IBM, which has been working hard to improve relations with the channel, is ready to add another benefit to the growing list of channel sales tools: a certification that endorses partners' ability to build and manage services-oriented applications.
IBM plans to unveil the program week a new "mark" program for ISVs and channel partners, similar to its other "Ready for IBM" co-marketing programs, to drive demand customer demand for software and integration services that use the company's infrastructure software for services-oriented architecture (SOA).
"The No. 1 thing our customers say they need is skills," said Sandy Carter, vice president for SOA, WebSphere marketing, strategy and channels, in an interview with SearchITChannel.com. "The mark will look at whether you can connect things together through an [enterprise service bus], things like that."
The certification will be based partly on the volume of business the reseller organization posts, but will focus primarily on certifying the level of skill and experience the reseller brings to the table.
When applied to VARs and systems integrators, the mark will certify that the partner company has the high-level skills to design and build services-oriented applications and connect them to existing data, applications and middleware. Certified SOA partners may get benefits such as going jointly with IBM on sales calls or integration deals, and will get special training and other considerations, including time at IBM solutions centers to test their own implementations.
"It's actually more of a go-to-market statement; more helping partners demonstrate the value of SOA," Carter said.
It's also an additional step in a drastic reversal of both the attitude and support IBM provides for integrators and resellers of its business software, according to Susan Eustis, president of Wintergreen Research in Lexington, Mass.
"Three years ago partners were saying 'IBM has dumped on us and treated us like dirt,;' she said. "Now they're saying that IBM is much better; that it says it needs them. And it's true that IBM does need them. It can't get into those smaller and mid-sized companies without them."
"IBM hit a brick wall a couple of years ago with these sophisticated systems, selling to large enterprises," Eustis said. "They realized that to grow they had to sell the existing product set into a different market, and to do that they'd need a new sales force. They decided to rely for that on the channel.
IBM's level of support has continually increased over the last several years, but it's hard to tell in the case of an individual integrator whether that support is an overall pattern or whether it depends on the volume of business, according to Saru Seshadri president and founder of systems-integrator Ultramatics, Inc. in Tampa Bay, Fla.
"We have influenced millions of dollars of revenue for IBM over the last few years, so it may be because of that," Seshadri said. "But they are definitely strong on several fronts.
"The programs themselves have become more accessible to partners who are willing to invest in the IBM relationship; prior to this there was no preference for people who are heavily invested versus just having the IBM logo on their website," Seshadri said. That change in attitude has helped fuel a continuing growth in the market for SOA software, Eustis said, citing a Wintergreen report that estimates the SOA software market will reach $18.5 billion by 2012 and that IBM's market share rose from 44% in 2004 to 46% last year.
The report attributes part of that growth to acquisitions of Webify Solutions, Bowstreet and other SOA infrastructure providers.
But the main elements in the growth are the relative ease with which IBM's underlying SOA engine tracks and integrates various IBM software components, and its support for the channel, she said.
A new, credible certification focused on SOA skills will add even more support for knowledgeable integrators, but credibility is the key, Seshadri said.
"Would a certification from IBM be acceptable? That will only be proved when the rules of certification are enforced, as opposed to just raising the numbers," Seshadri said. "We have seen some very good certifications from IBM, especially on the product side. You really have to know your stuff.
"So we're hopeful that they'll enforce the same level on the services side as well," he said.