compaq SP Certification requires an on-site evaluation by Compaq consultants of the infrastructure used to deliver the service. SP Signature Certification requires an on-site evaluation of the end-to-end services being provided using that infrastructure.
The certification process requires that the service provider fill out a self-assessment questionnaire with some 500 questions, and then Compaqs Global Services Business Critical Consultants perform the on-site audit.
"The certification we do is evaluating whether they are being managed properly," Coffey said. "We look at the configuration of the computing environment, including third-party products, and we look at whether it is appropriate for the service being offered."
Despite the growing sophistication of such programs, most IT operators still view them as mere marketing fluff, and they pay little attention to the certification logos that service providers are displaying with increasing frequency on their Web sites.
"I think certifications in general can be motivated by a lot of reasons not necessarily in the best interest of the customer," Vertigos Stanfield said. "Just seeing the logo there is a bit of branding."