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New IBM software certification requirements irk partners

IBM partners that don't meet new certification requirements for each of 14 different software lines won't be able to sell those products anymore.

New IBM software certification requirements have hit a nerve with software partners, who said the rules will drive them to do more business with competing vendors.

Under the new Growth Through Skills initiative, which takes effect in October, partners that want to sell IBM software must achieve two technical certifications and one sales certification for each of 14 different product lines. Partners that don't meet these and other criteria -- including specific revenue targets -- will no longer be allowed to sell the company's software. The rules even apply to software renewals for existing customers.

"That's just ridiculous," said a New Jersey-based IBM partner who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "IBM is killing its software channel."

Currently, any IBM partner can sell its software. The new rules apply to the WebSphere, Tivoli, Information Management, Lotus and Rational products. Some of the company's software will remain in open distribution -- namely the Express versions of its flagship products, which are downsized for small and medium-sized businesses.

Ron Herardian, founder of IBM partner Global Systems Services Corp. in Mountain View, Calif., said the new IBM certification requirements are just the latest example of Big Blue ignoring Software as a Service and other current trends in the software market.

"Instead of facing reality, they merely repeat their 10-year-old marketing messages as if nothing has changed since the 1990s," he said via email. "Partner or not, at this point I've given up on IBM. They just don't get it."

IBM partners can circumvent the new certification requirements by joining the Value Advantage Plus program, which recognizes partners that sell proven, custom offerings based on IBM software.

"If you've built a solution for clients in some area using 'X' middleware technologies, and that solution has a proven track record … that partner will gain approval in those middleware products," said Shaun Jones, worldwide channels vice president for IBM software.

Most partners agree that it's important for vendors to distinguish value-added partners from CDW, Dell and other volume partners, but some still see the new IBM certification requirements as burdensome. Partners that provide integration services and solutions advice along with software naturally have higher cost models than CDW and Dell. CDW and Dell bundle software with servers and storage to get hardware deals. Some partners feel that IBM should be making it easier for them to sell its software -- and these changes don't help.

IBM partners have been particularly wary of CDW since it acquired Berbee Information Networks, a large IBM value-added partner, in 2006. CDW resells IBM's Domino, Tivoli and WebSphere software lines.

The problem is that software vendors talk up their value partners on one hand but push for more volume sales on the other. For many years, one of Oracle's top software executives repeatedly referred to Dell as his group's best partner -- much to the chagrin of solution providers' partners who knew the niceties of Oracle's products inside and out.

Some IBM partners now put Big Blue squarely in that same boat. But others see opportunities in the new certification requirements.

"Some of these programs IBM has put in place can be onerous, but if you're a serious partner, you'll have the processes in place to deal with those," said an IBM partner in the Midwest region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We're trying to sell the value of why you'd work with us versus a CDW or a Dell, who take the [software] price down to zero points and no margin. They don't care about that, because they don't invest in certifications. But we do, and it actually hurts our business when we don't get those software deals."

IBM said the new software certification requirements will protect and maximize partners' profitability and place a premium on their skills and solutions. Herardian acknowledged that the rules will benefit IBM's biggest and best partners, but he said they could hurt smaller partners -- and possibly IBM itself.

"Under the current economic conditions, many partners will not make investments in training and certification," Herardian said. "They will instead simply focus on selling products from competing vendors like Microsoft and Sun. … The most likely outcome is that IBM partners, on the whole, will sell less software as a result."

The New Jersey partner agreed that the new IBM software certification requirements remove the incentive to sell complete IBM solutions.

"If I can't sell something, I'm not going to push it," he said. "I'll say, 'Go ahead, I don't care if you use [another vendor's software] or not.' "

IBM's response to such situations will ultimately help determine the success of the Growth Through Skills initiative, said Darren Bibby, software sales channel program manager for IDC.

"If a partner can sell two of three [IBM software products] but can't sell the third, what are they going to do?" Bibby asked. "It makes me nervous."

IBM has said there will be no exceptions to the new rules even in these cases. Other vendors with similar programs typically grant exceptions in those instances, Bibby said.

Bibby said IBM created the Growth Through Skills initiative for the right reasons -- to reward loyal partners and motivate them to lead with IBM software. But the devil will be in the details.

"I like the concept of this announcement a heck of a lot," he said. "I'm really worried about the exceptions, and I'm really worried about how this gets rolled out."

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