Microsoft Partner Makes the Shift to 'Internet of Things'

The emerging opportunity for partners to help their customers tap into the Internet of Things (IoT) was recently confirmed by Microsoft's addition of the Intelligent Systems competency.

The cloud play for IoT -- providing a secure place for all the data to live -- is an obvious partner opportunity, but the service opportunities are where it gets really interesting. As always, there are partners who are leading the way to help solve business problems and take advantage of the latest technology.

A Shift in Thinking
Emily Lynch, VP of marketing at Catapult Systems, a multi-gold Microsoft National Systems Integrator (NSI), is uniquely qualified to talk about the shift in thinking that IoT requires. Before moving into enterprise sales and marketing, Lynch was a chemical engineer in the field of manufacturing automation. She's also spent time in China, where IoT is further along the adoption curve.

"The concept of Internet of Things has existed for a long time in the manufacturing world, with distributed control systems gathering data from sensors in thousands of locations," Lynch noted. "The current idea of IoT is just an expansion of that idea. We are gathering intelligence from devices and sensors -- everything from building temperatures to your pet's whereabouts."

[Click on image for larger view.] Microsoft's "Internet of Things" infographic.

With the growing ecosystem of IoT collecting more and more data, businesses must find the ways to interpret and put that information to work in a usable form.

"At Catapult, we are learning how to shift our thinking," Lynch explained. "Gathering intelligence from hundreds of different endpoints, we need to build applications that can combine that intelligence and deliver it to help businesses make better informed decisions. We are just getting started imagining the possibilities."

User-Focused Services
Catapult's clients are recognizing their ability to store and access large quantities of data in the cloud, which is driving a move to Microsoft Azure. Since that data is coming from different systems, integration services lead the initial customer-requirement discussions. But the real change in service delivery supports end user data consumption.

"We are growing our user-centered design practice at Catapult. Projects are getting extended to create the appropriate dashboards or slimmed down workflow applications for the end user in the field," Lynch said. "IoT is worthless for all for us if it doesn't drive efficiency. And you can't drive efficiency if you don't have adoption. User-centered design is the big lever in the proliferation of IoT."

Catapult is making inroads with clients, building real-world evidence. In one project for a multi-state car dealership, Catapult is tapping into the IoT for processes across the business. Handheld devices allow the mechanics in the shop to place orders for parts as they work. Purchase requests are automatically rolled up across the company to drive buying efficiencies with the parts suppliers. In the showroom, sales people can use tablet devices to show customers current inventory across the dealership's lots. The marketing department is using IoT data to advertise specific cars in inventory to targeted customers based on past purchases.

The Customer Conversation
Explaining the potential of the IoT to customers is not an easy task. During live events, Catapult is introducing messaging on mobility and IoT to customers and prospects. Adding an IoT component to its Microsoft Experience Centers (MECs) scenarios, Catapult is also showing participants how IoT would impact their businesses.

Lynch believes that many businesses are conceptually further along with IoT than with actual implementations because the devices that collect and deliver the data are changing so quickly. Mobility and the explosion of table options are driving many of the client conversations. As with many advances, the user technology is still catching up to the vision.

The Partner Opportunity
IoT will undoubtedly provide service opportunities to partners on many levels, including increased demand for data storage in the cloud, the need for integration services, and transformation of the data into usable intelligence. This is the time to get ahead of the curve and help customers understand the real-life application to their businesses. Demonstrate the business value of translating data into user-friendly information delivered to the front lines of work.

What services are you providing around IoT? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 21, 2014 at 10:38 AM0 comments

Prepare Your InfoPath Strategy for a Smooth Transition

In January, Microsoft announced that there would be no further releases of InfoPath, with the current release supported through April 2023. As with every end-of-life announcement, customers and partners alike have to deal with the realities of product transitions.

A recent blog post entitled "Keep Calm and InfoPath On," authored by Jonathan Ralton, senior information architect at BlueMetal, clears up misconceptions and offers practical advice for partners to build an effective InfoPath strategy for their clients. I touched base with Ralton and Bob German, BlueMetal's principal architect, to talk about the options that partners have to help clients adapt to the eventual retirement of InfoPath.   

