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High-end storage has always been a sophisticated sell that requires channel partners to understand what it is that makes an enterprise organisation tick. But as companies seek more bang for their buck, vendors are having to ensure they are fully engaged with their channels to stay ahead of the competition.

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By  Andrew Seymour Published  September 13, 2009

High-end storage has always been a sophisticated sell that requires channel partners to understand what it is that makes an enterprise organisation tick. But as companies seek more bang for their buck, vendors are having to ensure they are fully engaged with their channels to stay ahead of the competition.

The mainstream distribution sector has become a key conduit for storage vendors in recent years, allowing them to reach small and medium businesses with scaled-down versions of their technologies. But this propensity for building comprehensive second-tier channels capable of targeting the reseller masses doesn't conceal the fact that the market remains hugely one-tier in nature.

Storage projects carry a reputation for being complex and protracted, explaining why vendors have traditionally favoured single-tier structures that support greater interaction between themselves, the customer and the reseller.

At the same time, virtually all of the leading storage providers have close relationships with the market's most established systems integrators.

"We have a tier-one partner channel that buys directly from us and goes directly to the market, and we have that highly-skilled channel to mainly service enterprise customers and some medium-sized business," explained Mohamed Halawa, enterprise marketing manager at Dell Middle East, referring to the vendor's route-to-market for its EquaLogic series and EMC-based storage systems.

In contrast, Dell's branded PowerVault offerings, which range from direct attached storage to tape libraries, are typically sold through the distribution channel.

Such a distinctive, some may even say polarised, model is quite common among storage vendors. Take EMC for instance, which has a network of 40-plus core integrators that belong to its Velocity Partner Programme. It regards the Middle East as a unique market because it is one of the few regions where the company operates a completely indirect model.

"We can divide our Velocity partners into many categories, starting with the large systems integrators such as Dimension Data and the big VARs that can sell products as part of a solution. Then we have distribution, where we are putting more focus because of the SMB business," said Havier Haddad, channel sales manager for the Gulf and Levant at EMC.

"With our channel in the region, the main challenge is to develop the partner landscape so that we have the right geographic coverage, the right technology coverage and the right vertical coverage. That is a non-stop strategy," said Haddad.

The importance of balancing the right number of experienced tier-one partners with proximity resellers that can move volume lines is not lost on the market's largest providers.

HP Middle East, which operates a multi-channel structure in the region, says that partner quality sits top of its agenda. "We have a number of Gold specialised partners who are trained from a sales and technical perspective and they undergo extensive certification programmes to support customers," revealed Walid Gomaa, StorageWorks business unit manager at HP Middle East. "In addition, we work through value added distributors who are well-trained on our solutions and can support the systems integrators from a sales and technical perspective," he said.

The real challenge facing vendors right now is to ensure partners possess the necessary skills to address the changing demands of the market. Whereas partners could once sell storage on the basis of price and volume, they now need to demonstrate an extensive array of sales and technical skills.

"We need our partners to be more focused and we really want them to specialise in whatever they are good at," admitted Haddad at EMC, who says the vendor has made enhancements to its channel programme that encourage and support this.

He also insists VARs need to evaluate their delivery mechanisms and invest in high-margin areas like professional services as the business becomes less about single products.

Storage provider NetApp tweaked its partner programme earlier this year by enhancing the quality of its marketing support, financial incentives and technical assistance. It believes the enhancements to the VIP Partner Programme - since renamed the NetApp Partner Programme - will make the channel more competitive.

"The main motivation at the beginning of our fiscal year was to improve the terms and conditions of our partner programme and align them at worldwide level in order to have a consistent global flavour when our partners deal with us," explained Juan de Zulueta, VP channel EMEA at NetApp. "If I would summarise the driving factors of our strategy, it would be that we want to increase market share, diversify by working with different sets of channels, improve efficiency and ensure our partners are protecting their margin."

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