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Dynamic changes in the way vendors and their channel partners sell IT, combined with how businesses want to consume technology, have created a sense of urgency around how partners make investments in education, certifications and specializations.
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While demand for traditional vendor certifications -- in networking, servers and storage, for example -- that allow partners to maintain their partner program status and authorization continue to be popular, industry participants see other areas of expertise -- security, mobility, cloud and virtualization -- as well as soft skills that demonstrate business savvy rising to the top.
The challenge for both vendors and partners is keeping pace with training as well as developing the right mix of IT professionals. And, observers say, vendors that do the best job of training their partners will have an edge at being successful.
Greg Richey, North American lead for the professional and training services organization at Ingram Micro, said vendors are coming to understand that by enforcing and creating a stringent education program, partners are more adept at selling their products.
"We tend to see better-configured bills of materials [and] better-implemented solutions because these partners are more knowledgeable on deploying the products. And solutions that have a higher degree of quality tend to work better so renewal rates and upgrades tend to stay with the same vendor," he said. IT channel training has become a way to build brand loyalty, he added.
Impact of cloud on education trends
This isn't to say that partner education wasn't important in the past, but it wasn't as important as it is now, according to Richey.
"The market has become much more competitive and with the advent of cloud and hybrid cloud, vendor portfolios have changed dramatically. [Partner education] is a way to keep people in the family," he said.
For IT solution providers, it's a rude awakening as they begin to realize that the amount of on-premises business that they do is certain to shrink in the not-so-distant future. "We think that most companies will do some type of hybrid cloud model, so everything we're doing now is to capitalize on this trend," said Shane Corbett, director of data center engineering at En Pointe Technologies, a solution provider based in Gardena, Calif.
Toward that end, En Pointe sends its engineers for training around cloud orchestration platforms with a specific focus on Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager and VMware's vCloud Automation Center.
The expertise required to help customers adopt a hybrid cloud model is vast, according to Corbett, and includes being able to restructure a customer's internal IT, understand their business processes, perform scripting, and understand all the tools and underlying infrastructure.
"That's almost like a different business than what we're in today," he said.
Networking, security, mobility
At Ingram Micro, there's a noticeable increase in interest in networking certifications, virtualization, software-defined networking and software-defined data centers, according to Richey.
"What we see in the software-defined space is a hybrid environment so partners need to have competency in both virtualization and networking," he said.
Security expertise is also very much in demand and will continue to be in 2015. "Security and mobility in particular are prevalent in both the traditional on-premises solutions but also very prevalent in our cloud solutions," Richey said.
Under the security expertise umbrella, industry experts said that there's a demand for wireless security, authentication services, risk management and identity management, for example.
James Stanger, senior director for product development at CompTIA, said there's an upswing in interest in the organization's Security+ certification as well as Mobility +, Cloud + and Cloud Essentials certifications.
The Mobility + certification is the most exciting in terms of adoption, according to Stanger. "Companies need to learn how to secure data in transit and how to secure data in storage," he said.
Strategies for partner employees
Overall, demand for investments in education, certification and specialization can be seen at two ends of the spectrum, both of which align with transitions in the market.
"As companies move to more hosted solutions and mobility, there's a need for help desk support for these solutions," said Todd Billiar, director of channel development at VAR Staffing, a division of Apollo Staffing Inc. "At the other end, we're seeing more of a demand for individuals who are architecting these solutions: virtualizing environments and moving apps to the cloud, for example," he added.
Greg RicheyNorth American lead, Ingram Micro
Given the rapid pace of innovation in vendor IT technology, Billiar said that certifications are more important than ever, so much so that some partner firms have mandatory training requirements as part of their employee bonus programs.
"That can mean doing X number of hours of training per quarter or getting one to two new certifications per year. Partners are recognizing the increasing importance of certifications and are incenting their employees to do it," he said.
Beyond technical skills
With the advent of cloud, the shifting of IT budget to line-of-business decision makers, and the need to develop nontechnical sales professionals, industry players see the need for broader education and IT channel training around business basics and improved communication with customers.
This is especially true as businesses show an increased interest hybrid cloud and need help to rethink IT. Corbett said there's an emerging need for a new breed of business analyst specialist, someone who can help customers rationalize workloads and decide where they should run: in the cloud or on-premises.
Ingram Micro's Richey agreed but pointed to a more foundational set of requirements. "There's a need amongst reseller and end users to better understand what the cloud is and the subset of definitions within the cloud. We're getting requests for training on cloud definitions, on implementing the cloud and various types of clouds, on-prem/off-prem, and vendor offerings," he said.
Watch for support for this type of cloud education with new offerings from Ingram Micro in 2015.
Beyond vendor certifications
Finally, managed service providers need to be aware of the evolving trend of outside organizations, such as industry regulators, evaluating MSPs. For vertical industries such as banking, healthcare and insurance, there are serious concerns around data security, such as protecting data in transit and understanding how it's handled, where it's stored and what happens if there's a data breach, for example.
According to Weaver, business customers are more likely to work with MSPs that have a third-party certification, and certified MSPs have a greater chance of selling to regulated customers.
This is a second layer of certification/audit for MSPs that's in addition to and separate from vendor certifications.
While the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union may be moving at different speeds around how companies interact with customer data, they're all paying close attention to cloud service providers and how they do business.
Generally speaking, they all want greater transparency from providers, according to Weaver.
An introduction to cloud security certifications
Hybrid cloud management tools to keep up with the complexity