MSP Cloud Challenges in the Midmarket–and How IBM Helps Meet Them

In my recent post, A View From the MSP Trenches: Cloud Opportunities in the Midmarket, I examined how MSPs see the midmarket opportunity shaping up, and why they are partnering with IBM to capitalize on these opportunities. I discussed how MSPs are taking advantage of cloud-based technology solutions and IBM’s offerings to help their midmarket companies offload infrastructure management, deploy the leading-edge solutions, and achieve the performance, availability and security required for mission-critical applications.

I also wanted to learn more about the challenges that MSPs face, and how they work with IBM to surmount these hurdles. This post focuses on that side of my conversation with the same three MSPs, who I’ll reintroduce here:

  • Oxford Networks characterizes itself as “a 112 year-old start-up,” which began as a phone company and has since reinvented itself a couple of times over to become a high-end carrier’s carrier transport network. Oxford recently acquired an MSP and a data center, and is building on this to offer a spectrum of IT and telecom services to SMBs.
  • Perimeter E-Security delivers highly secure infrastructure protection and compliance solutions via its security-as-a-software platform, including: firewall management and monitoring, vulnerability scanning, intrusion detection and prevention, hosted email, hosted collaboration, email security, message archiving and mobile device management. Perimeter offers its services in the cloud, and on customer premises.  About two-thirds of its customers are small and midsize businesses (SMBs).
  • Velocity Technology Solutions provides virtual private cloud managed application and hosting services for its customers’ ERP solutions. It also hosts and manages connected applications, such as analytics and workforce automation; and complementary technical solutions, such as imaging. Velocity offers remote managed services for customers’ on premises applications, including a full replication service for disaster recovery.  Velocity’s customers range from businesses with about $50M in annual revenues to the Fortune 500.

MSPs must keep pace with a rapidly changing technology landscape and provide consistent, high performance cloud services. After all, that’s precisely why their customers are outsourcing infrastructure and application management to them in the first place. In their view, IBM provides them with the proven solutions and expertise that they need to deliver superior quality of service. As Tom Bruno, President & CEO, Velocity Technology Solutions, noted, “IBM has the most stable infrastructure. We can tap into the strength and girth of IBM to get the peace of mind that we need to deliver high-availability service.”

Some of the specific areas in which MSPs find strong value in the IBM partnership include:

  • Resources to scale and grow. By standardizing on IBM hardware and middleware, they are able to efficiently create and manage a high-availability environment. For instance, Velocity Technology Solutions works closely with IBM to identify and standardize the server, storage, and middleware stack to support “just about any application the customer wants,” according to Bruno.  “One of the biggest challenges is that ERP is advancing so fast–with a rush of analytics, mobile apps, collaboration and process flow. Customers want to upgrade, and with IBM, we can get these upgrades down to a science, and offer customers freedom of choice.” Or, as Craig Gunderson, President & CEO of Oxford Networks told me, “When we acquired the data center, it wasn’t up to snuff. IBM technologists helped us to reconfigure it and build for the future.”
  • Speed and agility. The bar to stay ahead of the technology curve is rising quickly, and MSPs must move at warp speed to stay ahead of it. While MSPs are often small or midmarket companies themselves, their IBM partnerships help give them the agility they need to take advantage of leading-edge technologies. “The IBM SmartCloud, DataFlex, V Systems and other IBM solutions are core to our PaaS and IaaS offerings. This means we can make more capabilities available more quickly to customers,” notes Gunderson.  MSPs need a stable but flexible technology foundation, says Perimeter E-Security’s Andrew Jacquith. “We add a terabyte of data per day to our cloud email and archiving platforms. IBM helps provide a secure, scalable cloud fabric to support our growth.”
  • End-to-end services. MSPs don’t want to or can’t provide everything a customer may need across the entire technology spectrum. But they are taking advantage of IBM’s ecosystem to broaden their service portfolios and give their customers a one-stop shopping experience. At Oxford Networks, for example, “Customers are asking us to be more of a business solutions provider. This wasn’t our core competency, but we can provide end-to-end solutions via IBM SaaS partners’ says Gunderson. “Partnering with other partners in the IBM ecosystem gives us the ability to meet the converging needs of our customers.”

