Getting a slice of the networking pie is becoming increasingly complex. New and updated network technologies and products are continually hitting the market, making it more difficult and time-consuming for resellers, SIs and network engineers to keep up to dateTouted by many as a sure-fire method of keeping up with the networking advances is vendor-specific certification and accreditation. There is much debate within the industry, though, as to the worth of putting staff through the certification process. Questions such as financial outlay, time spent in training, customer acceptance, and staff retention are regularly asked when seeking justification.
In order to provide resellers with a bit more insight into the pros and cons of certification, Australian Reseller News talked to vendors, trainers, resellers and end-users about this subject. The responses we received ranged from evangelical to the outright cynical.
The resellers' perspective
One of Australia's largest network resellers/system integrators, Datacraft, is one company that has committed itself to making a significant investment in maintaining a high level of certified engineers: specifically, Cisco Certified Internetworking Engineers (CCIEs). The company's project manager and training co-ordinator, Dave Robinson, told ARN that the rigorous training and certification process for CCIE accreditation provides benefits to both Datacraft and its customers.
"We're able to ensure that our engineers who are CCIE accredited are well qualified, and from that we can guarantee quality support for our customers in both the design of the networks and efficient fault finding," said Johnson. "Our customers are aware of these benefits and also of the effort we've put in to maintaining and building our number of CCIEs."
The guarantee of quality support doesn't come cheaply though. According to Johnson, training a single CCIE costs Datacraft approximately $20,000; and with this level of expenditure, Johnson believes you need the right people to invest it in. "The training they undergo, and the tests they need to pass are extremely tough," he said. "They aren't the types of tests where you can take just anyone, put them through the course and then assume they'll pass. A candidate needs good networking and protocol knowledge right from the start, with a lot of practical experience in a wide range of protocols."
Another network reseller and consultant company which has committed itself to undergoing and maintaining vendor network certification is Brisbane-based Nets & Webs. Managing director and co-founder of the company, Alan Klason, told ARN he expects his company to be the first to receive certification under the recently announced Microsoft Certified Network Reseller (CNR) program. "We have a strong commitment to the Microsoft environment," he said. "And all of our consultants are already Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers."
According to Klason, the company's consultants all have over 10 years' experience in the computer industry and have worked on the implementation and roll-out of some of the largest Windows NT and Windows 95 networks in Australia. "Basically, we go on site and assist in the initial deployment of the NT server and client configuration. By having access to the resources afforded us by the CNR program, we'll be better able to advise our customers on the strategic aspects of their NT networks.
"As far as customers are concerned," said Klason, "they're always able to report back to Microsoft if they believe the CNR hasn't provided the level of service expected of someone carrying the certification.
"For us, it means we have a stronger connection with Microsoft in terms of technical support, sales kits, and importantly, sales referrals from Microsoft. As far as Nets & Webs is concerned, the $1,000 a year it costs us is well worth it!"
The trainers' perspective
The "middleman" in the certification issue is the trainer. Marc Gareau is general manager of PSC Asia Pacific, which supplies authorised network training for Eicon, Cisco and Digital. For the Cisco internetworking training, Gareau's company has implemented an advanced training program called, "NetGun Academy".
"NetGun is similar to TopGun," said Gareau. "Only in this case, rather than having the best of the best jet fighter pilots, we put the best of the best network engineers together. Training a CCIE candidate is an expensive exercise, and even then, only about 30 per cent of the people who attend the final laboratory phase in the US actually pass. The requirements are that high.
"We've seen too many good engineers chafe under a slower learning rate when a class has a number of less experienced trainees. The NetGun program is fundamentally a fraternity of learning which is designed for network engineers who are already seasoned professionals, and we only accept the top people."
Gareau states that it makes economic sense to have trained and certified network engineers on staff. "The more trained an engineer is," he said, "the better the network implementation is likely to be. This is going to result in less support calls you're going to receive from clients which in turn frees up more of the engineers' time."
By offering the opportunity to gain training and certification for on-staff engineers, Gareau believes a reseller will attract the right sort of potential employees. "Some resellers, though, tend to opt for the easy way out, and poach certified engineers from other organisations. This is always a problem facing organisations which have invested a lot of money in training network engineers. To get around this, resellers should consider having a clause in the employment contract with the engineer which covers the expense should they leave before time."
