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In-Depth

2017 RCP Editor's Choice Awards: Best Products for Microsoft Partners

In its second-annual listing, Redmond Channel Partner calls out the best and brightest technologies and programs for the Microsoft channel from the last year. 

The Microsoft ecosystem is a vibrant, dynamic place.

Every year Microsoft, ISVs and other technology partners release hundreds of products that build on the Microsoft stack, making Microsoft-based solutions faster, more secure, more useful and more specialized.

In this second-annual listing, Redmond Channel Partner editors scanned the field for those products, services and programs that present the greatest opportunities for Microsoft channel partners.


General

Best Channel Product
Microsoft Dynamics 365

Every few years, Microsoft opens up a new greenfield for its channel. Toward the end of 2016, Microsoft potentially did that once again with the release of Dynamics 365.

Dynamics 365 reimagines, repackages and rebrands Microsoft's business application lineup in an entirely cloud-based format. While some pieces are based on existing cloud business application products, especially Dynamics CRM Online and Dynamics AX, the move pulls Microsoft's business application line into the main thrust of Microsoft's strategic effort of cloud-first, mobile-first.

Ever since Microsoft got involved with business applications at the beginning of the century, it's always seemed to be an effort run off to the side of the main business. Now it's at the core.

Dynamics consists of two main editions. An Enterprise edition targets customers with more than 250 employees and includes five major applications: Operations, Sales, Field Service, Customer Service and Project Service Automation. Those applications are built from existing Microsoft products, such as Dynamics AX, Dynamics CRM and FieldOne. A Business edition is designed for smaller organizations. That edition was known by the code name "Project Madeira," which evolved from Dynamics NAV.

The initial rollout on Nov. 1 felt rushed. Partners described it as having "the Band-Aid ripped off." It will take some time for Microsoft to fill in missing technology pieces, settle on incentives and partner fees, and smooth out the transitions from legacy products. Assuming no fatal missteps in that process, Dynamics 365 will be a very big deal for the Microsoft channel. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best Partner Program
IBM PartnerWorld

Could the latest feature of IBM PartnerWorld be a sign of things to come? Very much so.

Giant companies' partner programs tend to be overwhelming affairs with benefits, sub-programs, specializations and incentives numbering in the hundreds. It's a lot to keep track of. One solution, and the one most valued by partners across programs, is a person to talk to. Yet in programs with tens of thousands of partners, that approach doesn't scale beyond the top few hundred partners.

IBM's solution, unveiled earlier this year, is to turn "Watson," the personification of its artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, into a virtual concierge on the PartnerWorld portal.

It makes sense for a company that's trying to nudge its partners into what it calls the "cognitive era." Only time and repeated visits will tell if IBM's Watson effort is valuable, cute, annoying or useless. Then there's the question of how seriously IBM invests in continually improving that Watson experience.

Regardless of how good Watson is as an automated guide to PartnerWorld, it's likely that the chatbot/AI approach will become a fixture of more and more partner portals from more and more vendors over time. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best Hosting Partner
Rackspace Inc.

When it comes time to find a partner for your own co-location needs or your customers' needs, expertise counts. In the Microsoft ecosystem, it's hard to find more expertise than what Rackspace is providing right now.

The hosting and managed cloud services provider seriously ramped up its commitment to Microsoft certifications and trainings over the last year.

In February, Rackspace announced that it went from five Microsoft competencies a year ago to 10 competencies now. Rackspace renewed gold competencies in Cloud Platform, Cloud Productivity, Collaboration and Content, Hosting, and Small and Mid-Market Cloud Solutions. The San Antonio, Texas-based provider added gold competencies in Application Development and Data Center and silver competencies in Data Analytics, Data Platform and Messaging. As for individual Microsoft certifications, its employees have racked up 1,000 technical certifications and 800 sales and licensing certifications.

While the company is making similar investments in Amazon Web Services (AWS), the commitment on the Microsoft side benefits from a long history. Rackspace has been a major hosting provider in the Microsoft ecosystem for 15 years and is a five-time Microsoft Partner of the Year Award winner. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]


Software

Best Open Source Solution
Docker Inc.