In late September, IBM launched new global initiatives for MSPs, which provide additional resources to help them meet core technology challenges, including:

  • Access to four new Global Centers of Excellence (in addition to 40 existing IBM Innovation Centers). These centers provide MSPs with hands-on technical skills in technologies such asIBM SmartCloud, PureSystems, storage, security and collaboration.
  • A new virtual briefing center for MSPs to share ideas and knowledge about industry trends, customer requirements and best practices with their peers and with IBM experts.
  • PureSystems, which provides a new, integrated, by-design platform to tune hardware and software resources for data intensive workloads, and gain more flexibility to configure applications for either an on-premise or hosted environment.
  • More options for IBM SmartCloud, giving MSPs the choice to either integrate SmartCloud as an IBM-backed solution, or provide SmartCloud under their own brand.

Profitable business growth is another key challenge for all companies, and MSPs are no exception. The MSPs I spoke with believe that IBM sets itself apart with the quality of business planning and marketing support that it provides. “IBM partners with us to help us plan and capture more midmarket business,” states E-Perimeter’s Jacquith.  “The level of partnering is very deep.”

In the case of Oxford Networks, IBM and its advertising firm, Ogilivy and Mather, helped Oxford to determine which markets to focus on and how to grow intelligently. IBM also brings in Avnet personnel to help Oxford educate customers and prospects.  “IBM is very hands-on. We have never seen another company provide this level of support,” says Gunderson.

IBM new global initiatives for MSPs also offer more marketing and operational support. These included dedicated marketing and sales support, and a new program to help MSPs build a complete marketing plan. Other assistance includes a four-part education seminar to help MSPs use social media to grow their businesses, and IBM analytic capabilities to identify new customers and drive more repeat business.

IBM Global Financing (IGF) is stepping in with flexible, affordable financing options to help MSPs acquire the solutions and services they need to grow. Plans include 12-month, 0% loans for IBM Systems, Storage and Software. MSPs that select PureSystems platforms can also defer their first payment for 90 days.

All told, IBM’s focus on MSPs adds up to a tremendous value not only for MSPs, but for their customers. Instead of just throwing resources at them, IBM has put together an integrated program to address their technology and business challenges. In addition, IBM’s dedicated marketing and sales support provides MSPs with real people who get to know them and understand their individual goals and challenges. With this coordinated and personalized approach, IBM can to get the right resources to MSPs when and how they need it. In turn, these MSPs will be able acquire the skills and resources they need to help their midmarket customers achieve their goals.

This is the fourth of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs. In the next post, I’ll discuss upcoming IBM’s MSP program announcements slated for November.

A View From the MSP Trenches: Cloud Opportunities in the Midmarket

As discussed in my blog, IBM’s Managed Service Provider Initiatives for Midmarket: An Interview with Mike McClurg, IBM views MSPs as an increasingly critical channel for delivering cloud-based technology solutions to midmarket companies. Just a few days after I posted this interview, IBM announced that it would further strengthen its initiatives to help MSPs meet the growing midmarket demand for cloud services.

Now, all research (including SMB Group studies) points to a rise in midmarket adoption of cloud solutions. But, what do MSPs see as the key midmarket hotspots, how are they turning these into opportunities for their businesses, and how is IBM helping them? To help answer these questions, I spoke with three very different IBM MSP partners to find out their views on the cloud opportunity:

  • Oxford Networks characterizes itself as “a 112 year-old start-up,” which began as a phone company and has since reinvented itself a couple of times over to become a high-end carrier’s carrier transport network. Oxford recently acquired an MSP and is building on this to offer a spectrum of IT and telecom services SMBs.
  • Perimeter E-Security delivers highly secure infrastructure protection and compliance solutions via its security-as-a-software platform, including: firewall management and monitoring, vulnerability scanning, intrusion detection and prevention, hosted email, hosted collaboration, email security, message archiving and mobile device management. Perimeter offers its on demand in the cloud, and on customer premises.  About two-thirds of its customers are small and midsize businesses (SMBs).
  • Velocity Technology Solutions provides virtual private cloud managed application and hosting services for its customers’ ERP solutions. It also hosts and manages connected applications, such as analytics and workforce automation; and complementary technical solutions, such as imaging. In addition, Velocity offers remote managed services for customers’ on premises applications, including a full replication service for disaster recovery.  Velocity’s customers range from businesses with about $50M in annual revenues to the Fortune 500.

