BOSTON—Microsoft announced its latest program aimed at recruiting channel partners to support its burgeoning security software business on July 12, an effort that company executives and outside experts say will be crucial in convincing customers to buy those products.
Unveiled at the companys ongoing worldwide partner conference in Boston, the software giants SSA (Security Software Advisor) program offers an incentive plan for channel partners that sign on to sell and support its business security products, some of which were also folded together under the firms newly announced Forefront product family name.
Those tools, which are largely made up of the technologies Microsoft garnered via its 2005 acquisition of anti-virus specialists Sybari, include an end client security package, a set of malware and spam-fighting programs for its Exchange messaging server software and instant messaging systems defense applications.
All of the technologies are marketed alongside Microsofts existing ISA (Internet Security and Acceleration) Server 2006 package.
Along with $15 million worth of funds set aside to help its security partners market the products and related services, resellers will be offered at least 20 percent of any security software license sales on top of their existing commissions, as Microsoft looks to aggressively build out its channel, said Steve Brown, director of product management in Microsofts Security, Access and Solutions division.
As with many of Microsofts other product lines, getting the right set of partners to back its growing security portfolio will be critical to driving the technology into end-user organizations, he said.
“It would be hard to underestimate the huge influence our partners will have in moving our entire security vision forward,” Brown said.
“These companies are the ones who will bridge the worlds of identity, control and access that weve focused on. To the extent that we can enable our channel to become critical security partners for our customers, we will be able to move forward Microsofts vision for secure infrastructure.”
Brown shunned the notion that Microsofts bid to get a larger piece of its channel partners security business will touch off a bidding war between the Redmond, Wash.-based software maker and other security applications providers.
Customers will still need many other types of security applications not offered by Microsoft, allowing channel partners to keep all their security vendors happy, he said.
At least one of the companys reseller partners said that Microsoft is doing a good job of getting its message across, even if the firm is still in the nascent stages of creating its security business.
Scott Keough, director at government IT specialist GTSI in Chantilly, Va., said that many customers are also impressed with what theyve heard from the software maker thus far.
“Theyre in the earlier stages, and SSA is still pretty high-level, but theyve made some concerted efforts to get consistent messaging out to both the channel and customers, so theres plenty of awareness of whats going on,” Keough said.
“In terms of the security vendors we already do business with, having Microsoft in the market might actually make our lives easier based on the new level of competition; we already know how to balance those relationships.”
Great timing, say analysts
Industry watchers said that the timing of Microsofts push into the security channel is nearly perfect, as many resellers are already re-examining their product offerings and evaluating which vendors will drive the most sales to customers in the coming years.
The major question revolving around the SSA program, and sales of Microsofts security products in general, appears to be when, not if, companies will move to offer those technologies, said Tiffani Bova, analyst with Gartner of Stamford, Conn.
“With so many disruptive security technologies coming to market right now, and so many related programmatic disruptions for the channel, many companies are going to consider Microsoft seriously, and they have a very active channel already,” Bova said.
“I think its more of a question of whether they will move to embrace the products quickly or take a wait-and-see approach.”
Whether the channel partners that jump on board immediately will be those that traditionally sell other vendors security products, or if they are companies that have not dabbled in security, will help determine the overall speed with which Microsofts sales efforts get rolling, according to the analyst.
Bova also said that there could be a more drawn-out period of time necessary to get newcomers up to speed, based on the need for companies to educate themselves on the intricacies of the security market.
Paul DeGroot, analyst with Kirkland, Wash., researchers Directions on Microsoft, said that it may actually be security neophytes who are most eager to join SSA, based on their desire to tap into demand for the growing security market, and Microsofts promise to expand the space.
In either scenario, he said, the software maker will be truly dependent on its partners to be successful in the sector.
“Microsoft isnt going to succeed on basis of its products themselves; most were already on the market as with the Sybari technologies. So they really need to convince partners to get out there and sell them aggressively,” said DeGroot.
“Resellers who were already selling competitive products probably wont be willing to give up their other businesses, but Microsoft will try to take partners who havent sold security and get them into it.”
One issue that has followed Microsoft throughout the development of its security strategy is the notion that some customers may not yet be ready to trust the company to defend its own products, such as its Windows operating system, which have demanded frequent updating and patching to help close vulnerabilities in the software.
For example, over the last four months, the company has patched 19 individual flaws in its dominant Microsoft Office software suite.
The analysts said they dont see that perception as a long-term threat to Microsofts ability to sell security products, as long as those applications pass muster. Many of the tools have already gained acceptance while being sold by Sybari and other vendors Microsoft that has acquired.
Microsoft partners said that most customers are not so much concerned with the software makers troubled past in securing its products as they are intrigued with its efforts to get into the security business.
“Some people do come into the discussion a bit cynical or sarcastic about Microsofts efforts,” said Neil Rosenberg, chief executive of reseller Quality Technology Solutions in Morris Plains, N.J. “But theyre also very willing to consider new alternatives within the context of security being a project that will never really be completed by anyone, or any one vendor.”