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Shrugging off the economy F5 Networks has followed up a strong fiscal first quarter by formalizing its unofficial working relationship with NetApp , joining the NetApp Alliance Partner Program as an Advantage Alliance Partner.

While he doesn’t expect this to impact any relationships with F5’s other storage partners, it will help both companies’ channels sell more to their large shared customer base — and competitors, says F5’s Dean Darwin, VP of Worldwide Channel Sales.

The roots of the alliance go back to an acquisition F5 made in the summer of 2007. With the purchase of Acopia Networks in 2007, it acquired the company’s storage file virtualization technology with a slightly different partner base. The technology, rebranded as ARX, enables NetApp customers to automatically and transparently move data at will, ‘dramatically reducing migration times and eliminating costly downtime.’

"This relationship really started grassroots." With F5 sitting in the middle, making sure that all the storage tiering is successful, "we would reach out to NetApp, or NetApp would reach out to us". These were often competitive situations and the two companies needed to work together to make the sale.

Having spent three years with NetApp, Darwin reached out to former associates to start the ball rolling. "The first step was let’s get into the Advantage program, legitimize partners and make sure we’re both winning." It gives the partners greater credibility, he says, and it’s what his partners have been asking for.

This is significant because NetApp is the dominant player in the file storage market where ARX can offer significant ROI. "Storage guys are risk adverse. They don’t want to introduce something into the environment that isn’t going to work." So the formal relationship takes away that fear. "Our ROI is validating and resonating with our customer base."

Darwin also reports that the early results are in for the recently launched Lightning Program designed to increase the value and profitability of his partners. "The channel is coin operated. Put money in, and partners respond."

He says they now have metrics proving that Lightning not only works, but benefits its partners. The data enables F5 to quantify the dollar amount partners may be leaving on the table, by geography or segment. The company is also putting the final touches on expanding the program outside the U.S.

F5 just announced a 9 percent revenue increase sequentially, and 15 percent year-over-year improvement. Revenue was $191.2 million, while GAAP net income was $29.3 million, compared to $28.4 million in FYQ4, and $21.4 million a year ago.

Finally, Darwin offers the following advice to the channel. The industry is undergoing a paradigm shift, and the channel has to change too. Partners with a narrow focus on a particular skill set have to broaden their horizons. That’s the opportunity for partners who consider themselves a storage, security or network VAR. "What you have to understand is you’re now a data center VAR."