"Since the definitive announcement, there has been a lot of panic, which is what I wanted to address in the blog post," Ralton explained. "People are thinking that InfoPath is coming to an immediate end and that they need to find an alternative solution immediately. That's just not the case."  

"This is not like Windows XP, where you are at the end of the 10-year support window with the ticking time bomb of security issues," German said. "If you look at the strategy from Microsoft's point of view, they won't be too quick to pull back the InfoPath Forms Services [which supports Web-based forms]. They run the risk of building a barrier to upgrades and to move to Office 365. A lot of customers have large installed bases using Forms Services, so I suspect that they won't pull that until there is a migration path."

A Unified Voice
Internally, BlueMetal has been having conversations about its options, including stopping InfoPath development, looking at third-party ISV solutions as a replacement or moving to pure development. "As in most cases in consulting," Ralton noted, "the answer is, 'It depends.'"

"Customers are starting to bring it up so we need to be prepared for the conversations," German added. "We need to know how to handle our clients' situations, but perhaps more importantly, we need to provide a uniform message."

Both German and Ralton suggested that the bottom line for how partners approach solutions for individual customers should match their dependence on InfoPath. If the customer's use is minimal, the cost to replace the functionality with something different will likely be small. On the other hand, there are customers who have pushed InfoPath's functionality to the limit. Very complex forms created in InfoPath that support critical business processes need a well-thought plan.

For those customers and partners in the midst of InfoPath projects, Ralton reminds them that the business process analysis work is foundational. "The most important part of working with business process automation is mapping out the business process to streamline the workflow," Ralton said. "That time is not lost no matter what technology path you choose."

German believes that the end of InfoPath will affect partners differently. Partners who do not have in-house developers will either need to find a third-party package replacement or engage outside developers. Partners with development teams have more options through both third-party packages and custom-built solutions.

[Click on image for larger view.] InfoPath roadmap presented at the "Update on InfoPath and SharePoint Forms" SharePoint Conference session.

This is the definitely the time for partners to start evaluating the third-partner solutions to be ready for the customer conversations. During the "Update on InfoPath and SharePoint Forms" session at Microsoft SharePoint Conference in March, four ISV partners were noted for their focus on the forms and work flow: K2, Nintex, Formotus and Qdabra.

"We don't know how long Microsoft will support Forms Services in their new releases," German noted. "The third parties, who do nothing but forms, are going to continue on and may be the safer bet. I expect that they will get quite a bit of business from this."

If nothing else, the announcement of InfoPath's end-of-life is a reminder that Microsoft is not standing still. That's a very good thing. The solutions that the channel supports will continue to evolve, opening new opportunities for the partners ready to help their customers adapt.

How are you managing your customer's InfoPath questions? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 07, 2014 at 12:49 PM0 comments

IAMCP Helps Partners Bridge the Talent Gap

If you still haven't joined International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP), its latest program offers value that you may not be able to pass up.

To help partners provide certification training for their consultants without interrupting billable time, IAMCP is offering after-hours training classes at highly discounted rates.

Training Versus Billable Hours
"One of the biggest challenges of being a Microsoft partner is keeping up with certification training," says Jon Sastre, president of IAMCP. "This program was designed to reduce that expense to partners and, most importantly, deliver the training outside of billing hours."

In response to member requests, the "Bridge the Talent Gap" program was initiated by past IAMCP President Rudy Rodriguez and Scott Akin, Microsoft's U.S. director of Partner Enablement and Learning Channel. Certified Partners for Learning Solutions (CPLS) that are members of IAMCP were recruited to recommend initial class offerings and timing of schedules. Through Microsoft's financial support, the training classes are offered at a deeply discounted price.

Microsoft Certified Trainers who work for IAMCP member Learning partners deliver the training classes during evening hours. Participants can attend the remote classes from home and not interrupt their regular consulting work.

"One of the great benefits of this program is that consultants are taking the classes exclusively with their peers," Sastre added. "Everyone who participates in this training works for a partner, so they have same objectives and shared experiences." 

IAMCP offers the discounted training classes to active members and companies who have signed a national membership agreement with IAMCP. The cost of membership in IAMCP is $195 for qualified partners. Registrations are first-come, first-served and limited to 20 students per class at the special price of $695 per attendee, reflecting a savings of $2,000. Classes offered in the coming months include: 

  • Core Solutions for Microsoft SharePoint Server 2013
  • Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 
  • Advanced Solutions of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2013
  • Administering Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Databases 

For more information on the program, visit the Bridge the Talent Gap program's Web site.

