Network Partner Programs Strengthen

At Cisco, relationships require technical expertise, customer satisfaction to remain a certified partner

As networks become conduits for services more complex than simple transport, infrastructure manufacturers are increasing the stakes on the partnerships they forge with carrier customers. Long-accustomed to providing little more than dumb pipes, carriers rely on vendor expertise to demonstrate the value of smarter networks, but some vendors are beginning to require more expertise from their partners as well.

Todays partner programs entail much more than joint marketing agreements. At Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., for example, partners now have to demonstrate expertise in technical specializations, and they must meet annual customer satisfaction targets to remain certified. Discounts are no longer given based on sales volume but instead on a partners capabilities.

For enterprises, the symbiosis between vendor and service provider can mean faster, simpler network deployment and upgrades, particularly when internal IT expertise isnt sufficient. At Ev Cochrane & Associates, a property management company in Ames, Iowa, a close relationship between the local carrier and its vendors facilitated a high-speed Internet access network where the only alternative was cable.

Working with Telco Systems Inc., an IP switching platform maker, Casbar Communications Inc. installed T-4 and T-5 switches in 600 apartment buildings that house mainly Iowa State University students. "We dont have the technical department to support buying directly from Telco," said David Keller, vice president at Ev Cochrane. "Together, [Telco and Casbar] are offering something that they couldnt offer separately."

Telco Systems, of Norwood, Mass., last week unveiled a channel partner program to gain further inroads into the enterprise market. Called the E-Team program, the initiative gives partners added training, sales tools and market data.

Some vendors still generate the end-user demand for the services that their products enable. In the case of Visual Networks Inc., of Rockville, Md., the vendor goes directly to the enterprise to promote its customers services.

"In the past, you were getting up-down service—is the light switch on or off," said Matt Gowarty, marketing manager at Visual Networks. "Now, when [carriers] go out and sell a service to the enterprise, theyre not just selling a commodity. Were almost a part of each of our customers marketing arms."

The pumped-up partnering strategy stimulates interest in a vendors network management products on two fronts: The enterprise user asks its carrier for the services enabled by the products, and at the same time, the vendor pushes the product to the carrier as a means of differentiation.

"Its no longer an option to be specialized," said Surinder Brar, architect of the new partner program at Cisco. "The message to the end user is pick a partner who has the best expertise."

Cisco has nearly 6,400 certified partners worldwide, of which 530 have achieved the gold or silver level, which requires more specializations and more certified employees on staff. If a partner does not meet a customer satisfaction target, Cisco provides a "get well" program, working with the partner to identify and remedy weaknesses.

Late last month BellSouth Inc. became one of the first partners to achieve Gold Certification under the new program.