Despite different technology and market footprints, these MSPs share a similar view of the compelling opportunities to provide cloud services in the midmarket. They are zeroing in to meet  customers’ requirements in several key areas:

1. Offloadinfrastructure management. More midmarket companies want to outsource management of the “IT plumbing” that their businesses require—from infrastructure and telecom to middleware and applications. Demand for IaaS services is spiking as customers seek to move resources from IT to other, more strategic areas of the business. Often, the need for application upgrades trigger a move to an MSP. “Businesses have been there, done that and have little appetite to go through the headaches again”, according to Tom Bruno, President & CEO, Velocity Technology Solutions, “Our opportunity is to take software and turn it into a utility or dial tone for our customers.”But, says Bruno, “the most important thing we can have is our customers’ trust—trust translates into availability. Partnering with IBM gives us the peace of mind that we can deliver.”

Many companies aren’t ready to put all of their applications into the cloud, but still want to offload management. Offering remote managed services for customers’ on-premises applications gives MSPs with another healthy revenue opportunity in the near term.  And, as Bruno puts it, remote managed services also provide these customers with “an on ramp to the cloud.” Bruno envisions that IBM PureSystems will give Velocity even more flexibility to tailor offerings for either an on-premise or private cloud environment.

2. Implement the leading edge technology solutions necessary to grow their businesses. Midmarket businesses increasingly recognize that they need leading edge IT solutions to be competitive. But in most cases, they lack the IT skills and expertise to keep up with these technology changes. According to Craig Gunderson, President & CEO of Oxford Networks, “Our customers know that technology is moving very fast and disrupting the status quo. Moving to the cloud and outsourcing is often the only way that they can maintain a competitive position.” By providing customers with a fully managed data center, PaaS and IaaS solutions, Oxford can “give them far more capabilities than they could have on their own, with fewer limits, and at a lower cost.”

Mobile is a prime example of an area in which SMBs need to innovate, but struggle to keep pace. Perimeter recently rolled out a new mobile security offering that provides best practice guidance and services to help SMBs comply with privacy statutes in world in which “bring your own device” is becoming the norm.

Oxford’s Gunderson and Andrew Jaquith, Chief Technology Officer, Perimeter E-Security, both view new access to IBM’s four new Global Centers of Excellence as key to helping them keep up swiftly evolving market demands. By leveraging IBM’s technical and best practice expertise, they can develop the scalable and reliable new solutions that their clients will require.

3. Provide stronger security, availability and performance levels. Companies know that an IT outage or security breach can seriously compromised or even destroy their businesses. Jaquith asserts that as industries become more regulated, they are increasingly held to higher security standards, similar to what banks have become accustomed to. As a result, “Demand is rising for end-to-end security solutions for messaging—including mailboxes, archiving, encryption, control and reporting, content filtering and more. But the technology needed for this is getting very complicated.”

Jaquith sees IBM as “a technology leader that gets the cloud, and a partner to help us achieve our goal to provide instant-on, scalable and elastic cloud services.” IBM storage and security solutions underpin Perimeter’s current offerings. With IBM’s new MSP initiatives, Jaquith sees opportunities to develop new services built on IBM SmartCloud, which provides enterprise-class cloud computing technologies and services for securely building and using private, public and hybrid clouds.

 The demand for higher availability solutions is also rising. Velocity’s Bruno notes that “Midmarket businesses may have 5 to 20 applications in the back office alone. They want providers to get the formula down for higher availability.” Velocity does this by providing standardized virtualization solutions and a single source of support across applications—from break/fix to functional, “how do I do this” support.