While there are many reasons to join IAMCP, the savings from the Bridge the Talent Gap program alone justify the cost of membership. When you join, take advantage of the networking opportunities in addition to the training. The IAMCP community is a valuable network to build complementary relationships with other Microsoft partners.   

How are you keeping up with certification requirements? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on April 23, 2014 at 10:06 AM0 comments

Explore Service Directions with Customer Analysis

Even with the customers you know well, sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees. By stepping back to look at the forest -- the whole of your customer base -- you'll gain insights to help guide your firm's growth. Through an analysis of your current customer base, you'll undoubtedly identify specific opportunities, but you may also uncover vertical or service-line service potential that you hadn't noticed.      

Collect the Data for Your Customer Base
This is where the time commitment comes in, but the exercise can be well worth the investment. Complete the data sets for your customers as much as possible to provide meaningful depth to your analysis. Steps should include: 

  • Update the company profiles, including revenue, industry and number of employees in your CRM system. There are service providers on Microsoft's Ready-to-Go marketing site to help augment your data.

  • Ask the consulting team to identify the clients they believe are the best-managed and highest-growth companies. Tag those clients for special notice.

  • If not already in your CRM system, merge past sales, solutions owned and projects delivered.

There is no doubt that gathering this data is no small task, but it is the perfect job for a summer intern. This is the time to put that plan in place.

Putting Your Data to Work
Once you have gathered the information on your customers, analyze the data. This is a great opportunity to practice with Power BI for Office 365. (When you have completed the exercise, you'll be able to show your clients how to analyze their own customer base.) There's no limit to the ways you can look at the customer data set, but for starters:

  • Compare the services that you have delivered to your top customers, looking for gaps in high-potential clients.

  • Look for patterns in industry, company size and types of projects that could provide the basis for a new line of services.

  • If you identify opportunities not in your wheelhouse, consider working with a partner. Help them perform the same analysis on their customer base to identify more opportunities you can pursue together.

With new insight into your customers, you can plan the future of your service lines with much more confidence. This is a transformational time for partners and a better understanding of your current client base can help guide your future direction. As the summer approaches, consider putting an intern to work collecting the data that will not only uncover immediate opportunities, but will also pay long-term dividends.

How are you expanding service opportunities? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on April 09, 2014 at 10:14 AM0 comments

Microsoft NSI Calls for National Collaboration To Bridge Skills Gap

When Tony DiBenedetto, CEO of Tribridge, a Microsoft National System Integrator (NSI), threw out the challenge in an article earlier this year, he wasn't sure what kind of response he would get. Apparently, he hit a nerve.

In the article, DiBenedetto challenged business, government and educational groups to work together to take on the skills gap -- to develop qualified candidates for tech jobs. After adding 200 people to Tribridge in 2013 and expecting similar expansion this year, DiBenedetto said it's not business growth that worries him. 

"What's keeping me up at night is wondering where my future team members will come from and how I'm going to scale the business to meet market demand. Like many entrepreneurs, I'm facing a very real shortage of highly skilled talent," he wrote in the article.

DiBenedetto goes on to describe the efforts of economic development groups to collaborate with education institutions, as well as the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives sponsored by companies like Microsoft, AT&T and IBM. While these are valid efforts, DiBenedetto suggested that a more holistic approach to pool resources is needed to accelerate the solution. He advocates a three-fold approach -- government-funded training, realignment of training with current skill requirements in educational institutions, and a commitment from private companies to hire.

A Shared Challenge
As soon as the article was posted at the end of January, responses from other companies facing the same issue started pouring in. DiBenedetto has received over 250 e-mails, plus LinkedIn e-mails from concerned business people, educators and government officials ready to get on board.

"The outpouring of interest and support for this issue has been overwhelming. I've heard from people across the country who are experiencing similar hiring challenges, which underscores the importance of tackling the skills gap issue," DiBenedetto said. "We are currently working on a business plan that will hopefully gain the needed traction from government funding sources."

