Special IT projects survey: Top IT channel priorities for 2009

The IT project survey results are in and more than 600 solution providers revealed their top IT channel priorities for 2009, including technical and budget concerns. We compared results with findings from a similar survey of IT users to find out how well channel professionals know their potential customers.

By Stephen J. Bigelow, Senior Technology Writer

Do you know which projects are really important to your clients in 2009? Are you ready to implement them? In SearchITChannel.com's recent survey on IT priorities for 2009 we asked more than 600 solution providers -- your peers -- about their top IT priorities in 25 technologies across five major IT project types: management initiatives, infrastructure projects, security initiatives, software initiatives and networking projects. We then compared those results with the results of a similar survey of IT users to see just how well channel professionals are in tune with their customers.

IT projects present challenges and concerns for solution providers, and the biggest problems occur before, during and after the deployment of each technology. We'll take a look at the effects of the current economic recession and its impact on client budgets. There's a lot to cover, so let's get started.

Management initiatives 
Infrastructure projects 
Security initiatives 
Software initiatives 
Networking projects 
Budget considerations 

Management initiatives
Management initiatives relate to the handling and operation of a client's IT infrastructure. These initiatives break down into four categories: compliance, outsourcing/managed hosting services, Software as a Service (SaaS) and the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

Solution providers tracked potential clients' initiatives correctly in each of these four areas (see Figure 1). More than 38% of solution providers expect to implement compliance projects for clients in 2009, although users saw compliance as a slightly higher priority than did VARs. This reflects high sensitivity to compliance issues (and penalties) on the part of users and emphasizes the need for solution providers to bring a working knowledge of regulatory compliance to every IT project.

During the compliance project's pre-assessment or planning stage, 64% of solution providers said that identifying and understanding relevant regulations is the single most important challenge (see Figure 2). For other management initiatives, the main concern for solution providers is understanding the client's business and its needs, according to the survey. "All too often, VARs tend to quickly levitate toward identifying the regulatory needs and requirements before truly understanding the client's business model," said Allen Zuk, the president and CEO of Sierra Consulting Group LLC, an independent technology consulting firm based in Parsippany, N.J.

Identifying and understanding standards and practices in the client's industry emerged as an important secondary consideration in pre-assessment. These results make sense, because you can't make informed recommendations about your client's business unless you understand it.

When deploying management initiatives, solution providers were most concerned with developing process or workflow changes: helping their clients make the necessary changes to the way they operate so they can make the most of a new management technology (see Figure 3). Many providers are so mired in product recommendations, however, that they fail to consider the client's business implications.

"The VAR should also be looking at the type of technology that is either being introduced, or that it intends to introduce, and determine if current processes can be adapted," Zuk said.

This is particularly apparent in ITIL projects. An exception emerged in the outsourcing and managed hosting category, where more than 49% of solution providers reported that meeting the client's objectives as the biggest deployment concern.

With management initiatives, measuring the results is the most challenging post deployment problem for customers. Solution providers reported that their biggest problem is demonstrating the improvement or savings of an IT project (see Figure 4). This is often a return-on-investment (ROI) issue, and solution providers must present a case for time saved (perhaps by workflow improvements) and potential problems or exposures avoided (such as compliance audits that passed in their postdeployment work). Better user education and higher-level management buy-in earlier in the project cycle could ease this problem.

Infrastructure projects
Infrastructure projects involve a variety of technologies that influence data centers, including disaster recovery and business continuity (DR/BC), server virtualization, storage virtualization, storage security, desktop virtualization, Windows Server 2008 and energy-efficient (or green) computing.

Solution providers generally tracked potential client interest across all seven technologies [see Figure 5]. Solution providers view DR/BC as the most important category overall, with more than 56% of providers expecting to implement a DR/BC project at some level in 2009. Following disaster recovery/business continuity, they see storage security and server virtualization as highest-priority projects. These responses indicate a strong interest in protecting data and consolidating server resources in the data center.

In spite of accelerating interest in virtualization, desktop virtualization projects rank as the lowest in priority for 2009. This suggests that the technology has not yet demonstrated its full importance among respondents.

The most significant difference in results appeared in the Windows Server 2008 realm, where users view migration as a significantly lower priority than do VARs. That's possibly because older or non-Windows software still meets their current server needs. Typically, customers view upgrades with dread, while VARs see them as big revenue opportunities.

"Customers are asking tough questions, particularly about upgrades," said Dave Sobel, the CEO of Evolve Technologies, a Fairfax, Va.-based solution provider. "Windows Server 2008, while a great product, is being compared to 'good enough' when making purchase decisions, and ROI calculations are much more difficult when comparing against 'good enough.' "

When planning or pre-assessing infrastructure projects, solution providers reported that their biggest concern is understanding the client's business goals, needs or budget constraints [see Figure 6]. Providers must be able to recommend affordable infrastructure projects (and products) that will save money and improve the client's business. Solution providers cannot simply "pitch products" from their line card. "Today, VARs need to be well-rounded project managers as well, demonstrating their ability to meet or exceed client expectations for project delivery," Zuk said.

