IBM makes big MSP push

Ed Abrams, vice president of marketing for small and medium business at IBM

Ed Abrams, vice president of marketing for small and medium business at IBM

Over the last 18 months or so, IBM has quietly built up a community of some 1,400 MSPs around the world, a community that’s growing at a rate of about 20 per week, and includes about 250 Canadian MSPs. And to support that growing network, Big Blue has recently announced a new channel program that the company says aims to help MSPs grow their business in a number of ways.

Quoting figures from AMI Partners, Ed Abrams, vice president of marketing for IBM small and medium business, says MSPs represent an $80 billion market opportunity, and increasingly the way midmarket customers want to do business.

“They’re looking to local MSPs as they feel they’ll get better quality services,” Abrams said.

The new program, Abrams said, is an acknowledgement that MSPs are fundamentally different from other solution providers and have unique needs. And those differences make MSPs uniquely interesting to Big Blue both as partners and as customers.

“Many of our competitors simply look at MSPs as another channel, and we’re not approaching the market that way at all,” Abrams said. “MSPs have a very different way of going to market, and looking to build a unique program that meets their unique needs.”

On the customer front, Big Blue clearly sees an opportunity for its PureSystems servers. Their autonomic nature makes them a logical choice for managed service providers looking to build out their next generation solutions, particularly those looking to add cloud or other hosted services to their mix. To help support MSPs who choose to move towards PureSystems, the company has opened four Centers of Excellence for MSPs, in New York City, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Ehningen, Germany. These centers will exist to help MSPs get hands-on experience with PureSystems, and to work with IBM technical experts to build out solutions. The offering will also include support from IBM Global Financing, including 12-month zero-percent loans for IBM systems, storage and software, with 90-day deferred first payment options.

MSPs will also have access to 40 IBM Innovation Centers worldwide for customer engagements, and the company describes plans to open a “virtual briefing center” that will serve as a way for IBM to share best practices with MSPs, and for the company’s MSPs to share best practices amongst themselves.

Big Blue will also open up its SmartCloud public cloud services to managed service providers, allowing MSPs to move their solutions into a public cloud mode, or to add to their service offerings by reselling or white-labeling IBM’s public cloud-based applications. For example, IBM Canada president John Lutz outlined the company’s backup and recovery capabilities as a significant channel opportunity at the recent opening of a data centre facility in Barrie, Ontario.

The company will also seek to foster partner-to-partner (and partner-to-customer) connections with an MSP market, a place for the company’s MSP partners to promote their solutions and capabilities both to prospective customers and to their peers in the IBM PartnerWorld program, opening up opportunities for MSPs to create repeatable solutions that can be brought to market through other solution providers.

As with any channel program, marketing support is a big part of the new MSP program. But Abrams said the company’s going a little bit of a different route this time around – rather than co-marketing assets, the company is focusing on “assets and tools that sell the MSP’s capabilities” rather than its connection with Big Blue. There’s something of a risk from a traditional channel program perspective in doing marketing support without a direct tie-in to the IBM logo, but Abrams said it’s a calculated one.

“If they grow, we’re confident that we’ll grow with them,” he said.

The marketing investments will primarily be around helping MSPs build their brand and roll out a full marketing plan, including have an agency “on call” to execute programs for MSP partners. Abrams said IBM will also aim to educate partners on topics as diverse as social media and the impact of data and analytics on their marketing plan execution. Data analysis tools will be made available to MSPs to help them better work their existing business and prospects, he said.

And underlying the whole program will be an MSP Concierge service, which will serve as “a single point of contract to access all of the benefits of the program,” Abrams said.

The MSP program is a tiered one, along the same lines as the overall PartnerWorld umbrella program. To go from a program member to advanced, MSPs will have to get training and certification on two or more IBM products or solutions, and get two or more IBM customer references. To advance to Premier, another “two or three” product competencies and “three or four references.” Of course, as much as IBM is hoping to continue its 20-plus-per-week MSP growth, the company is also hoping to move as much of its base up the platform to higher benefit (and loyalty) levels as well.