A Proactive Approach
Tribridge has a history of dealing with the skills gap proactively. As other partners have found, setting up a recruitment and training program to prepare consultants is often the only way to support a growing services practice. The Tribridge Academy is an educational program that provides college students and recent graduates with classroom and on-the-job training to prepare them for a consulting career. 

Through these programs, college grads with non-technical degrees but good people skills are taught the art of consulting and the supporting technologies. Participants in these partner-run training programs praise both the training and the opportunity to participate in a field they weren't even aware existed.

Join the Effort
As service-based businesses, every partner depends on the contributions of skilled employees to survive and grow. To continue to build the value of the partner channel, we need to prepare and hire the next generation. If you would like to help solve the skills gap challenge, send an e-mail to DiBenedetto.

How are you bridging the skills gap? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on March 26, 2014 at 12:37 PM0 comments

Microsoft Tooling Dynamics Partners To Accelerate Delivery

The cadence of version releases isn't the only thing that is accelerating for Microsoft Dynamics partners.

Last week at Convergence, the annual conference for Dynamics partners and customers, the need for speedier implementation times for the ERP and CRM solutions was a common theme. To support those faster deployments, Microsoft is developing configuration, implementation and testing tools for Dynamics CRM and Dynamics AX.

CRM Business-Process Templates
Microsoft Dynamics Labs has developed approximately 30 Dynamics business-process templates, according to Seth Patton, senior director of global industry solutions at Microsoft.

"We have built out the business-process templates for specific verticals and are using those to support our go-to-market in those industries," Patton explained. "The templates use the process flows within CRM, but augment the standard sales process to fit the industry -- for example, a case-management process in public sector."

The process templates are built for Dynamics CRM 2013 and available through Dynamics Marketplace for partners and customers to download.

Industry-Specific Repeatable Solutions
For more complete vertical solutions spanning Dynamics CRM and Dynamics AX, Microsoft has developed a set of industry-specific accelerators that are available through the Dynamics partner connector program. 

Available for silver and gold partners, "the templates help customers to envision what is possible with business processes and provide a jumpstart for the industry or vertical," Patton said.

Lifecycle Services for Dynamics AX
While Lifecycle Services (LCS) is not a new concept, the term was a popular buzzword at Convergence. This is Microsoft's definition from TechNet:

"Microsoft Dynamics Lifecycle Services provides a cloud-based collaborative workspace that customers and their partners can use to manage Microsoft Dynamics AX projects from pre-sales to implementation and operations. Based on the phase of your project and the industry you are working in, the site provides checklists and tools that help you manage the project. It also provides a dashboard so that you have a single place to get up-to-date project information."

To take on the growing competition for cloud-based ERP, this immediate stand-up of the customer's solution makes sense. Simplifying the process to give customers early insight into implementation progress and deliver training on actual data before go-live is clearly a benefit for partners and customers.

GP, SL and NAV forgotten?
There was no word on whether there will be industry accelerators or LCS for Microsoft's other ERP solutions -- Dynamics GP, SL and NAV. Since Dynamics AX is clearly Microsoft's product of choice to build ERP visibility in the vertical markets, the current accelerators and LCS may be a first step in providing these tools across the ERP solution set.

Multiple partners at Convergence did express concern about Microsoft's apparent singular focus on the enterprise ERP solution.

As the pace of business accelerates, so do customer expectations that business management solution implementations should take weeks or months, not years, to deploy. Fueling some of Microsoft's focus on speed must be the growing competition from cloud-based CRM and ERP that turns on in an instant. Following Microsoft's lead, partners should take full advantage of every opportunity to capitalize on tools that can speed delivery.

How are you accelerating solution delivery for your clients? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.


Posted by Barb Levisay on March 12, 2014 at 11:36 AM0 comments

Partner Sees Opportunity with Power BI for Office 365

With this month's release of Power BI for Office 365, cloud-based business analytics without an expensive barrier to entry is now available to your customers. Providing access to self-service data analytics directly through Excel, Power BI for Office 365 levels the playing field of business intelligence for the SMB market. Smart partners are seizing the opportunity to give those businesses a hand.

BI for SMB
Since the announcement of Power BI for Office 365 at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference last year, forward-thinking partners have been using the preview version to understand the value to customers. Mike Gilronan, SharePoint practice director for the Northeast region at McGladrey LLP, has already been showing clients the potential of the new service.

