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Smaller VARs annoyed at Cisco's Master VoIP certification

Cisco's Master Unified Communications Specialty is designed for large, full-service integrators aiming at enterprise customers, but smaller players feel left out.

Some Cisco Systems Inc. channel partners feel slighted by the requirements of the Master Unified Communications Specialization certification Cisco will announce later this week.

They say the program is unnecessarily expensive for the value-added resellers (VARs) involved, that it requires too many bodies, and too much ongoing investment of time and effort.

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But the program looks as if it will accomplish exactly what it was designed to do: separate mid-sized VARs with good Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) networking skills from larger companies with the resources and staff to deliver on large-scale, voice-and-data networking contracts.

What it won't do is help even those larger players land a contract they couldn't have gotten without Cisco's help.

"I don't know that the certification itself will ever help you close the deal," according to Pat Scheckel, vice president of the Cisco practice at CDW Inc.'s integrator/reseller subsidiary Berbee, in Madison, Wis. "Enterprise customers will say the certification is just table stakes to have you considered as a partner. But there's still gong to be heavy competition, and you have to differentiate yourself based on your experience and your skills."

The Master Unified Communications Specialization tag will go only to VARs skilled in "selling, deploying and providing services for more sophisticated, value-added Cisco voice solutions," according to Cisco's VoIP certification documentation.

Cisco partners, more than 1,600 of them, are responsible for 90% of Cisco's Unified Communications revenue, according to Cisco. The Master is the latest in a series of changes Cisco has made to emphasize VoIP within its product set.

Earlier this month the company released a host of integrated VoIP telephones, switches, administrative applications and other tools.

In August Cisco also expanded its Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) individual certification to include VoIP networking as well as routing and switching.

The unified communications tag is the second Master Specialization Cisco has announced this month. The last one, the Master Security Specialization, was aimed at smaller VARs with a deep expertise in security, but not the other areas of Cisco's product specialties.

More typically, the Master Unified Communications Specialization builds on other certification levels and increases the number of skills and number of skilled techs a particular company can field.

In this case it's a more-advanced version of the Advanced Unified Communications Specialization, which requires expertise in half a dozen Cisco products, including the Unified CallManager administration tool as well as Unity Connection, Unified Messaging, ContactCenter Express and video conferencing products.

"Really, only the biggest of the big [VARs] are going to have the resources to do the master voice certification," according to Doug Renner, CEO of Peak IP Solutions, a Cisco Premier and SMB Select Partner in Livermore, Calif. "It's very specific. You have to have lots of people and they have to be certified in certain roles —- lots of CCIEs [Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert], lots of high-paid engineers, time out of the field to study and for classes to keep up to par."

Peak IP specializes in VoIP networking and PBX-to-VoIP migrations, relying heavily on Cisco gear and expertise for its customers. It doesn't have the people or resources to even apply for certification.

"We have about 10 people now," Renner said. "Your payroll has to go up in relation to the certifications you want. We'd probably need a dozen engineers with a dozen certifications."

Even at nearly twice the headcount of Peak IP, HEIT Consulting in Sunnyvale, Calif. is also out of the running.

"If you don't have at least 20 people you're not going to get this," according to an Holt, principal consultant and CEO of HEIT. "But companies like HEIT won't change for it. We won't go out and buy people."

Both HEIT and Peak IP will stick to their own specialties in voice networking and, where necessary, partner with other companies with deeper expertise in security, internetworking or other areas.

Neither expects to lose business because of the lack of a Master Unified Communications Specialization.

Another VAR, however, said the Master programs themselves are flawed in that they don't require all the certified employees be on-site, full-time staffers, rather than part-time contractors. That gives some companies an unfair edge when assembling the required number of bodies for a Master or Gold certification, according to the VAR, who works for a mid-sized voice-networking integrator.

VARs who believe rumors to that effect don't really understand the Masters programs, though, according to Scheckel. Cisco has a third-party company do in-person audits of Master candidates to verify who works for them and where, making paper certifications much more difficult.

But he understands that many Cisco VARs won't like the new VoIP level.

"Any time you have a competitive element and the bar has been raised – whether that's a barrier to entry like a capital expense or something else — the folks that can't cross that barrier are going to complain about it. That's natural," Scheckel said. "It is a high bar that Cisco's raised, and we do see it as a competitive advantage for us."

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