Arguably Microsoft's most substantial open source move last year was including the Docker open source platform in Windows Server 2016. Docker was a pioneer of the containers that are transforming application development and management. Microsoft made substantial moves with Docker to support containers on Microsoft Azure, and now with the Docker Engine included in Microsoft's flagship server software, the technology is set to have a very big year in the Microsoft ecosystem. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best Storage Software
StorageCraft Technology Corp.

StorageCraft Technology upped its storage, backup and disaster recovery software game in a big way over the last year. Through organic development and acquisition, the company added virtual boot capability for vSphere, cloud backup for Office 365 and analytics capabilities to help determine what files should be backed up and restored. On top of all that, the company overhauled its partner program and made a move into the data management market with the acquisition of Exablox Corp. The company is setting a torrid pace. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best Workflow Tool
Nintex Global Ltd.

Workflow and content automation specialist Nintex Global Ltd. has a deep history of extending the value of the Microsoft SharePoint platform with Microsoft partners. The company isn't resting on its laurels. Instead, Nintex is busily extending its hooks into other tools and products to make its workflows more comprehensive and valuable.

Recent enhancements include extended relationships with six key technology partners. With Microsoft, Nintex is moving beyond SharePoint and Office 365 to include workflows running in Azure. The company also supports new actions and connections with Adobe Systems Inc., DocuSign Inc., Box, Dropbox Inc. and Salesforce.com Inc. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best Office 365 Backup Software
Acronis International GmbH

For veteran users of Office 365, specialized backup options are becoming table stakes. One vendor doing interesting things around Office 365 backup is Acronis.

The company jumped into the Office 365 backup market with a specialized tool during the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) last July. Since then, Acronis shipped an overhaul of its main suite, Acronis Backup 12, that builds Office 365 backup into the main product.

Functions that Acronis Backup 12 provides for Office 365 include the ability to back up e-mails, contacts, calendars, tasks and attachments; choose local or cloud backup targets; bring Office 365 files into compliance with organizational archiving policies; preview, browse and search Office 365 content; recover mailboxes to the original or an alternative location; and recover individual e-mails by delivering them as an e-mail. On the roadmap: heuristic, anti-ransomware protection for the Office 365 backup capabilities later this year. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Managed Services Tools

Best PSA Offering
ConnectWise Inc.

ConnectWise has been a leader in the professional services automation market for a long time, but the Tampa, Fla.-based company isn't resting on its reputation.

Instead, ConnectWise is in the midst of a platform-wide UI integration designed to give partners a seamless experience across its suite of products. Along with the overhaul came new names for some familiar products and even for emerging ones. The flagship ConnectWise, the business management software for professional services automation, is now known as ConnectWise Manage. The LabTech remote monitoring and management (RMM) tool is now ConnectWise Automate. ScreenConnect for remote control is now ConnectWise Control. Quosal for quote and proposal automation is now ConnectWise Sell. The names are changing, but the commitment to helping its channel customers succeed is not. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best RMM Product
SolarWinds MSP

It was the year for SolarWinds in the managed services provider (MSP) space.

The IT management company, which bought its way into the MSP market with the acquisition of N-able Technologies in 2013, made an even bigger commitment to that market in 2016 with the acquisition of LOGICnow.

The move brought cloud capabilities and MSP-focused data analytics to the existing SolarWinds monitoring and management platform. The combination led to some impressive metrics for what became the SolarWinds MSP business unit. At the time of the acquisition in June, the SolarWinds MSP customer base included 18,000 MSP companies with 200,000 engineers managing more than 5 million endpoints and 1 million mailboxes. The initial headcount inside the SolarWinds MSP business unit was 750 employees, including 400 engineers.

The merger signaled something else important, as well. After the combination, SolarWinds MSP accounted for one-quarter to one-third of overall business for SolarWinds, making the channel element even more strategic to the larger company than it was before.

In the meantime, SolarWinds MSP has been busy integrating staff and products and integrating new features into its RMM platforms. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best Mobile RMM Product
Pulseway MSP

Before ever making a formal push into the MSP market, the Dublin, Ireland-based Pulseway mobility-focused RMM product was already pretty popular among MSPs.