"There is definitely a wow factor with the visualizations in Power View and Power Map. The demos are immediately striking to our clients," Gilronan said.

As Phil Sorgen, Microsoft's corporate vice president of the Worldwide Partner Group, suggested to partners in his recent post on Digital WPC, the opportunity has broad implications.

"This is a business opportunity with customers of all sizes, not just large enterprises," Sorgen wrote. "In fact, in a Gartner survey, 'Analytics and BI' was the #1 ranked technology priority when small and midsize businesses were asked to list their top 3 issues."

Gilronan confirms the shift in market opportunity. "In the past, the upfront cost of BI was a huge hurdle for much of the SMB market. With Microsoft's subscription model, it's much easier to get started," Gilronan said. "Power BI is going to democratize BI, which has been out of reach for a lot of organizations."

Service Opportunity for Partners
While the home page of Power BI for Office 365 proclaims "Self-service Business Intelligence for all your data," that doesn't mean that partners aren't needed. (Note to Microsoft, though: There is currently no link on to PartnerPoint on the Power BI home page.) 

Small and midsize businesses, especially those without internal IT departments, will need someone with a clear understanding of data sources to help them get the most value from Power BI. Combining internal and cloud-based data sources will still seem daunting to most of your customers. And, hence, your value.

"There is tremendous opportunity in working with clients to understand the business process, where the data is coming from and how it fits together, especially if the data is coming from multiple source systems," Gilronan explained. "Data integration and data normalization work will be required. That is real data architecture work and qualified partners should reap a windfall."

Power BI for Office 365 gives all partners a better set of tools to support their customers' business processes through the data flow and reporting requirements. For MSPs and pure technical partners, the cloud BI service can be the avenue to move from infrastructure support team to business systems advisor. As usual, Microsoft has put tremendous effort into building training opportunities for partners.    

As with any new release, working with the software yourself is key in building expertise and knowing what it can do for your customers. Gilronan noted that McGladrey has been using the Power BI for Office 365 preview internally to build familiarity and learn the potential.

"We are using it for some of our internal staffing dashboards," Gilronan said. "We're giving people the opportunity to look at and play with the data through Power View -- something that you can't do with a static report."

Every one of your customers is collecting more data than ever and most don't know what to do with it. Power BI for Office 365 removes the high cost of entry for small and midsize businesses, making analytics accessible to all. Not all of your customers are going to understand the potential, but for the ones you show the way, you will become a partner in the truest sense.

How are you introducing BI to your customers? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.


Posted by Barb Levisay on February 20, 2014 at 12:18 PM0 comments

5 Profitable Reasons To Package Your Services

Packaging services is certainly not a new concept, but it is an idea whose time has come.

Your customers are looking at IT outsourcing from a new perspective. Hardware is no longer a barrier between them and solving their business problems. Technology projects don't seem quite so daunting to take on. Customers want simple-to-purchase, simple-to-execute solutions.

Shrinking Margins, Growing Commoditization
From the technology provider's perspective, margins on software and hardware are drying up and discount cloud providers are transforming desktop services into a commodity. Competing on price is a losing proposition for all but the largest of partners.

Packaged services play well into all of these trends. The primary purpose is to clearly define a set of value-add services that will solve a common business problem for your customer set.

The definition and application of packaged services vary from partner to partner. Some publish pricing for a very well-defined set of service deliverables. A good example from PremierPoint Solutions is "Zero to SharePoint Portal in 20 days." Others take an outcome-based approach, defining the business functions and benefits that a customer will get from the package. An example is from Palmetto Technology Group's "Dental IT Support."

Packaging Helps Customers Justify Investment
Packaging services simplify the buying and delivery process to make the value of IT services easier to understand and justify -- for managed service providers (MSP) to build vertical differentiation in an increasingly commoditized market, for Microsoft Dynamics partners to get their foot in the door without customers risking a full-blown enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation, for system integrators to offer bite-sized service introductions, like business intelligence to appeal to mid-market companies.

MSPs have long known the relationship-building value of packaged services. Get commitment from the customer for a regular service and then build trust to expand the service footprint. All types of partners who historically worked on a project basis can apply these lessons to make the transition to the cloud smoother.

