At first glance, VMware stands unopposed as a virtualisation powerhouse, a pioneer in an industry becoming more competitive by the day.
A market maker and leader rolled into one, this is a vendor which for more than 20 years, has set the enterprise standard for innovation.
But times, and customer demands, change, leading to a pivot in priorities for a software giant now building out capabilities in the cloud.
“Our customers are transforming and we’re expecting our partners to transform, so we must transform alongside,” acknowledged Uma Thana Balasingam, vice president of partner business across Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) at VMware. “If you think about where VMware comes from, we have a strong install base and in Asia, we’re working exclusively with our partners.
“Because of our virtualisation base with partners, there’s a great opportunity to help customers embrace new technologies. Customers require help on this journey, and importantly for partners, they require the help of the channel.”
Backed by a global base of more than 75,000 channel partners, VMware is making friends across the ecosystem to realise the potential of cloud, business transformation, networking, security and digital workplace.
Bolstered by the acquisitions of Avi Networks, CloudHealth and Heptio, VMware is building out a narrative centred on hybrid cloud, creating new routes to market for a traditional channel built on a foundation of virtualisation.
“The VMware channel ecosystem is broad, wide and diverse,” observed Balasingam, speaking exclusively to Channel Asia. “As we think about the next phase of growth and the critical role that the channel will play in that, one of our key priorities is centred around how we bring partners along on this journey.
“We’re talking to customers about transforming through cloud and digital workspace, for example, and my role is to ensure we execute on these conversations through our partners.”
In assessing the Asian landscape, Balasingam - appointed to the regional role in March - accepted that transformation at a channel level goes much deeper than vendor rhetoric, smart marketing and tailored PR. Pivoting for partners isn’t so simple.
“Transforming is difficult,” Balasingam said. “I recently sat down with a partner that absolutely wants to transform, they are ready for change and they are putting in the resources, skills and financial aspects to ensure the transition goes smoothly. This is leading to different ways of working with vendors such as VMware.
“But equally, some partners are not ready to transform, and some are still trying to figure out what the best model for change is. For example, some partners used to compete with each other, now they are coming together to win. The channel has three options - build, borrow or buy.”
Recruited from Riverbed, Balasingam is tasked with driving VMware’s regional channel strategy, taking control of an ecosystem housing value-added resellers, solution providers and system integrators, in addition to born-in-the-cloud players, advisory firms and independent software vendors (ISVs).
Drawing on more than 18 years’ in-market experience - following management roles at EMC, Brocade and IBM - Balasingam is well versed in driving channel change at a regional level, both internally and externally.
“We’re increasing our focus on co-selling through the channel,” Balasingam added. “This is not a new idea but it’s about how we do a better job of engaging partners earlier in the conversation and sales cycle. We know if we team together earlier and more strategically, then our win rate is much higher.
“We’re also working to better enable our channel. In one-on-one conversations we are having with our partners, they are concerned about whether they have the right skills to compete today. Whether through up-skilling or re-skilling, partners require guidance in this area.”
According to Balasingam, customers today are seeking “partners with skills” in Asia, spanning cloud and digital transformation as core capabilities.
“Whether you’re a system integrator or solution provider, customers want to partner for the entire lifecycle,” Balasingam advised. “This is another way that we’re transforming internally, as we look at the best ways to support our partners across Asia to ensure they have the right skills to have the right conversations.”
In short, Balasingam said businesses today are seeking expertise “throughout the journey of change”, placing different demands on a channel traditionally grounded in transactional selling. In 2019, a sell and forget strategy will no longer suffice.
“The traditional way of buying was very clear, but now multiple buying personas are requiring different capabilities from the channel,” Balasingam explained. “But like customers, there is no one size fits all approach to our channel.
“We have structural consistency to ensure that we can scale faster, especially in a diverse market such as APJ. And while we maintain a level of consistency, we understand that when the rubber hits the road at a country-level, tailored conversations and strategies are required.”
Hence Partner Connect, a new partner program billed as a complete overhaul of the vendor’s current channel framework.
Set for release in 2020, the new-look strategy is designed to allow partners to engage with the software giant in a way aligned to specific business models, rather than a generic form of engagement.
With flexibility in mind, the new program - unveiled during Partner Leadership Summit - will comprise of three tiers, spanning Partner, Advanced Partner and Principal Partner.
