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One of the most popular buzzwords in the channel these days is “ecosystem.” Vendors such as IBM and Symantec like to use the term to convey the relationship between themselves, their channel partners and their partners’ partners.

The idea is that the vendor works with the partners, and partners with each other, to achieve the common goal of servicing the customers. Sounds harmonious, right?

Sure, until you start thinking of places like the Amazon rainforest or the Everglades National Park, which are ecosystems in the true sense of the word. In either place you will find nature in its full harmonious splendor. But you also will find danger.

So I can’t help chuckling a bit when I hear vendors refer to ecosystems in their marketing pitches. I almost expect them to wink knowingly when they use the term because, you see, when you take the full range of threats in a true ecosystem into account, the analogy to the business of the channel actually rings truer than it might seem on the surface.

The channel as a whole is an ecosystem permanently under threat, which requires staying alert to changes in the environment, monitoring risks and taking steps to adapt. Failure to do so will send a channel company the way of the Costa Rican golden toad.

Plenty have.

And even though these days the channel may look more like the recovering bald eagle than the endangered California condor, longevity is never assured. One needs only remember the effects of the dot-com bust and 9/11 recession to put this in perspective.

To be sure, today’s dangers seem manageable enough: Dell flirting with retail, Lenovo partnering with megachains, Best Buy stepping up its efforts to capture bigger chunks of the small-business market.

In the past, such developments would have sent some channel executives over the edge, but these days VARs and integrators react with the same resignation they would to yet another Microsoft Vista release delay.

It isn’t that the channel has become nonchalant about its position in the larger IT ecosystem; it’s just that, you know, it tends to rain quite a bit in the rainforest.

The trick is what you do with that rain. A VAR can huff about Lenovo’s deal to sell basement-priced PCs through Office Depot or use that as an opportunity to sell a customer on a solution.

“Sure, Mr. Customer, go ahead and buy your low-priced computer at Office Depot. Then we let’s talk about how that fits into your overall technology needs. How would you like an automatic backup nightly over the Web for that PC? How about a 24/7 monitoring plan for that machine and whatever other devices it communicates with to prevent downtime?”

Indeed, it would be pointless to get up in arms over Best Buy’s Geek Squad going to Microsoft school. The Best Buy technician can’t replace a solution provider deeply entrenched in the customer’s business.

Who knows? Perhaps the provider even taps the Geek Squad to handle a low-level problem while keeping its staff focused on higher-end work.

Talk about an ecosystem. As the channel evolves into a solutions model, the nature and reach of partnerships can be as varied as the flora in a rainforest.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea. The possibilities are virtually endless in channel ecosystems. But for that Web of relationships and technology to succeed, it’s important to keep sight of the ultimate goal: It’s to serve the customer, not simply to sell technology.

So long as vendors understand this, their ecosystems will thrive.

Pedro Pereira is editor of eWEEK Strategic Partner, contributing editor to The Channel Insider and a veteran channel reporter. He can be reached at