The only exception is in storage virtualization, where providers cited an understanding of the client's technical infrastructure or its capabilities as the biggest pre-assessment concern.

During deployment of nearly all infrastructure projects, solution providers said they are most concerned with configuring or tuning the new products in the client's infrastructure (see Figure 7). This is particularly true of Windows Server 2008 projects. Providers want each product to be optimized and working properly for the client. But this concern runs a close second in desktop virtualization projects -- edged out by concerns about interoperability or performance of the new products within the client's infrastructure. Configuration and tuning is also a distant third in green IT projects, where providers are mainly concerned with ensuring that original client objectives are met, along with interoperability and performance.

After infrastructure projects are deployed, solution providers reported that their biggest concerns are unforeseen consequences and resolving collateral problems or issues (see Figure 8). In other words, providers worry that they'll need to fix things that break because of new product(s) that have been introduced into an environment. This sentiment is strongest in storage security and Windows Server 2008 projects.

"VARs also need to be consummate tacticians, again demonstrating their ability to think and react quickly on their feet, respond to unforeseen issues and problems, and to appropriately address the issue while maintaining target delivery objectives," Zuk said.

This concern, however, can usually be mitigated with better planning and testing prior to deployment. While collateral problems are not nearly as significant a concern overall in green IT projects, providers must be more sensitive to cost justification and be able to demonstrate improvements or savings. Clients, for example, have spent money on green products, so be ready to identify the savings over the previous (or retired) products.

Security initiatives
Security remains a crucial issue for today's enterprises. We compared the top IT priorities of solution providers with those of users across these three security technology areas: network-based security, identity and access management and endpoint security (see Figure 9). Solution providers correctly tracked user priorities for endpoint and ID and access management initiatives, but providers reported a significantly higher priority for network-based security technologies.

In the pre-assessment phase of network-based and endpoint security projects, solution providers reported that understanding the client's business goals, needs and budget constraints is the most important concern, followed by the need to understand the client's current security structure or its capabilities (see Figure 10). Solution providers must first recognize how a security technology fits into a customer's business and then see how it fits into the client's current environment. The top IT priorities are slightly different for identity and access management projects, with knowledge of the current security posture ranking most important, followed by consideration of the client's business goals and concern about recommending the proper ID and access management products.

During the deployment of security initiatives, solution providers that work with network-based and endpoint security technologies indicated that configuring or tuning new security products in a client's infrastructure was their biggest issue, followed by ensuring the interoperability or performance of the new security products (see Figure 11). In both cases, providers want to optimize the new security products and make sure they run properly.

While these two concerns reversed order for identity and access management projects by only a slim margin, providers also noted concerns about developing process or workflow changes for the client. This makes sense because of the way identity and access management control technologies change how clients work.

In the postdeployment phase of security initiative projects, solution providers worry most about handling unforeseen consequences or resolving collateral problems or issues (see Figure 12). Providers involved in network-based and endpoint security technologies are also concerned (in equal measure) about client dissatisfaction with the results and the difficulty of demonstrating improvements or savings to clients.

Since security projects rarely affect the user experience or save money, it's important to demonstrate a project's value by showing the client the security vulnerabilities it could avoid -- through tactics such as auditing or penetration testing. With identity and access management technologies, solution providers worry about documentation -- helping the client document and understand changes that identity and access management brings to a client's environment.

Software initiatives
Software initiatives generally involve the creation or processing of data used by the client's business. These technologies typically include business intelligence (BI)/data warehousing, custom application development, service-oriented architecture (SOA), enterprise resource planning (ERP), data governance/data quality and mobile application development (see Figure 13). ERP proved to be the most important technology for users and solution providers, followed by custom application development. While other technologies are obviously on the radar for 2009, it's clear that VARs put more weight on things like business intelligence, SOA and mobile application development than did users. Part of the reason for this disparity may be a lack of user awareness or a reluctance to invest in anything but the most essential IT projects.

Solution providers said that understanding the client's business goals, needs and budget constraints is certainly the most important concern during the pre-assessment phase of any software initiative project: The response was well more than 60% for every technology (see Figure 14). This is probably because of the level of investment and workflow changes that many of these technologies entail. Secondary concerns are mixed depending on the technology, but identifying and recommending the available software tools or products was significant for SOA, ERP and mobile application development. At the same time, identifying and understanding the client's relevant regulatory obligations appeared as the secondary concern for business intelligence and data governance projects.

The deployment phase of software initiatives presents mixed concerns for solution providers (see Figure 15). For business intelligence, SOA and mobile application development, the biggest issue is developing software process or workflow changes for the client. For custom application development and ERP, the first concern is configuring or tuning the new software tools or products in the client's environment. With data governance, the primary concern is the performance of new software products or tools in the client's infrastructure. Secondary concerns were equally mixed between technologies.

The postdeployment of software initiatives shows unforeseen consequences and resolving collateral problems or issues as the most significant concern across the majority of technology areas (see Figure 16). This means solution providers are most worried about fixing things that break when the software initiative is introduced. It makes sense considering the complexity and workflow changes that many of these technologies entail. But the concern about unforeseen consequences runs even with difficulty in demonstrating improvements or savings to the customer in business intelligence, and it runs second to problems with demonstrating savings in SOA projects.

