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Cisco Systems’ channel partners are being asked to think beyond selling solutions in much the same way they were asked not so many years ago to think beyond selling point products. The move towards selling what Cisco calls business architectures is meant to create a level of integration across systems that will improve the applications and end-user experience.

The architecture discussion isn’t exactly new, as Cisco has been having early conversations about overall architectures with partners for the last couple of years, said Edison Peres, senior vice president of worldwide channels, at Cisco Partner Summit at earlier this month. At last year’s Partner Summit, Cisco announced architectural specializations, which will be in place and available to partners in April.

Peres described architectures as being the house, with individual solutions being the rooms in that house. The company is working on three technology architectures – borderless networks, data center/virtualization and collaboration. Although Jim Sherriff, senior vice president of the U.S. and Canada partner organization at Cisco Systems, said the “architecture” terminology is arbitrary, the topic isn’t.

“You can build component pieces that go to the lowest common denominator in terms of integrating them into a solution for the customer, but we’ve found time and time again that if we take more of an architecture view … that it makes the integration and maintenance and the operations of the systems much lower cost for our customers. It’s a critical part of our value proposition for our customers,” Sherriff said.

At Partner Summit earlier this month, Cisco executives had harsh words for competitors they see as creating commodity products, although they didn’t actually name names. Competitors may or may not actually be creating commodity products, but whatever the case, Cisco doesn’t want to take that route. Instead, Cisco is trying to create value in a similar way to its messaging when vendors first started talking about the importance of selling solutions over point products. Additionally, it’s also in line with developing Cisco as a one-stop-shop for all a customer’s infrastructure needs.

"What I think the architecture play is, is establishing some level of fundamental consistency and some level of integration that makes the Cisco solution that cuts across all these different technologies that makes that solution the way to go and build customer loyalty around it," said Ken Presti, president of Presti Research and Consulting, a consultancy and analyst firm.

There’s some marketing elements around Cisco’s architecture message, and it’s positioning Cisco products as being well-integrated and easy to manage. Presti said the message is really around establishing brand loyalty through the architectures.

"Certainly every vendor wants you to standardize on them,” Presti said. “If you were to ask any of the major vendors — not just Cisco, but any of them — they would be able to wax poetic on why you should. From the standpoint of the channel, I think it’s a lot less clear."

Some customers (and partners) prefer the “one throat to choke” method, and others like to spread out to cover best-of-breed products.

"With that in mind, it’s about what will do the job and do the job well and is priced properly, and I think that’s the ultimate question that’s being faced by the end-customer,” Presti said.

When Cisco’s executives talked about the architectural strategy at the company’s partner summit, the water cooler talk among partners seemed to suggest they understood where Cisco was going with the strategy and that it was a good idea. In fact, it was something many of them were already doing or moving towards.

According to Sherriff, architectures reduce the complexity of the technology in an increasingly complex world. It integrates the products, solutions and services across the different platforms.

“The tension that exists in the marketplace is between the people who want to take a component view and people like Cisco that want to take an architectural view,” Sherriff said.

For partners, the architecture strategy is changing the way they approach customers, and according to Sherriff, it can make things more challenging if customers are more focused on buying point products. The strategy does enable partners to tell a more effective story and offer great differentiation in the market, he said.

Sherriff compared the current sales climate to that of IP telephony sales in the early days. There were two different buying spaces (telecom and IT hadn’t yet converged), and those two areas didn’t necessarily cooperate. It made for a difficult sales climate, but eventually the two buying areas converged and IP telephony vendors started experiencing more success.

“In selling to customers, what our partners tell us is their added value is they’re able to take our architectures and their integration capabilities and vertical knowledge, and then they build true solutions for their customers,” Sherriff said.