One of the common threads I heard was that midmarket companies are looking for comprehensive services. Although they may want to tap into discrete services in an incremental way, they want them to integrate with each other in a Lego-like fashion. Since few MSPs can provide everything, those I spoke with emphasized the importance of being part of a strong ecosystem. For example, at Oxford Networks, the focus is IaaS and PaaS services. But Gunderson and team work with IBM and its ecosystem partners to also provide SaaS solutions to customers when they are a good fit. Meanwhile, as Velocity’s Bruno explained, “Everything is advancing so fast in the ERP world. There’s a rush of analytics, industry apps, mobile apps, collaboration requirements and more. This creates more complexity in the infrastructure.  We can tap into IBM and its expertise to provide new services more efficiently.”

Clearly, the rapid rate and pace of change in technology—and what it means for business—creates an enormous opportunity. MSPs can leverage economies of scale and skill to provide better-performing and more cost-effective IT solutions than midmarket companies can attain relying only on internal IT resources.

But capitalizing on this opportunity also presents challenges for MSPs, who need to keep ahead of the technology learning curve, improve their marketing skills and programs, and identify and enter new markets. In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss these challenges, and how these three MSPs work with IBM’s MSP program to help address them.

This is the third of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs. In the next post, I’ll look at what MSPs see as their top challenges, and the role IBM plays in helping them to meet them.

More than a Name Change: IBM Rebrands LotusLive as IBM SmartCloud for Social Business

Attending Lotusphere (or any other big vendor event) is kind of like getting soaked with a fire hose. So instead of providing overall highlights (here’s a 60-second video that does this quite well, FYI), I’m dialing the nozzle to focus on LotusLive news at Lotusphere 2012, and my perspective on it relative to the SMB market.

New Style

Perhaps the news that garnered the most attention is that IBM is renaming its cloud-based LotusLive collaboration suite to IBM SmartCloud for Social Business. The move is designed to give the offering, which provides business-grade file sharing, communities, Web meetings, instant messaging, mail and calendaring, some new cachet in the non-Lotus market. IBM is putting Smart Cloud for Social Business squarely under IBM’s SmartCloud umbrella. By making all of its cloud offerings available in one place, IBM intends to make it for clients and partners to find and use it’s open-standards based cloud services .

Fortunately, IBM SmartCloud for Social Business (which is 34 characters, or 25% of a tweet long!) is the category name for IBM’s cloud-based social solution family. IBM will offer more succinctly branded offerings, such as SmartCloud Engage, which replaces LotusLive Engage, and ala carte services such as SmartCloud Connections.

IBM also plans to debut a dramatically simplified web site to make it easier for visitors to zero in on the most relevant solutions and information.

More Substance

IBM’s announcements in this area went beyond style to also include significant substance, for instance;

  • IBM Docs, formerly IBM LotusLive Symphony, will be included in IBM SmartCloud for Social Business. Currently in public beta with availability planned for later this year, IBM Docs is akin to Google Docs. The cloud-based service enables people inside and outside an organization’s firewall, to simultaneously collaborate on word processing, spreadsheet and presentation documents. Users can store, co-edit and share documents in IBM SmartCloud for Social Business.
  • Social Business Toolkit for LotusLive, available now, which enables customers and business partners to integrate custom applications with LotusLive–now SmartCloud for Social Business–services. Using OpenSocial APIs, developers can access profile contacts, meetings, files and communities data.  Companies can add unique custom actions to their SmartCloud for Social Business experience, and deliver everything via a unified user interface that leverages IBM standards-based extension points, authentication and encryption APIs. And, customers will only need to pay one bill for all of their Smart Cloud for Social Business services.
  • An updated Partner Online Guided Selling Tool, a dashboard to help resellers and distributors create and manage sales quotes and orders is slated for availability in the first quarter on 2012.  It will give resellers and distributors an automated collaborative tool to build quotes, place special bids, place orders, track service activation, manage customer billing, etc. to create customer-ready sales quotes for cloud services.  For instance, using the tool, partners will be able to calculate ROI, meter usage, create flexible term lengths, or ramp up customers to the full offering on a predetermined schedule.
  • New partner incentives. For instance, partners can get at 15% to 20% boost when they get authorized for and sell social business solutions, including IBM Smart Cloud for Social Business, under IBM’s Software Value Initiative (SVI) program. IBM is also giving partners that sell small deals and/or cloud –under $50,000 an additional incentive of up to 20%.
  • A new click to buy button so customers can buy IBM Smart Cloud for Social business direct on IBM’s web site.

