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Channel relationships shift as cloud storage expands

As MSPs look to harness the advantages of cloud storage, they must also articulate the value they provide and enter into a regimen of nonstop training and certification.

IT service providers and vendors find themselves retooling channel relationships amid the continued growth of cloud storage.

Enterprises that initially adopted cloud storage for backup and disaster recovery have pushed beyond those activities. Organizations now purchase cloud storage for production environments and big data use cases such as data warehousing. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated cloud adoption, as many organizations tapped the cloud to launch digital businesses.

MSPs and consulting firms can provide customers a range of cloud storage offerings from AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. In addition, traditional on-premises storage vendors such as NetApp now include cloud-based options in their product portfolios.

Some service providers -- companies offering colocation services, for example -- still purchase on-premises gear to sell as a service to end customers. But the spread of cloud offerings lets partners change the way they work with vendors and conduct business in the storage market.

Old and new challenges

When 1901 Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Leidos, first sold as-as-service offerings, it would arrange financing, purchase storage gear and acquire the necessary cages or racks. The MSP, based in Reston, Va., would then charge customers for storage by the terabyte or consumed units, noted Brendan Walsh, senior vice president of partner programs at 1901 Group.

Because OEMs now provide their storage and compute in the cloud, on a consumption basis, service providers can avoid the task of financing and contracting for equipment. "For MSPs, that takes off a huge amount of the burden," Walsh said.

Brendan WalshBrendan Walsh

The shift, however, creates a different type of challenge. With the heavy lifting of sourcing equipment gone, the MSP remains on the hook for defining the value it provides.

"MSPs have to be a bit more creative about the true service the MSP is wrapping around the cloud," Walsh said.

Indeed, a customer may fail to understand where the MSP's storage service begins and where the cloud vendor's offering ends. The service provider, for instance, may resell a vendor's cloud service with add-ons such as optimization or embed a vendor's storage cloud within a broader service offering.

The effects of the cloud storage transition are subtler for MSPs with limited historical participation in the hardware business. For example, Perficient, a digital consultancy based in St. Louis, once sold Netezza stacks but has primarily focused on software in its big data business.

Bill BuschBill Busch

"At the end of the day, we weren't a partner with … a lot of the legacy storage folks," said Bill Busch, chief strategist of big data at Perficient. "We weren't reselling hardware per se."

Perficient now partners with cloud storage providers, delivering services around cloud storage or incorporating the technology into its own offerings, such as data warehouse as a service.

Jeremy FitzpatrickJeremy Fitzpatrick

At Nfinit, a solutions provider based in San Diego, the expansion in storage options -- from on-premises to hyper-converged to contemporary cloud approaches -- is reflected in the vendor platforms the company supports. Nfinit, which focuses on hybrid cloud, connectivity and colocation offerings, uses 12 to 15 storage platforms in production environments, said Jeremy Fitzpatrick, Nfinit vice president of sales and marketing.

That said, the company has decided to focus on five to six platforms for building its future on. "Those that have more flexibility and meet more use cases have become more favored," he said.

Nfinit's platforms include VMware's vSAN, Microsoft's Storage Spaces Direct, Azure Blob storage and AWS Simple Storage Service. The company's quest for an object store vendor, meanwhile, led it to Zadara, which also supports block and file storage. Nfinit uses Zadara's technology in a backup-as-a-service offering.

Narrowing the list of core storage platforms provides economies of scale and eases engineering chores, Fitzpatrick said.

MSPs have to be a bit more creative about the true service the MSP is wrapping around the cloud.
Brendan WalshSenior vice president of partner programs, 1901 Group

Up-tempo training routine

Another aspect of the cloud transition: a faster tempo of technology training and certification. Channel relationships are at stake. Service providers run the risk of losing partner status if they fail to keep pace with cloud vendors' offerings and their associated certification tracks.

"Continuing education is a new emphasis," Walsh said.

Walsh's current role at 1901 Group involves working with vendor partners to get training and certification and to establish demo labs so employees can get up to speed on a particular cloud technology. In addition, Walsh works with his company's talent management and engineering operations teams to make sure they have the resources to design and deliver managed services around partners' new cloud consumption-based services.

"Four years ago, we didn't have that [partner liaison] role in the company," Walsh said.

Storage vendor offerings in the works

Storage vendors, for their part, are responding to the market changes with products and programs that aim to help MSPs offer services.

Dell Technologies, for example, is preparing to launch its Project Apex storage-as-service offering, a company spokesperson said. She said the offering will be customizable and quick to implement to meet business needs, adding that Dell will issue more details about the channel opportunity later in 2021.

Steve BiondiSteve Biondi

Steve Biondi, head of channels and alliances in the North America Data Center Group at Lenovo, said his group views MSPs and other service providers as an important go-to-market segment. "We are working on new solutions to enable our partners to sell more services and solutions to their customers," he said.

Biondi said Lenovo will make formal announcements regarding those moves in the company's upcoming fiscal year, which begins in April.

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