Networking projects
Networking projects involve a variety of technologies that have a direct impact on the client's LAN and WAN, including wireless networking (such as 802.11n and WiMax), IP telephony (VoIP), WAN optimization/acceleration, unified communications (UC) and 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) (see Figure 17). While each of these five technologies is clearly important, solution providers emphasized networking projects more than users did. Projects like WAN optimization and UC show some of the greatest disparities in priorities. This may reflect more practical or economic considerations by users since they already have a working network and WAN access. They may also be reluctant to invest in additional networking projects without a clear process improvement and measurable cost savings (or rapid ROI).

The pre-assessment concerns for networking projects are mixed (see Figure 18). For IP telephony and UC, the primary concern is understanding the client's business goals, needs and budget constraints. Solution providers need to see how these technologies fit with how a client does business. For wireless networks, the first concern is identifying and recommending the available hardware/software products for the client's environment -- a result that rankles some experts. "While the need for speed is important, the need for security should outweigh speed," Zuk said. "VARs that understand the security implications of wireless technologies will gain considerably more trust from their clients than VARs who simply push technology."

With WAN optimization, providers are most concerned with identifying collateral network upgrades, or supporting projects so that the client can realize the absolute best benefit from WAN acceleration products. For 10 GbE projects, the primary concern is understanding the client's current infrastructure and its ability to determine whether the client truly needs such raw speed. Secondary concerns are also mixed depending on the technology.

Solution providers report performance of the new hardware/software product in the client's infrastructure as the top deployment concern for networking projects. The project has to bring a new level of performance to the client (see Figure 19). This is a crucial part of project justification. This is followed closely with concerns about configuring or tuning the new products in the client's infrastructure. The only exception here is in UC projects, which note providing adequate product training for the client as the secondary concern.

The postdeployment phase of networking projects cites unforeseen consequences and resolving collateral problems as the first concern -- and by a significant margin for most technologies (see Figure 20). Solution providers expressed worry about new network product deployments changing a client's network behaviors or user access in unexpected ways. The exception is in UC projects, where unforeseen consequences are edged out, if only slightly, by difficulty demonstrating improvements or savings to the client. This makes sense, because UC still grapples with integration issues that can make its immediate benefits unclear.

Budget considerations
Beyond technological priorities and concerns throughout each project's lifecycle, the IT priorities and projects survey also examined budgetary considerations and compared users' perceptions with how solution providers view their users' budgets. This is particularly important in trying economic times.

First, almost 60% of users expected budgets would have grown more if the economy had not hit the skids. By comparison, more than 75% of providers shared that assessment. (see Figure 21). This suggests some solution providers may be too quick to blame the economic downturn for slow IT budget growth. Still, users and providers agree on the overall effects of the economy on IT budgets; solution providers are just slightly more pessimistic, but only by a few percentage points.

Users and solution providers both take pessimistic views of subsequent budget cuts (see Figure 22). Approximately 61% of users indicated that they expect some level of additional cuts, while about 58% of solution providers reported that additional budget cuts were likely. But while the total percentage was quite close, solution providers saw a greater likelihood of cuts. For example, almost 26% of providers see additional cuts as very likely and 12% see additional cuts as certain, while only 22% and 10% of users responded accordingly. In contrast, 29% of users saw additional cuts as somewhat likely, while just more than 20% of providers agreed. Solution providers may see this as a small nugget of good news.

Providers and users also agree on the IT budget areas most affected by the economy: staff and hardware. This is a potential boon for solution providers -- with users slower to staff up or invest heavily in new infrastructure, there are ample opportunities for providers to spearhead consolidation and cost-saving projects for their clients. Staff and hardware is followed by secondary concerns about services and software. Solution providers also indicated maintenance as a major area affected by the economy, though users didn't show much concern. This is possibly because maintenance isn't an area of which users are aware. "While the typical end user [in large organizations] may not be aware of maintenance costs, users in smaller companies are very aware of maintenance costs," Zuk said. "Here is where the VAR really needs to understand their client's business and be able to articulate how consolidation can bring about cost savings, including maintenance contracts."

Solution providers and users generally agree on how the economy will affect users' willingness to try new technologies. Providers may also be overly pessimistic in their expectations of IT budget containment strategies (see Figure 23). Almost 55% of providers and 52% of users expect users to delay or cancel nonessential upgrades, while 23% of users and 22% of providers expect to increase energy efficiency as a cost-cutting initiative. Aside from these responses, however, providers drastically overestimate their users. For example, almost 51% of providers and only 37% of users expect to delay or cancel nonrevenue-generating projects. Almost 43% of providers and just 26% or users expect to reduce staff. About 35% of providers and only 20% of users suggest outsourcing jobs. Consequently, the picture may not be as bleak as it appears on the surface. Solution providers can still find opportunities, though they will need to do a better job of justifying value and savings to clients.

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