Impact on Profits
The bottom line, of course, is profitability. Do packaged services really deliver increased profits? There is clearly a time commitment to develop and market packaged services. To really impact the business, the packages should be strategic, supporting the long-term vision for the company's direction.

There are certainly more, but following are five ways that packaged services deserve your consideration and time:

  1. They demonstrate vertical expertise to help you build visibility in your target industries.

  2. They change the conversation to outcomes, not products, to help you connect with business decision-makers instead of relying exclusively on IT buyers.

  3. Operational efficiency in service delivery comes through consultants performing the same tasks and training for multiple customers. In vertical markets, support costs come down with common issue solutions learned through experience.

  4. Repeatable cloud packages mean that you can take advantage of volume discounts with cloud vendors to reduce your cost per customer.

  5. Packaged services limits risk with customers that are not a good fit for your business. Identify a dysfunctional or financially unstable company before you take on a big project.

However you choose to approach it, developing a set of service packages will help you meet the changing nature of our industry. Success belongs to the specialists who demonstrate the value of their expertise to customers. Packaged services show customers that you understand their challenges and are prepared to deliver the solution.

How are you positioning services differently? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on February 05, 2014 at 3:24 PM0 comments

SP24: The 24-Hour Global SharePoint Conference

No product elicits the enthusiasm for training and professional development like SharePoint. People willingly give up family time on Saturdays to share their knowledge of Microsoft's collaboration platform.

Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking yet, the SP24 conference will be held April 16, when SharePoint professionals will gather on a global scale.

For 24 hours, starting at 10 p.m. GMT on April 16 with a keynote delivered by Microsoft Senior Product Manager Bill Baer, SP24 will live-stream two tracks of one-hour sessions devoted to SharePoint. When the conference ends at 11 p.m. GMT on April 17, a total of 48 live sessions covering business and technical topics will have been presented and viewed by a global audience.

As with SharePoint Saturdays, the event is being organized by a dedicated group of volunteers, led by Mark Jones of Collaboris, U.K.-based SharePoint partner. Jones is also founder of the SharePoint Community, whose over 5,000 members provided the inspiration for SP24.

Famous and Crowd-Sourced Speakers
While the final lineup of speakers has yet to be released, the SP24 team is aiming for a combination of SharePoint stars with lesser-known but crowd-supported presenters.

"We'll have well-known speakers from around the world," Jones said. "But there will also be sessions led by speakers who would normally not get the chance. The SharePoint Community is voting on the session submissions to crowd-source the final lineup." 

Preparing To Follow the Sun
Over 2,000 SharePoint enthusiasts are already registered for the free event, and promotion has barely begun. Since this is the first event of its kind, estimates are difficult, but the SP24 team is testing scalability to host up to 10,000 "delegates.", an infrastructure provider and a main sponsor, is working closely with the SP24 team to anticipate technical challenges.

To prepare for the potential hiccups of hosting a 24-hour SharePoint-athon, the team sought advice from other organizations that have held similar events. The biggest identified risk is Internet service interruption for speakers delivering from every corner of the globe. To offset the possibility, all sessions will be pre-recorded as a backup.  

Throughout the event, eight volunteers will work from a TV-production-quality "war room" to orchestrate operations. U.K.-based speakers can deliver their sessions from the facility in addition to the overall logistical coordination for 24 straight hours. 

Delegate Engagement
In keeping with the SharePoint theme of collaboration, SP24 will foster viewer participation during the day. Delegates are encouraged to gather in conference rooms to build on the collaborative atmosphere of a live event.

"We hope to get groups of people from one company to participate together and have a webcam ready," Jones explained. "During the day when we have some kind of downtime, we'll do live streams, asking those groups to tell us how they are using SharePoint."

Each scheduled session will promote participation, as well. The virtual session rooms will include the live streams, speaker profiles and chat rooms so that delegates can ask questions.   

Thirst for SharePoint Knowledge
Through volunteer commitment -- from organizers through presenters -- the end goal of SP24 is to provide accessible education for anyone interested in SharePoint. All sessions will be available online after the event, providing a free resource for end users and SharePoint professionals.  

"Because of the breadth and size of the product and its importance to most businesses, the community has to continually educate themselves to get the most from SharePoint," Jones noted. "The people in the SharePoint community are so willing to share their knowledge."