About half of the company's 3,000 customers were MSPs, having been drawn to the product's affordable price and its baseline capabilities. Those included monitoring systems such as Windows and Linux servers, Windows and Mac desktops, or .NET and Java applications and sending alerts to administrators, who can drill into specifics and take many types of corrective actions remotely from a Web browser or native app on iOS, Android or Windows Phone.

Then last August, the company released Pulseway MSP, its first dedicated MSP product. Some enhancements to the base product for the MSP edition include more scripting capabilities; the ability to provide customizable and white-labeled reports to customers; integration with Pulseway Business Management Software, which is a professional services automation package; and collaboration features. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best CSP Tool
BitTitan Inc.

Building on the MSPComplete and CSP Complete packages that help Microsoft partners become cloud solution providers, BitTitan moved up to become a platform partners can run more of their businesses on.

While the earlier tools aimed to help partners onboard, sell and service different cloud products, the big move in 2016 was to create an "upsell engine." Using tools already in the BitTitan suite, the upsell engine helps partners find opportunities to go deeper with their clients via additional Microsoft services, as well as third-party packages, such as migrating online file folders to OneDrive or on-premises databases to Azure. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]


Distribution

Best Distributor
Tech Data Corp.

Tech Data Corp. is moving on up into the datacenter and taking its partners along.

The distribution giant earlier this year completed the acquisition of the Technology Solutions (ATS) portion of fellow distributor Avnet Inc. for $2.6 billion. It's a blockbuster deal that adds about one-third to Tech Data's size from a revenue standpoint. By customer/partners, Tech Data had about 105,000 and ATS brings in 20,000.

But the deal isn't to make Tech Data stronger by simply getting larger. Tech Data was interested in Avnet's datacenter business, specifically the focus of ATS on converged and hyperconverged infrastructure and other next-generation datacenter technology. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best SMB Distributor
D&H Distributing

Partners serving small and midsize businesses (SMBs) have unique needs, and not all distributors are willing to cater to their smaller deal sizes.

One exception is D&H Distributing, based in Harrisburg, Pa. One prominent example came last year when D&H expanded the amount of credit it offers to resellers by nearly 50 percent. The expansion came in the D&H Business Assurance program, which combines funding from D&H vendor partners. That credit expansion applied to nearly 850 reseller customers. The credit lines went from $2,500 to $100,000, with typical increases of about $25,000 per reseller.

In total, it was a commitment of $23 million to the SMB channel, and another reason D&H is a good bet for SMB-focused partners. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best CSP Offering
SherWeb

The field of 2-tier distributors for Microsoft Cloud Solution Providers (CSP) is crowded with strong players. But SherWeb, based in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, stood out over the last year by closely tracking Microsoft's changes to cloud compensation. As Microsoft reduced payouts under the Advisor model for Office 365 Partners of Record, SherWeb spun up tools to help those partners automatically convert their customers to the CSP model. At the same time, SherWeb created fat bonuses and strong monthly payments to encourage partners to bring their customers to its CSP program. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Security

Best Security Product
Barracuda NextGen Firewall for Azure

The public cloud has the potential to both complicate and simplify security. Complications come from the additional attack surface, the many connections to other areas of the enterprise and a general lack of experience with the issues in this relatively young sector. Simplification comes from the ability to make deployment of security solutions easier by spinning them up in the cloud. Addressing both areas is the Barracuda NextGen Firewall for Azure.

The firewall from Barracuda Networks Inc., which is also the winner of the 2016 Microsoft Azure Certified ISV Solution Partner of the Year award, is designed to secure connectivity between offices, virtual networks, datacenters and multiple clouds. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best Ransomware Tool
Infrascale Inc.

There's little debate that the most pressing problem in business security these days is ransomware. There's nothing like an attacker encrypting all of a customer's files to bring that business to a screeching halt and light up the phone lines of their MSP.

Programs and tools for addressing ransomware abound among channel vendors. One of the most interesting of the last year is the Ransomware Antidote Program from El Segundo, Calif.-based Infrascale.

In November the cloud backup and disaster recovery vendor unveiled the 360-degree effort, which encompasses protection tools and end-user education assets. The educational tools include an online quiz, e-books, presentations and guidance documentation. Technological tools include a feature called Anomaly Detection, which notifies partners and their clients when the count of new or changed files passes a user-defined benchmark. The other piece of the ransomware puzzle is a recovery option using one of Infrascale's core products, Infrascale Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) or Infrascale Cloud Backup. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best Encryption Product
Sophos SafeGuard Encryption 8

Encryption is regularly in the headlines as a method of protection against attackers, but there are few channel plays for hot products like Signal or ProtonMail.

