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Choosing network equipment vendors: Multi-vendor vs. single-source

A plethora of network equipment vendors means that you have limitless solution offerings at your disposal. Do you specialize in one vendor or create multi-vendor partnerships? Learn the pros and cons of supplementing your tier one vendor partner offerings with those from niche players.

With so many quality hardware and software products available today, computer networking is an exciting business to be in. Some network equipment vendors, such as Cisco, offer products in virtually every area of networking, while others, like Riverbed, specialize in niche areas, giving value-added resellers (VARs) and their customers limitless options. But where do you begin? Is there value in multi-vendor relationships -- or should you strive to sell single-source solutions? In the context of this discussion, what approach should you ultimately recommend to customers?

The value you can provide to customers in many ways stems from the support you and the customer receive from the network equipment vendor. In addition to proven products and mature reseller programs, top networking vendors Cisco, Juniper, Extreme, Nortel and Foundry offer resellers strong channel partner support programs.

Smaller companies have an advantage in terms of customer support, because they can focus more on their core competency. Riverbed is currently the technical and market leader for wide-area data services. While Cisco has a competing product, it's just not their best product. How does the smaller company have an advantage? All Riverbed needs to do is provide excellent service to one niche product. A company like Cisco needs to be all things to all people.

Given this information, you need to determine your overall sales approach. While most VARs have their own philosophy about selling networking infrastructure, generally speaking there are two approaches:

  1. Standardize on one network equipment vendor, even though others may have a single product or product line that is widely accepted as more capable.
  2. Choose the best product for each network component -- core switches, branch-office switches, routers, WAN optimization, VoIP -- and then get them all to fit somehow on the customer's network.

More expert advice on network reseller issues

Your decision should be based on several factors: the weakness of the product, the strength of the smaller vendors' rival product and the relative importance of this piece of technology to your customers. For example, if you deliver WANs to customers who don't typically require breathtaking performance, it may not make sense to recommend a product like Riverbed's CDS, when Cisco's offerings may meet their requirements. On the other hand, if your customers require maximum performance, there is no reason that you shouldn't present a solution with different vendor offerings.

Of course, before presenting a solution to a customer, you should ensure that there is compatibility between vender offerings. The worst thing you can do is present a multi-vendor offering to a customer, where certain offerings are just not compatible with the others. Also make sure that the vendors themselves have strong partnerships with one another, to prevent finger-pointing -- which is relatively common in multi-vendor environments during technical support scenarios.

 

To help you make this decision, understand that business is not philosophy. Though you may have your own opinion as a reseller partner, you must listen to your customers and let them drive the approach. If your client is a Cisco shop and you prefer Juniper core switches, why would you want to butt heads on a hardware decision (unless going any other way would hurt the customer)? Alternatively, if they have a little bit of everything and you can tell that they are not inclined to throw it all out for a one-size-fits-all Cisco solution, why browbeat them? Of course, they may tell you that their network is horrible and that they want to standardize on Cisco (or Juniper or Foundry). While your job is not necessarily telling customers what they want to hear, it is to be flexible and have several solutions in place for them that will accommodate their needs.

The right networking component for your client may not be the best piece of technology out there. Consider the ability of the customer's IT department to support whatever solutions you provide to them. If their networking people are strong believers in Cisco and the place is crawling with CCIEs, you will have some push-back from engineers when you start designing a Juniper solution. At the end of the day, you are there to provide value to your customers. Listen to them carefully and don't go into meetings pushing or proposing anything unless you have a clear consensus and direction from your clients.

About the author

Ken Milberg is the founder of Unix-Linux Solutions. He is also a board member of Unigroup of NY, the oldest Unix users group in NYC. Ken regularly answers user questions on Unix and Linux interoperability issues as a site expert on SearchOpenSource.com. As a frequent contributor to SearchNetworkingChannel.com, Ken often addresses networking channel issues.

This was last published in March 2008

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