According to Gareau, Digital is also in the process of implementing a certification process for network engineers working with its network products. "It makes a lot of sense for vendors to provide certification," he said. "From their point of view, unqualified people selling and implementing their equipment quite often hurts their presence in the market. Apart from that, the vendor's engineers and help desks are providing support which should really be provided by the reseller. So there are real commercial issues involved on the vendor's side."
The vendors' perspective
Novell's channel manager, Nick Jackson, oversees one of the more high-profile network engineer certification programs in the IT industry. "Our CNE [Certified Novell Engineer] program has established a real standard in the industry," he told ARN. "And the survival of the reseller base for Novell depends on this."
Jackson was actually one of the only people we talked to who emphasised the importance of ensuring continuing education for a reseller's certified and accredited staff members. "If resellers are actually going to make the initial investment in training their staff to obtain certification, it's vital they keep their staffs' qualifications current. Certification is only worthwhile if it's kept up to date."
Not surprisingly, Jackson advocates that having CNEs on staff provides benefits for both the reseller and the reseller's customers. "By having a strong Novell expert within the organisation," he said, "a reseller is able to provide customers with quality pre- and post-sales inquiries."
Also moving in to take a share of the NOS (Network Operating System) market through network engineer certification is Microsoft. The company recently announced Microsoft's CNR program which offers incentives, sales leads, and technical and sales support. The company stated the program, "is designed for resellers who, up until now, have concentrated on one network operating system - NetWare."
We are proving to NetWare resellers around Australia that if they just sell one operating system they are cutting down their options and damaging their income," said Kevin Bourke, Microsoft's channel development manager.
Cisco's channel manager, Peter Papaioannou, said of Cisco's CCIE, "While other companies tend to train resellers and engineers on products, we certify protocol experts rather than box experts," he said.
Papaioannou told ARN that network engineers are being faced with increasingly complex network configurations, consisting of products from a large number of vendors. It's important they have expertise in technologies which bind the entire network, he said.
The users' perspective
A company which regularly deals with users at the network and systems management levels is Metagroup Australia. It is a retainer-based strategic marketing analyst company, which advises users and vendors about the directions and implications of changes in the IT market. Metagroup program director, Julian Ehrlich, told ARN: "Many of the users I've spoken to see certification as being an important issue.
"They like to know that the people they're dealing with are qualified on the equipment they're selling, installing and implementing. This is balanced with the realisation that some of the best solutions are provided by people who are just brilliant! You can have people with all the qualifications in the world, but when it really comes down to it, some of them won't even be able to walk and fart at the same time."
According to Ehrlich, it's sometimes better to disregard the certifications, and use the brilliant engineer. Having said this though, he went on to outline to ARN the seven stages of a large project: wild enthusiasm, grasping for resources, denial of problems, manufacture of excuses, quantification of failure, searching for the guilty, and blaming the innocent. "In this process," he explained, "dealing with people who are certified ensures no one can point the finger at you for picking the wrong people to do the job.
"This has become more prominent in the age of director responsibility. So, whereas any reasonably experienced technical person would readily acknowledge the role and likely success of the brilliant person, the fact is that for reasons of liability, the user will more than likely elect to go for the certified engineer."
The bottom line
ARN is not in a position to evaluate the worth of any vendor-specific certification program, but it should be noted that the growing trend within the reseller industry is to specialise and partner. Many successful resellers are now concentrating on vertical markets and focusing in on a limited number of vendors' products.
While some vendors are encouraging resellers to attain certifications in an ever-growing number, they seem to be blind to the reseller's need to specialise rather than cover a broad range of technologies and markets. Smaller reseller operations in particular can neither afford the time nor the money in training staff to meet the certification expectations of both the customers and vendors. Partnering with other network resellers who already have certified engineers is a viable alternative.
The most poignant comment we received from all the people we spoke to came from a network administrator - who wished to remain anonymous - of a large multinational company. He said, "At the end of the day, good service is not guaranteed by an extension at the end of your name. It simply doesn't translate."
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