With the growing impetus on resellers to offer value-added services, certifications are a sure-fire way to obtain industry clout. But as more vendors look for higher training and qualification commitments, integrators are finding that keeping up can be a difficult and costly business.
Technology Trading House (TTH) general manager, Michael Cooke, said a number of vendors, such as Citrix and Microsoft, had raised the bar for certification to guarantee partners possessed the necessary skills for their product sets.
"We have always had training requirements but many vendors turned a blind eye," he said. "Now they're policing the partner programs to ensure resellers and integrators have the capability they claim."
While supportive of the certification concept, resellers often found it difficult to meet them, Cooke said.
"It's typically not the cost of training, often it's the cost of losing a resource for a week at a time," he said. "If you have a regional base then you also have the tyranny of distance because much of the training is only available on a regular basis interstate. Online training is helping, but you can't beat hands-on."
NetOptions managing director, Richard McAlary, also identified the additional costs and time regional resellers chalked up as a core problem. For the Queensland-based integrator, new certifications and requirements from partners usually means sending engineers to Sydney or Melbourne, he said.
On average, NetOptions spends about $50,000 per year to maintain its certifications. These include qualifications from Microsoft, Citrix, HP, Cisco and IBM. Each engineer would also be offsite for at least a week's worth of training annually, adding further downtime costs.
"This figure changes dramatically when there are big changes," he said.
McAlary said one of the biggest difficulties for resellers was the quick enforcement of new certification requirements.
Earlier this year, NetOptions had been in danger of losing its gold partner status with software vendor, Citrix, when it announced that gold and platinum resellers were required to have accredited Certified Integration Architect (CCIA) staff.
He said the services company was unable to meet the CCIA condition because its engineers could not complete the required lab exam in the three months before the new program came into effect.
In response, Citrix extended the deadline for its new partner certification requirements from December 31 to February 28. It had also accredited those resellers who were in the process of finishing their CCIA exams, McAlary said.
Cooke said TTH had made the decision to concentrate on a select band of vendors: Microsoft, Hitachi Data Systems and Citrix. This gave the integrator better access to vendor tools, marketing and information as well as special bid pricing and protection for sales opportunities, he said.
NetOptions had also chosen to restrict its number of vendor partners as a result of increasing certifications, McAlary said.
"We are trying to concentrate on fewer vendors, but offer more depth," he said. "I think we will see more of that. It is putting more eggs in one basket, but it pays to have more depth in products that we support so we can address technical issues."
Cisco's regional manager for A/NZ channels, Suzanne Hansen, said it was a constant challenge to maintain certifications and admitted the vendor could do a better job of training partners.
"Certification is a necessary evil," she said. "Our need for them is exacerbated by the complex technologies that Cisco has. We're moving away from network plumbing to more of a systems approach. This means we need to offer more support services."
Hansen said Cisco partners were entitled to joint marketing funding and scholarships as well as pricing discounts for achieving certification.
"But there has to be a strategic reason for the certification," she said. "We need to ensure partners are capable of selling and supporting it as well."
Hansen said she recognised access to training was difficult, particularly for regional partners. As a result, the vendor was developing more online labs to provide hands-on configuration training.
One of its most pressing concerns was the training requirements for its top level Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification, Hansen said.
In order to complete the qualification, engineers must attend a training lab in the US. Hansen said she was now rallying to establish a lab centre in Australia.
"It's a fight for resources, as we are competing against other Asian countries, but I think we will get it," she said. She hoped to have the go ahead by the end of the financial year.
Microsoft partner director, Kerstin Baxter, said its primary focus was on increasing the accessibility of its certifications.
In January last year, the vendor changed its partner structure, introducing new competency levels for its channel. It then gave partners 18 months to migrate from existing certification bases to the relevant competencies. During this transition period, partners were able to retain their status, Baxter said.
She said Microsoft had also compiled upgrade courses and exams to recognise previous qualifications partners have held and condense the time spent undertaking training.
Oracle also offered its resellers enablement programs, including free seminars, discounts on technical training and joint marketing funding, manager of technology partners, alliances and channels, Fred King, said.
"If a partner is keen on a new area, we might waive the particular criteria," he said. "We don't want to impose costs or resources on them. We just want to ensure our partners are profitable."
While obtaining certifications was a way of improving business standing, resellers said they were also faced with the risk of having highly qualified staff members poached by competitors.
To counteract a staff exodus, Invizage co-founder, Paul Adler, said it had structured its employee salaries to reward those who attained certain levels of certification. The more certifications a staff member obtained, the higher the salary, he said.
But he claimed vendors were in a better position to tackle the issue.
"It is difficult to address in an employer and employee situation, but a vendor could help ensure certification values stay with the company that foots the bill," Adler said.
Some vendors have established policies to deter resellers from this practice.
For example, Cisco's Hansen said the vendor would not recognise a CCIE qualified engineer who moved from one reseller to another for 12 months.
But the biggest short-term problem being faced by the local channel was an overall skills shortage, she said.
"There's simply a shortage of engineers in Australia, especially in voice and security," Hansen said. "I think the reason for this is that the channel has been caught short in the upturn for these services."