Channel Insider content and product recommendations are editorially independent. We may make money when you click on links to our partners. Learn More.

SAN DIEGO—Cisco Systems raised the bar on what it means to be a Cisco channel partner on March 14 when it introduced wide-ranging changes to its partner program.

The changes, which Cisco officials characterized as evolutionary, map to Cisco’s Intelligent Information Network architecture, which is designed to deliver more advanced services into the fabric of customer networks.

“Industry changes are driving the change to the partner program. We’ve been moving more capabilities that used to be in the application or middleware into the IP network,” said Edison Peres, vice president of technology and programs in Cisco’s worldwide channels organization.

“TDM voice systems have moved into the network as Call Manager and Call Control. We like to think that by moving it into the network, it affords more opportunities for creativity that requires the use of these technologies,” he added.

Although Cisco, based in San Jose, Calif., will retain its Premier, Silver and Gold levels of certification for partners, what it takes to be a Gold partner will change to include the ability to deliver integrated infrastructures that incorporate five advanced technology areas, including switching, routing, wireless, voice over IP and security.

At the same time, Cisco is also adding to its specialization certification programs a new Master Level brand that will indicate further technical depth for specific areas such as security or wireless technology.

The first two such Master Level specializations, due over the next year, will include the Master Unified Communications Specialization and the Master Security Specialization.

Cisco will bring new content to the Premier level partner program based on a foundation Express Specialization level that integrates switching, routing, wireless and security at a basic level. On top of that base, Silver Level partners will be required to add two advanced specializations. Gold partners will be required to meet those levels and add in the required number of Cisco Certified Internet Engineers, according to Peres.

Cisco is also adding in life-cycle services content as a part of the specialization trainings.

While incentives under existing programs will not change, Cisco, with the Master Level specialization program, will provide the same discount for products in the VOIP (voice-over-IP), security and wireless areas as those received by Gold Partners.

Cisco is also augmenting its VIP (Value Incentive Program) with special kickers for Gold Partners. And in the VIP program, Cisco will tier discounts and rebates by specializations. “The idea isn’t to change a partner’s ability to compete, but to give them extra incentives,” Peres said.

But existing Gold Partners may balk at the advantages that the new program affords to Master Level certifications, which will receive the same level of financial incentives as Gold Partners—even though the investment required with the Master certification is not as heavy, according to Diane Krakora, president and CEO of Amazon Consulting in Mountain View, Calif.

Click here to read an interview with Cisco Chief Development Officer Charlie Giancarlo.

It’s easier to be a Master Partner with Silver status, but that gives a partner the same level of incentives. And that could make some 2200 Gold Partners less than happy, she said.

Also, the time period for meeting the new requirements—till March of 2008—could interfere with the business planning of partners, she said. Because business partners are already trying to create business plans for two to three or even five years out already, they will have to rework those plans to incorporate Cisco’s new requirements. Although the enhanced program is designed to ultimately improve partners’ business, “It’s a Catch 22,” she said.

But other observers said they believe many partners are already on a similar path to specialization. “This will expand the delta between the haves and the have-nots,” said Cyndy Privett, a channels analyst with Viewpoint Research in Santa Cruz, Calif.

“Cisco is being smart in that they are acknowledging this is what it takes to be successful. If you want to make money, you have to swim upstream,” Privett said.

But what of traditional Cisco switching and routing resellers? “If they are just routing and switching specialists, they are not going to get the attention or the cash,” she said.

Read more here about Cisco’s new security products and channel strategy.

To help partners with the transition, Cisco also launched new tools built around the five specialization areas. The first is a new eLearning tool that incorporates 25 hours of learning with exams attached.

In June Cisco will also deliver a new eConsulting tool, consisting of a collection of best practices and benchmarks designed to help partners perform self-assessment, execute gap analysis and understand where the partner needs to enhance its abilities. The eConsulting tool also provides performance monitoring and management to help partners see how their business is evolving.

Cisco will also add a new Engagement Planning tool intended to help partners chart activities required to help customers deploy, operate and optimize the technology. It also defines additional services partners can provide around that engagement.

Finally, Cisco streamlined call routing for Cisco Certified Internet Engineers to provide them with instant access to peer-level capabilities in Cisco’s assistant centers. That is due this fall. Cisco also added the ability to log calls directly to the Web in its new TAC Service Request Tool, which is available now. And Cisco this fall will enhance its Web search tool to help engineers get fast access to the right information to address bugs.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include more information about the new partner program.