Perspective

First, let’s look at the style front:

Lotus Notes, the on-premise ancestor of LotusLive, dominated the email and collaboration market back in the day. But competition from the likes of Microsoft to Google have chipped away at the original Lotus franchise over the years. Even when IBM Lotus out-innovated rivals in this space (for example, with IBM aka Lotus Connections), the perception of Lotus as being dated was hard to shake in the non-Lotus market.

This shift away from the Lotus brand also underscores a cultural shift that has been underway for at least a couple of years–and evidenced by the integration of Lotusphere and IBM Connect conferences. Lotus and collaboration are still a solid, underlying foundation, but social capabilities that help businesses extend beyond internal collaboration and into business workflow are the new mantra–and one more likely to appeal to a new generation of business decision makers.

Meanwhile, the IBM brand has continued to rank as one of the strongest brands in the world. Even as it enters its 101st year, Big Blue continues to buff and polish its brand with a seemingly endless appetite for innovation–as evidenced recently by Watson, atom size chips, not to mention selling 1,000+ patents to Google.

The net is that while the rebranding may cause some hiccups in the short-term as people acclimate to it, it makes sense over the long haul. And, who can argue with a simpler, easier to navigate web site?!

Moving on to substance:

Although IBM is very late to the game with click to buy capabilities, and isn’t the first to market with real-time document collaboration, the market is still young–with plenty of headroom. And, as privacy and security practices from other players come under increasing scrutiny, IBM’s measures to build corporate-strength security and privacy measures into SmartCloud for Social Business should give it an edge among organizations that place a premium on these areas.

However, my take is that IBM Docs needs to offer some compelling differentiation vs. the competition to make heads turn. In addition, IBM must go further than a 60-day trial and new click to buy capabilities to smooth the adoption and buying process. To its credit, IBM SmartCloud for Social Business does let companies provide free guest accounts to people outside their organizations. But I think it should take even more friction out of the process to boost viral adoption among SMBs–and compete more effectively with the likes of Google Apps. To that end, IBM should offer SmartCloud for Social Business free to a limited number of users in an organization.

IBM’s new partner programs and incentives are spot on, underscoring its commitment its partners, and respect for the role its partners play, particularly in the SMB market.  Just as important, the roster of SmartCloud for Social Business partners has been growing steadily, with a focus on developer partners that add significant value by integrating with the solution I spoke with representatives from both Silanis and SugarCRM, who indicated strong customer growth for their integrated offerings. With the Social Business Toolkit, IBM makes it easier for developers to integrate with SmartCloud for Social Business and provide their joint customers with a unified, collaborative business process experience.

Many SMBs take a fairly ad hoc approach to collaboration and social business. But SMB Group’s 2011 SMB Collaboration and Communications Study and 2011 SMB Social Business Study show that SMBs that take a more strategic approach in these areas not only tend to invest more in relevant solutions, but are also more likely to anticipate revenue growth. To attract more of the types of partners that it needs to more deeply penetrate the SMB market, IBM needs to both educate SMBs about the business benefits a strategic social business approach. It also must help partners identify the more strategic sector of the SMB market that is likely to have more interest in IBM.

Overall, I believe that IBM is moving in the right direction, both in terms of style and substance. If it can create some strong brand awareness, take a bit more of the friction of the user consideration and adoption process, and fuel SMBs’ understanding of how collaboration and social business impact business results, it should make good headway in this market.

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