“Through Partner Connect, we have recognised that we have different types of partners that we work with, and it was quite complex for them to engage with VMware,” Balasingam acknowledged.
The program also includes new master services competency, in addition to incentives around VMware Cloud on AWS and deeper ties with alliance vendors such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
Specific to tiering, Principal Partners will be the most capable partners through the achievement of Master Services Competencies across “different strategic IT priorities”.
Meanwhile, Principal status will earn partners “comprehensive rewards” including deployment and consumption incentives and prioritisation for joint-business planning and co-selling opportunities with VMware.
More broadly speaking, the vendor expects all partners in the new program to “demonstrate basic capabilities” through the achievement of VMware Solution Competencies.
“Many years ago, the lines were very clear between what a solution provider and a VAR looked like,” Balasingam added. “But today, partners are assuming multiple roles which is why Partner Connect is a well-timed release.”
Echoing Balasingam’s observations, Qu Fan - director of channels and alliances across Southeast Asia and Korea at VMware - said the vendor is focused on building out “much deeper capabilities” within its existing channel ecosystem.
“The reason is simple,” Qu said. “When we are a reseller company, then every partner is our partner. This means every partner can come and resell our technology which makes the entry point very low.
"But as we start to move towards a hybrid cloud world, and increase our focus on driving more digital workspace solutions, the skill-sets required from the channel are different. We are prioritising transforming our channel and driving the capabilities of partners within our ecosystem.
Qu - appointed to the role in August 2018 - is tasked with advancing the vendor’s virtual cloud network vision in a bid to capitalise on the region’s eagerness for digital transformation.
“To transform, we are looking at the competency of our partners and the capacity of our channel,” Qu explained. “Across SEAK we want to help partners create more service-based skills.
"For example, in Malaysia one of our key partners has evolved into a hybrid cloud provider. Also in the Philippines, we have a traditional partner which has transformed into a managed private cloud provider.
“But as vendors, it’s important to assess the cost of transformation. What does it take for a partner to transform? How much does it cost from a skills, business model, financing and even people perspective? We are conducting workshops helping partners go through the entire transformation.”
As VMware acquires new alliances, new partners are following in parallel, creating a peripheral ecosystem in the process. Whether it be AWS or Microsoft partners, the vendor is now being exposed to a different way of thinking through a different breed of partners.
“I sat down with an AWS partner a few weeks ago and as I was having the conversation, I was trying to assess what a typical partner profile would look like,” Balasingam recalled. “As we think about driving high growth at VMware, do we need to look at a different type of partner? A partner that can add to and complement our existing ecosystem?
“This particular partner was excellent from a managed services perspective in that they had a mature practice. They not only understood applications, but they also had expertise in infrastructure, so when they are engaging with a customer, they can have a very different conversation.
“A partner without managed services capabilities, and only application speciality for example, couldn’t move the discussion to the same level."
Balasingam cited cloud as a “key growth driver” for Asian partners in the year ahead, creating a requirement for VMware to outline a clear path to progress for a channel undergoing seismic industry change.
“We’re committed to building a cloud partner ecosystem but we need to be clear on how partners can be profitable, whether through hybrid or private cloud,” Balasingam cautioned. “We need to outline how partners can monetise cloud, whether through managed services or driving cloud consumption, or perhaps through advisory or migration services. It could be a combination of everything.
“We are aware of the attraction that VMware brings to the cloud equation, but we are also aware that there’s still a lot of business to be conducted in the traditional IT world.
"Whether the sales motion is a traditional resell or CAPEX approach, there’s still opportunity for partners. Therefore we need to outline the key areas in which partners can grow and make money through the cloud."
Balasingam said the role of VMware is to provide the customer with a “ubiquitous digital foundation”, while ensuring the channel can keep pace with end-user innovation.
“Some partners get it, some want to get it and they are trying to get there, and some don’t know what to do,” Balasingam acknowledged. “We care deeply about enabling our partners in the right way and ensuring we’re profitable - we want to make sure partner satisfaction is high.
"That comes down to whether they trust VMware, whether we’re easy to do business with, whether we’re offering financial motivation and whether we’re providing all the right tools and skills to help them succeed.
“There is so much great IP sitting with our partners that we can bring into VMware. We want to be humble in this process and recognise that we don’t have all the answers. This is a challenging marketplace for VMware and the partners, and as we transition towards cloud, we do so with our channel."