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IBM software partners divided on channel changes

The vendor's channel is split on the negative and positive aspects of IBM's decision to enforce specialisation around brand pillars

IBM’s decision to enforce product specialisations across its software channel base has split the partner community into positive and negative camps.

The vendor is in the final stages of rolling out a new channel structure to align partners to specific brand pillars.

Queensland-based integrator, Sundata, is one of several partners who chose not to invest in deeper specialist skills and will no longer be able to sell software product licences.

Executive director, Kon Kakanis, attributed its decision to limited resources and insufficient geographic coverage to justify accreditation costs.

Sundata largely sold Domino licences, as well as Tivoli and WebSphere licence sales occasionally. Kakanis was sympathetic to IBM’s view that partners doing low volumes could potentially be providing a low quality of service, but insisted it hadn’t experienced any issues previously.

“We weren’t lacking skills, but we had to shut down and hand over to partners in Brisbane that were niche IBM software certified,” he said. Kakanis estimated 3-4 per cent of its total revenue came from IBM software sales and services.

“We have customers we have been looking after for years and have a very good relationship with, who have bought IBM software from us. But particularly in a marketplace like ours or Adelaide, where it’s not a huge market, it’s hard to invest,” he said of the program changes. “We would have to put increased investment into certifying… and we only have so much time to invest in engineer training.

“Our perception is that it was an unnecessary investment for our customer’s interest to be protected. We have no real regrets, but it was slightly annoying that 3 or 4 per cent of our business disappeared overnight.”

Sundata is now beefing up skills in Microsoft SharePoint and Exchange, as well as the Commvault portfolio, to meet the gap in business and technology offerings.

“It’s easier to get people with a Microsoft background,” Kakanis claimed. “We’re also very happy with the CommVault product as it is more suitable to our mid-tier customer base.”

Artis Group managing director, Peter Guides, is still in discussions with IBM and hoping it can continue supplying the vendor’s broad software range. The Sydney-based integrator focuses on Lotus and Tivoli product offerings in the top-end mid-market space.

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“As it stands, we think it [the changes] will have a negative effect on our ability to provide full services to clients and we are trying to work out ways to get around that to meet requests but also to deliver our customer services,” he said. “We have certifications across those areas [Tivoli and Lotus], but because of our corporate clients, they often have renewals for products that span into different groups.

“Clients want partners who can be a single point of contact, regardless of the brand that product is from.”

Guides saw potential to partner with other channel players who maintained those IBM certifications, but preferred to negotiate on its own terms.

“The customer service aspect is disproportionate to the value of the licence itself,” he said.

On the flip side, the program changes bolstered sales and partnering opportunities for Queensland-based IBM house, Cirrus Australia.

Managing director, Darren Phillips, said specialisation had been years in the making and not surprising considering the technical nature of IBM’s software technologies.

Cirrus only partners with IBM and is certified across all five software pillars – Tivoli, Rational, Lotus, WebSphere and DB2. Phillips agreed with IBM’s specialisation strategy and said it would help retain the margin and profitability of those investing in deep skill sets.

“Over the past five years, the acquisitions IBM has been making have been about highly technical and deep, specialised software pieces that stick to its core middleware stack. Specialisations can take up to two years to get, and you can’t just pop in and service it well,” Phillips told ARN. “A lot of customers need someone to deliver it for them and have the methodologies – and that requires skills. You need to have deep technical skills and develop relationships and a whole solution. That has to be related to the customer need, then you have to offer the breadth of capability.”

But he agreed IBM would struggle to gain full acceptance of the changes in the channel and admitted the rollout to partners was crucial.

“The adjustment is how IBM delivers this to the channel. It was always going to be the hard bit to wear,” he said. “There has been some adjustment to sorting out pillars – in one brand, there were initially five pillars which consolidated to three. So keeping up with those was challenging. And there were a couple of surprises – certifications we needed to have but the exams weren’t available. But it’s a big change and it couldn’t have been done perfectly.”