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Cisco Systems is looking to more closely align its channel program with that of its acquisition, Linksys, four years after the two companies joined forces.

The move, discussed at the Cisco Partner Summit in April, is designed to help both channel organizations take advantage of each other’s strengths, said Wendy Bahr, vice president of U.S. commercial channels at Cisco, based in San Jose, Calif.

The companies will offer a unified Linksys and Cisco partner community registration so that partners need only register once to join both channel programs instead of applying separately to each. In addition, partners that go through the distribution channel have all received letters explaining where they can go to get more information about cross-selling. The moves are designed to encourage Cisco partners to sell Linksys products and Linksys partners to sell Cisco products.

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When Cisco acquired Linksys in 2003, there wasn’t a lot of overlap between the two companies’ product portfolios or channels. Linksys was primarily a retail channel play and Cisco mostly catered to larger businesses.

But over the past few years that has changed. Linksys more and more has taken its product line through the VAR channel to SMBs (small and midsize businesses). And Cisco recently announced a few products specifically built for SMBs and made changes to its channel program to improve it for VARs who cater to those markets.

At this point, there is some overlap between what Linksys and Cisco offer, Bahr acknowledged. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, she said.

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“Right now there could be some confusion in the partner space about when to sell each product,” she said. “There are about 34,000 registered Cisco partners and 12,000 registered Linksys partners, but there is only a 5 to 7 percent overlap between them. … It’s a great opportunity for the partners, and the key to success is to have a broad product portfolio.”

One of the overlaps comes from the new products Cisco announced during its Cisco Partner Summit this month, the Smart Business Communications System and UC (Unified Communications) 500. These premises-based solutions for small businesses from about 5 to 50 users carry a price of under $500 a user and could conceivably compete with Linksys One, a hosted IP telephony solution.

“Businesses will decide based on their degree of comfort in having the equipment managed for them by another party or whether they want a [premises]-based solution,” Bahr said. “It’s not unlike when small businesses were deciding whether they wanted Centrix or PBX.”

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The choices will lead to VARs sitting in the trusted advisor seat, according to Bahr, helping customers to look at their business models to make the best choice.

One of the options Cisco is offering to help customers make a decision on which product to buy is a 100 percent upgrade credit to customers who buy Linksys and decide within three years that they should have bought a Cisco product instead because they are growing quickly and need a more scalable system.

In any case, Bahr pointed to the value of offering partners a broad portfolio of products.

“The SMB market opportunity is very rich and growing very rapidly,” she said. “We have invested in building purpose-built products for the space, and we are offering partners the greatest number of options and flexibility in an effort to increase market share.”