Channel stalwart Sophos Ltd., however, is working diligently to make channel-focused products that make encryption more of a no-brainer for midmarket companies. This year, Sophos released Sophos SafeGuard Encryption 8, taking what had been a file and disk encryption product and adding encryption of files by default and extending encryption functionality to iOS and Android mobile devices.

Sophos SafeGuard consists of a management server for management of encryption keys, a management console that IT uses to administer the product, agents for Windows and Mac laptops and PCs, and an app for iPhones and Android devices. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]


Hardware

Best Business Laptop
Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1

The refreshed Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 gets our nod as best business laptop. Starting at $1,349, and available since February, this classic form-factor notebook covers all the bases. By size, the 14-inch display is fit into a body more typical of a 13-inch model. By weight, the system is just 2.5 pounds. For battery life, Lenovo claims an impressive 15 hours. Add to that a new silver option in addition to the previous black, Thunderbolt 3 ports, a fingerprint sensor and a facial recognition infrared camera, and the Carbon X1 is a complete package. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best 2-in-1 PC
HP Pro x2 612 G2

In a year without a major Microsoft Surface Pro release, it's down to the traditional PC community to set the standard for the category that Microsoft created. Taking that prize this time is HP Inc. with the HP Pro x2 612 G2.

The Pro x2 has a much clearer line of descent from the Surface Pro than even from its direct HP predecessor, which was more like a Surface Book in that it had a traditional keyboard and a tablet that clicked out of it.

The new one has a Pro-like keyboard, kickstand and pen. The kickstand is the main design standout for the G2. It's a u-shaped aluminum bar, rather than the entire panel, and adds a nice minimalist touch. The entire system is outfitted with high-end components and has business-oriented options, such as a Rugged Case and a Retail Case. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best All-in-One PC
Microsoft Surface Studio

Microsoft took another stab at hardware category creation this year with the launch of the Surface Studio. We've categorized it as an all-in-one PC here, but it is a little different. The huge, but thin, 28-inch touchscreen further distinguishes itself by folding down to a low angle, courtesy of two chrome arms. Screen resolution checks in at 192 DPI. A related element is a new type of input device called Surface Dial, a shallow cylinder that can be used on the desktop or placed on the screen to unlock new options in supported applications. It's pricey, starting at $2,999, but it's a solid fit for customers looking to outfit employees in creative roles. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]

Best BDR Appliance
Datto SIRIS 3

Datto Inc. appliances, services and cloud solutions under the SIRIS brand continue to impress in a third generation. The lineup includes a new all-flash backup appliance called the SIRIS 3 X1. That device has a 1TB solid state drive, 16GB of RAM and local virtualization capabilities.

Other additions to the SIRIS 3 platform include new agents to support Mac and Linux endpoints, agentless backup for systems running VMware hypervisors and diskless restores. [BACK TO CATEGORY LIST]


RCP EDITOR'S CHOICE AWARDS 2017 WINNERS
Category Winner
Best Channel Product Microsoft Dynamics 365
Best Partner Program IBM PartnerWorld
Best Hosting Partner Rackspace
SOFTWARE
Best Open Source Solution Docker
Best Storage Software StorageCraft Technology
Best Workflow Tool Nintex Global
Best Office 365 Backup Software Acronis
MANAGED SERVICES TOOLS
Best PSA Product ConnectWise
Best RMM Product SolarWinds MSP
Best Mobile RMM Product Pulseway
Best CSP Tool BitTitan
DISTRIBUTION
Best Distributor Tech Data
Best SMB Distributor D&H
Best CSP Offering SherWeb
SECURITY
Best Security Product Barracuda NextGen Firewall for Azure
Best Ransomware Tool Infrascale
Best Encryption Product Sophos
HARDWARE
Best Business Laptop Lenovo Carbon X1
Best 2-in-1 HP Pro x2 612 G2
Best All-in-One PC Microsoft Surface Studio
Best Backup/BDR Appliance Datto SIRIS 3