How do you share product knowledge with colleagues and users? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 23, 2014 at 5:30 AM0 comments

Traditional MSP Crosses the Line in Cloud Services

Many traditional managed service providers (MSPs) are still finding their place in the cloud, but others have made significant progress. As the cloud becomes mainstream, how are regional MSPs faring?  

One regional MSP serving the Carolinas and Georgia, VC3 Inc., was an early adopter of the cloud. "I believe we are ahead of the curve in the cloud managed services business," said David Dunn, CEO of VC3. "Last January, we crossed the line of 50 percent of managed services revenues coming through our private cloud offering, and we're pushing 60 percent now." 

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Through a private cloud managed services model, the VC3 datacenter hosts its clients' software -- from Exchange to line-of-business applications. "Private cloud looks a lot like the traditional managed services model to the customer," Dunn said. "But we also offer mobility and other features that the midsize customer can only afford to do through a cloud model."

From the 80-person MSP's perspective, the biggest change has been the change in revenue composition. "In the traditional managed services model, you could count on 30 percent of revenue being project-type work. With project and hardware costs, you would never get about 70 percent in recurring revenue," Dunn explained. "With private cloud, you are no longer doing project work at the customer site. It's all built into the price, so we're getting into the 75 to 80 percent recurring revenue range."

Otherwise, the operations of the business in terms of customer support and employee responsibilities are largely unchanged. Telephone and Web-based support that were established over the past several years have served well through the cloud transition. IT professionals still go to customer sites to address user-device issues and deliver consulting services. 

Pure Cloud Versus Regional Providers
For many traditional MSPs, the concern in diving into to the cloud has been the prospect of going head to head with pure cloud providers. Different cost structures and revenue models make competing on price impossible.

Dunn sees plenty of competitive advantages for the regional MSP. "The differentiator between traditional MSPs, like us, and the pure cloud providers is that we do have a hands-on presence at the customer. We take responsibility for things on the client side. Even though we are moving our clients to the cloud, we still provide a client touch."

VC3 focuses on several vertical markets that allow it to differentiate through industry knowledge, as well. A significant portion of its private cloud clients need support for their line-of-business apps. Through familiarity with industry-specific applications, the VC3 engineers can solve issues faster than the clients can do it themselves.

Opportunity in 2014
In addition to focusing on execution of the current model, Dunn sees opportunity for 2014 in data security. The proliferation of devices and transportability of data exposes organizational data to more risk. Businesses are just starting to understand the implications of losing control of their information.

"There are some bad practices out there regarding sensitive data, so there is a big opportunity to help customers manage their overall data security," Dunn noted. "From a best-practices perspective, as well as through the tools and technology, we can help clients improve their processes to reduce risk."

The Cloud Realized
As the cloud goes mainstream, it's good to know regional partners are still finding success by building on the basics. Customers are benefiting from centralized hardware management, but still appreciate a knowledgeable hands-on approach. Adding a vertical component to a regional practice adds value to the service equation and differentiates the business. Not the stuff of headlines, but the promise of the cloud is being realized.

How has the cloud impacted your business? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 09, 2014 at 2:00 PM0 comments

The 5 Stages of Microsoft Partnership

In a recent blog post, longtime Microsoft channel partner Mike Gilronan describes five distinct phases of the Microsoft partnering experience. Gilronan's slightly tongue-in-cheek analysis, loosely based on the Kübler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief model, provides some useful insights into what both new and established partners should expect from their Microsoft association.

Below is a highly abbreviated summary of Gilronan's stages: 

  • Stage One: Denial - The frustration that new partners feel learning the terminology and delivering on the "asks" from Microsoft make them question the time investment. 

  • Stage Two: Despair - The self-doubt that most partners (should) feel in delivering on the promises of a global technology leader.

  • Stage Three: Hopeful Performance - Learning, and even using, the channel acronyms, partners build confidence in their ability to become one of those recognized for competence and potential.

  • Stage Four: Soaring Execution - The exalted status of a "go-to" partner, connected at the hip through "purple badge" SMEs (virtual Microsoft employee) and earning accolades at the Worldwide Partner Conference. The partner has delivered value to Microsoft customers and is reaping rewards for the business. Personal relationships with Microsoft reps are genuine and mutually beneficial.

