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ADC market: Complexity spells opportunity for solution providers

Customers might not get excited about application delivery controllers, but there's plenty of opportunity in the ADC market for channel partners.

The application delivery controller market isn't new, yet the case for ADCs as an essential part of the IT infrastructure is still a conversation waiting to happen at many organizations. So, solution providers who treat ADCs as nothing more than load balancers are cheating themselves and their customers out of a bigger opportunity.

In fact, channel partners who make the load-balancing feature of the ADC the focus of a sale -- to get in, get out and get paid -- will commoditize themselves and not meet customer expectations. Nor will they necessarily get repeat business from their customers or drive a deeper, more lucrative software and services sale, said Dean Darwin, senior vice president of the worldwide partner organization at F5 Networks Inc. in Seattle.

At the same time, partners need to understand the different use cases for the range of available products. Andre Kindness, principal analyst for infrastructure and operations at Forrester Research, notes that the ADC market is fracturing. He said that some pure-play ADCs focus speeds, feeds and price while the other part of the ADC market is evolving into business acceleration solutions -- that is, a fusion of WAN optimization controllers, front-end optimizers, content delivery networks, ADC, cloud gateways and firewalls.

The good news for partners is that the ongoing vendor horserace in this space continues to lend itself to product innovation, more features and functionality, and improved price and performance points. A recent F5 Networks product announcement that included new physical and virtual ADCs is a case in point.

Vendor competition also lends itself to complexity.

"If you look at all the things that these systems can do -- they're more complex and sophisticated -- there's a significant portion of the channel that can't explain it and a buying public that can't appreciate it," said Joe Skorupa, vice president and distinguished analyst for data center and convergence at Gartner Inc.

For partners, a synonym for "complexity" is opportunity.

An opportunity presented itself last September, when Cisco Systems Inc. closed the door to the ADC market. In doing so, Cisco opened another for both vendors and partners. While Cisco's exit from the ADC market is an opportunity for all ADC vendors, Cisco forged a strategic partnership just one month later with Citrix Systems Inc., to recommend Citrix NetScaler to customers. That deal is of particular interest to partners of both companies. It didn't go unnoticed at Stamford, Conn.-based MTM Technologies Inc., a top selling partner of Citrix Systems' XenDesktop and a Cisco Gold Partner. "We definitely recognize the opportunity and have the IT skills in spades," said Dave Shimp, senior vice president at MTM.

MTM is well aware that selling ADCs isn't about selling one product. "It's having the ability to be conversant about a range of solutions and all the moving parts that are a part of the customer's vision of where they're taking their business," Shimp said.

Mike Fouts, vice president for channel and field operations at Citrix, agreed. "We see this as a cross-selling opportunity for partners who need to navigate to the person who owns the ADC, because the person who normally buys Citrix products isn't the same person who buys the ADC," he said.

ADCs are not something customers get excited about. However, partners who up the ante of skills and competence around ADCs will be positioned to solve customer problems before they have the chance to surface.

ADC market is taking shape

At the most basic level, what's driving the ADC opportunity for the channel is cloud computing. The adoption of cloud systems and services is a sure driver for application accelerators, application security, and tools to optimize and manage the flow of workloads, for example.

There's an opportunity for providers to help businesses leverage cloud platforms by helping them deploy ADCs. There's additional opportunity for partners to take the ADC discussion up a level with customers who have already purchased ADCs and now require deeper ADC functionality.

At the high end, ADCs in the data center optimize reliability, end-user performance, data center resource use and security for enterprise applications. Established F5 Networks partner and authorized training center Nexum Inc. is poised to address midmarket ADC needs with F5's introduction of two new low-end products. The partner currently works with larger enterprise customers.

While company President and Chief Technology Officer David Lesser said the new product versions have improved graphical-user-interface technology and demystify the product's complexity, ADCs are sophisticated products that address a lot of moving pieces.

Training, he notes, is key for partners and raises the bar for expertise.

The thing about ADCs is that they're not a basic or familiar network sale anymore. They're a technical sale. The channel has to be able to talk about the network, applications, security and broader IT issues -- and that means investing in a deeper understanding of the more sophisticated and complex ADC solution.

Toward that end, F5 last week released the Guardian Professional Services program, designed to help partners with the implementation and quality delivery of products and services. The company is also planning a new certification program for technical ADC competency scheduled for release this year.

Last year, F5 released more than 22 hours of content as part of its F5 Accreditation program; last quarter, the company increased the program by including five hours of security-specific ADC training for partners wanting to drive security solutions.

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