The Challenges of Being IT's Middle ChildBy Pedro Pereira | Posted 2008-06-24 Email Print
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Being in the middle often is no fun, but solution providers can turn it to their advantage.
Being in the middle is no fun. Just ask a middle child or the passenger in the middle seat.
Sure, plenty of people are out there looking for the middle ground, but just as many or more are stuck in the middle.
For solution providers, being in the middle is a way of life, and life can get pretty complicated. On one end you have customers with needs and demands, while on the other end vendors and distributors are constantly trying to get your attention in their efforts to push out products.
Of course what the customers want and what the suppliers are pushing don’t always match, and that’s just one of the difficulties of being in the middle.
And users have become more assertive, often downloading free applications or buying devices for home use that, once they become accustomed to them, they start to expect in the workplace as well. So the end user’s wishes filter up through the IT manager to the solution provider and back to the provider’s suppliers.
A good example of the home-use phenomenon involves open-source security vendor Untangle and its partnerships with managed services platform vendors N-able, Level Platforms and Kaseya.
The reason the platform vendors partnered with Untangle has a lot to do with user familiarity with Untangle products. Because the basic products are free, people download, use and get comfortable with them. So customers started asking their MSPs (managed services providers) for Untangle products, and the providers in turn requested them from the platform vendors.
It’s a reversal of how the channel traditionally has worked, with vendors pushing technology through distributors and solution providers down to end users.
Of course that model has been in flux for some years. Most solution providers these days will tell you that they are matching technology to the customers’ needs and goals, as opposed to pushing products because they are the latest and greatest.
Gartner analyst Tiffani Bova has identified what she sees as an evolution from delivering technology to delivering business solutions. The channel evolved from primarily product resellers to IT solution providers, and now, she says, to "business solution providers."
The business solution provider may or may not sell anything but aligns business and technology, supports customer business strategies companywide and leads with business-process consulting, Bova says.
This ongoing channel transformation means that vendors, too, have to adjust. At the moment, however, vendors’ partner programs remain more attuned to traditional channel roles than the new models.
Peter Sandiford, CEO of managed services platform vendor Level Platforms, says as a vendor, his company has to keep an eye on the new models and on trends, such as the home-use phenomenon, SAAS (software as a service) and cloud computing, so it can plan its technology and services accordingly. Cloud computing refers to the technology available over the Internet for use in home and business environments.
As a vendor, Level Platforms has to provide a "conceptual framework" that takes into account new trends and models to allow the solution provider to retain control of IT services delivery, Sandiford says.
Controlling from the middle is not an easy thing to do, which explains why so many corporate middle managers are insomniacs.
As are many solution providers. To keep a handle on things as the channel evolves, solution providers would do well to analyze, understand and adapt to the transformation Bova talks about, and work with vendors such as Level Platforms and business-process management vendor Autotask, which realize they must evolve as the market changes.
And most importantly, providers must retain a deep understanding of what users are doing. What applications are they pulling from the cloud for home use and how can a solution provider help integrate them into the work environment? What new devices are users attached to that lend themselves to business use?
Being in the middle gives solution providers a wide and deep perspective up and down the chain, so maybe it’s not so bad after all.
Pedro Pereira is editor of eWEEK Strategic Partner and a contributing editor for The Channel Insider. He is at email@example.com.