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Microsoft partner program gets $50 million; reaction mixed

Microsoft's security partner program is getting a $50 million investment to help sell Microsoft Forefront enterprise security; but it is getting mixed reactions in the channel.

A new $50 million investment in a Microsoft partner program for the enterprise security market has some channel partners enthused while others take a wait-and-see approach.

Microsoft recently announced it would spend $50 million to enhance its Security Software Advisor (SSA) program and help sell Forefront, its enterprise security suite, through the channel. But Mark Shavlik, CEO of Shavlik Technologies in Roseville, Minn., questions the company's dedication to the security market.

"For me, that's a lot of money," Shavlik said. "For Microsoft, that's a small investment. It sounds like a big number, but it really isn't. It shows me Forefront is a part of Microsoft's future, but it's not a big part of Microsoft's future."

That's why Shavlik isn't sure how much his company, a Microsoft partner and independent software vendor (ISV), will work with Forefront right now. With every type of product, he must decide whether to complement Microsoft's offering -- or offer his own, "if Microsoft doesn't have it or doesn't do a good job with it," he said.

"I'm not sure where Forefront's going to fit in yet," he said. "In their early days, everyone knows, Microsoft products don't start out that strong."

And Michael Sullivan, CEO and president of Quest Network and Business Solutions in Dallas, said he is also keeping his company's network security business with McAfee, Trend Micro, CA and other vendors.

"We're not even engaged [in] selling Forefront yet," he said in an email. "We have started looking at it, but we haven't really gotten enough inquiries to spend much time getting ramped up."

But Jon Smith, CEO of ITonCommand in Denver, said he thinks an enhanced Microsoft partner program can help the software giant make an immediate splash in the security market with Forefront.

"While they're not experienced in antivirus, they are experienced in buying companies and integrating their products," he said. (Much of Forefront is based on Antigen, an enterprise antivirus product by Sybari Software, which Microsoft acquired in 2005.)

Forefront selling points

The biggest selling point for new customers will be Forefront's single management console, said Darren Bibby, senior analyst for global software sales channels for IDC.

"To customers, this is a pretty big deal," he said.

ITonCommand gets 80% of its revenue from hosting entire networks for customers, Smith said. The company is making the switch from Symantec's Norton Antivirus to Forefront because Forefront integrates better with other Microsoft products that are already on the hosted networks, thanks to three individual components that scan the client servers, Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint servers, and Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration Server Firewall, he said.

"A lot of products have integration problems with Microsoft products," he added. "Anybody who's running a tight Microsoft platform will have a strong argument to make the switch."

Smith did acknowledge that making that switch is "a pain." ITonCommand is about 20-30% done with its conversion to Forefront and won't finish until the end of the year.

"It's definitely time, but we'll make that up," he said.

Forefront's features include antivirus and antispyware, threat reporting and alerting, antispam and content scanning. Through the three components that Smith mentioned -- called "client," "server" and "edge" -- Forefront offers protection for servers, networks and their client machines.

Microsoft's perception in security market

Rand Morimoto, president of Convergent Computing in Oakland, Calif., estimates that about 50% of his consulting firm's clients will switch to Forefront immediately, even though 10-20% of the security market won't accept Microsoft no matter what, he said.

In their early days, everyone knows, Microsoft products don't start out that strong.
Mark Shavlik
CEOShavlik Technologies

"You have the skeptics," he said. "Anything with Microsoft and security, they won't listen to. But more recently, the products that Microsoft's shipping, like Exchange 2007, are really solid in terms of security."

Forefront and the enhanced Microsoft partner program will help the company gain acceptance in the security market -- but mostly among loyal channel partners with longstanding relationships, Bibby said.

"A lot of people want to see a vendor in a space for a certain number of years before they try it out, especially in the enterprise," he said.

Bibby also noted another challenge for Microsoft partners who also sell other vendors' security products: It's tough to go to a previous customer and say, "Hey, remember that security product I sold you before? Here's a better one from Microsoft," he said.

Partner program and channel opportunities

Tiffani Bova, research director for IT channel sales, programs and alliances for Gartner Research, acknowledged that point. But, she said, that gives channel partners the opportunity to grow their businesses by selling Forefront to new customers.

Microsoft has more than 4,000 members in its year-old SSA partner program and is offering new certifications so "partners really have an opportunity to differentiate themselves in the market and show their expertise," said Mark Hassall, the company's security and access partner marketing director, in a statement. The SSA has also undergone some changes that now allow partners to earn fees as high as 30% on certain products.

The Microsoft partner program is helping ITonCommand make the transition to Forefront, offering phone support and matching dollars for marketing campaigns, Smith said.

"Microsoft is working closely with us to help us do conversions from other products," he said.

Convergent Computing was an early adopter of Forefront, an "extremely helpful" move that gave the firm's employees extra time to learn about the product, Morimoto said. Staff has also attended sales and technical training sessions in the field and at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash. headquarters, and participated in additional training at recent conferences in Orlando and Denver.

"There's been a full-blown push," Morimoto said. "I don't think there's anybody in my organization who hasn't been touched."

While many larger, "more engaged" partners are benefiting from the SSA program, others may be missing out because Microsoft's partner programs can be complicated, Bibby said. He is hearing that "not as many partners are taking part in it as they should be," he said. And most smaller partners would rather pay someone to make sales than to be a vendor liaison with Microsoft and figure out its partner programs, he added.

But Bova said Microsoft has made strides to help its smaller partners over the past year, including the introduction of an automated portal that recommends training and products to meet customers' needs. Still, she acknowledged it will take at least 18 months to two years for Microsoft to have a real effect in the channel with Forefront.

"You have to build it," she said. "You have to enhance it. You have to keep getting feedback and tweaking it."

Shavlik thinks it will take even longer.

"It could take five years," he said. "It could never happen, depending on how much Microsoft wants to spend."

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