  • Stage Five:  Devolution/Plateau - Complacency, through lack of vision or agility, in embracing the next big thing drags down the relationship. Other partners, hungrier for Microsoft's attention, take over the mindshare once enjoyed.

Gilronan summarizes his post with two pieces of advice for partners. First, there is tangible value to be gained from the partnership by taking full advantage of business development programs and personal relationships with Microsoft field reps. Second, understand how your Microsoft benefactors are goaled and help them achieve their mandates.

The second point is mentioned often in conversations with National Systems Integrators and other successful partners when describing how they build tighter alignment with Microsoft. Microsoft hires smart, driven individuals. Your relationship with Microsoft comes down to working with these individuals. Helping highly motivated people to achieve their goals sounds like a good foundation for building the value of your partnership.

The full text of Gilronan's post is here. For those who do not have 100 percent recall of their Psychology 101 class, here's the link to an explanation of Kübler-Ross Model.

Riding on the Shoulders of a Giant
Gilronan's observations ring true for longtime channel dwellers. Most of us have experienced each of these stages, either through the journey of a single partner or through job changes within the channel. Riding on the shoulders of a giant is not for the faint-hearted, and for the uninitiated, the five stages are valuable to explain the journey. The next time your management team questions the investment into the Microsoft relationship, you may want to show them the progress you've made.

How do you build on your Microsoft partnership? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on December 11, 2013 at 9:02 AM0 comments

Cloud Trends: Customers Are Leading the Way

It's hard to imagine that just a few years ago, the cloud was a new concept to most and a perceived threat to much of the channel.

While we are still in the formative years of cloud computing, there are trends emerging. The cloud is not a panacea -- the NSA has done a good job of reminding us of that -- but customers are defining how it can help their businesses.

Recently identified as a Challenger on Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Managed Hosting, North America, Peer 1 Hosting works with customers and partners to make the most of the cloud. 

"This is an unending journey, not a sprint to a fixed point," said Robert Miggins, Peer 1's senior vice president of business development. "We are making a difference and living up to our mission -- to allow our customers to focus on the possibilities of the Internet and not the problems."

Cloud as Disaster Recovery
The value of the cloud to business continuity has been demonstrated far too often in the past couple of years -- from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to the Colorado floods. For every size organization, cloud-based disaster recovery plans can literally save the business. The opportunity for partners to help small and large businesses take advantage of the cloud for business continuity, understanding the nuances of evolving requirements, will continue to grow.

For Peer 1, international clients have asked for multi-location datacenters to ensure continuity on a global scale. For some clients, the geographic location of their data is critical to their compliance.

"For example, we have two Tier 3 datacenters in the U.K. and other locations around the world to support enterprise disaster recovery," Miggins explained. "These organizations need a failover to another datacenter, with the assurance of data sovereignty."

As in all opportunities for partners, being able to educate customers on the advantages, risks and options for every service builds value. Partners taking the lead in education will win the business.

The Move to Hybrid
Managed hosting, combined with the ability to burst to the cloud, provides the flexibility that businesses need to capitalize on big data. While bursting to the cloud is not a new idea, it is becoming a mainstream opportunity supporting the interest in big data analysis. The elasticity of the cloud makes it the perfect platform to process very large sets of data.

Hybrid hosting -- a combination of managed private hosting plus access to the public cloud as needed -- gives customers the balance of security and volume. In addition to bursting for data analysis, hybrid hosting is a viable solution for high-volume Web sites and data aggregators.  

The Service Layer
For most partners, the big question is how to continue to provide value-add services to customers as they transition to the cloud. Whether it is driven by the cloud, or just a natural progression of our perception of technology, it's clear that businesses want to spend more time focused on their core business operations.

"In the service layer, we are seeing customers ask service providers to take more and more of the responsibility out of their hands," Miggins said. "They would rather focus on building a great app or making an awesome Web site."

There is good news in this for every partner. The cloud is far from mature, but it's progressing. Businesses are getting comfortable with the cloud, figuring out what's in it for them. Partners who continue to educate customers on the potential of the cloud will reap the benefits.

How are you building business on the cloud? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.  

Posted by Barb Levisay on November 19, 2013 at 1:03 PM0 comments