The Channel’s Road to AI Riches Starts With Small Steps Toward Big Data

Supply chain issues have impacted everything in IT in recent years except chatter about artificial intelligence. That’s been available in seemingly unlimited quantities since the release of ChatGPT last November, and I haven’t exactly been an innocent bystander.

What most interests me about AI at the moment is how channel partners can make money on it. A few days spent in Nashville attending Ingram Micro’s ONE conference has me wondering if we’ve all been approaching that question the wrong way.

The specific person who has me thinking along those lines is Sanjib Sahoo (pictured), Ingram’s chief digital officer, whose team produced the Xvantage digital experience platform I wrote about back in May. The road to AI income doesn’t begin with the latest LLM or some breakthrough solution concept, he stressed repeatedly at this week’s conference. It begins with data.

“For the channel specifically, you cannot have amazing AI without amazing data,” Sahoo says. “AI is an outcome of great data.”

Which makes sense. For all the attention paid to how many tokens GPT-4 handles versus GPT-3.5 or how many parameters Anthropic’s Claude 2 supports versus Google’s PaLM-2, those variables determine how quickly and well an AI platform processes data. How much use you get from the output of that processing depends on the quality of the data being processed. And generally speaking, data quality at businesses potentially in the market for an AI solution trained on in-house records, versus whatever’s available on the internet, is pretty low.

Fixing that, Sahoo notes, is something most IT providers can do for most of their clients today. “Most organizations don’t have great data,” he says. “This opens a huge opportunity for the channel to really talk to your customers.”

And bill them for a much needed, value-added service too, as Sam Barhoumeh can attest. Barhoumeh, who is founder and CEO of North Palm Beach, Fla.-based solution provider and MSP Ready Networks, recently helped a healthcare client build a data warehouse sourced from multiple, siloed applications, and then mine it for insights using AI-powered algorithms.

“There’s a ton of partners here today, and they’re going to come across these data opportunities almost on a weekly basis at this point,” Barhoumeh said at ONE this week. “Once they know how to operationalize it, I think they’re going to have tremendous success.”

Sahoo has the AI-data connection on his mind these days for reasons beyond the projects it can fuel for solution providers. Ingram has some four decades’ worth of data in its possession, which partners could potentially exploit for AI purposes in nearly limitless ways. Right now, the company is tapping into those records to give Xvantage users AI-derived insights into ordering patterns, cross-sales opportunities, and the like. Within months, though, it will begin gradually letting partners dive deeper into its data lake with AI tools of their own.

“Over time, we will take these data and insights and really bring them to our partners for their use,” Sahoo says.

In the meantime, he encourages partners to view the incremental approach his team is taking to that initiative, and the relatively familiar data warehousing work that companies like Ready Networks are doing for AI customers, as examples worth mimicking. The best route into artificial intelligence for anyone intimidated by the enormity of the technology, Sahoo argues, is a gradual one.

“Think of a business case. Go small,” he says. “Every two weeks, learn something.”

And get used to slowly mastering complex topics while you’re at it, adds Philip DeSouza, president of Aurora Systems Consulting, a cybersecurity solutions and managed security service provider headquartered in Torrance, Calif. AI isn’t the last one you’ll have to confront.

“Quantum computing is going to be commercialized soon,” he dryly observes, “and then this conversation is going to be looking like the teacup ride at Disneyland if we think we’re moving forward fast [now].”

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The power of data and developers

Sahoo, as it happens, isn’t the only one at Ingram working on analytics tools for partners. The distributor is well down the road toward shipping an additional business intelligence solution suitable for use beyond AI.

“We’re right in the middle of piloting with both our customers and several vendors to look at the data that we have and how we can bring that to [partners],” said Kirk Robinson (pictured), Ingram’s executive vice president and president, North America, in a conversation with Channelholic. “We’re in a really good position to start to bring data insights to our partners where they can use it to better understand their market and learn how to grow their business more quickly.”

Projects like that are one reason Sahoo considers Ingram more a platform company than a distributor these days. So is the Xvantage mobile app he demo-ed at ONE this week. Attendees got early access to the new tool during the conference. Everyone else will find it in app stores for iOS and Android late next month.

According to Sahoo, the new app lets users do most of what they can from the browser-based version of Xvantage on the go. Which is where most of us are most of the time these days.

“You can actually look at all your orders, you can do quote to order, you can look at your tracking information, your recommendations, picks, product information, specs, everything,” Sahoo says.

Arguably the most notable thing about the system, though, is that Ingram developed it, more or less start to finish, in the roughly four months since users requested it at the company’s Global Cloud & Innovation Summit in May. You can do that kind of thing, Sahoo explains, when you have several hundred developers continually working for you on new tools, upgrades, and enhancements.

Easing partners toward advanced solutions

Elsewhere in distributionville this week, TD SYNNEX reported a 9.1% year-over-year decrease in revenue during the third quarter of its 2023 fiscal year due to continued weakness in endpoint shipments, and a 6% annualized increase in gross profit resulting from offsetting growth in sales of higher-margin advanced solutions.

Sounds familiar to Robinson, of Ingram. “I think we’ve all seen the slowdown in demand for endpoint solutions over the last few quarters,” he says, adding “our advanced solutions business is still healthy.”

As in growing, and (as at TD SYNNEX) more profitable than endpoints. “When we’re working with our partners and we’re talking about advanced solutions, I think it’s generally known that it is a more profitable area,” Robinson says. “When you get into security, networking, data center infrastructure, the services that go along with that business [deliver] a healthy margin.”

Ingram likes the sound of “healthy margin,” and its partners should too. A lot of them don’t know how to go after that money, however, according to Cheryl Rang, Ingram’s executive director of advanced solutions and data center. “What we’ve been finding a lot is there’s still a huge knowledge gap around what’s happening in the industry in our advanced solutions space.”

To close that gap, Ingram has introduced a set of self-paced online “Fast Track” courses in hybrid cloud, application modernization, and digital work experience, delivered through its Data Center and Hybrid Cloud Center of Excellence. The new offerings, which are a down payment on what will ultimately be nine Fast Tracks, are free of charge to Ingram partners.

“In fact, we’re enabling and incenting them to go through each of these, because what we see is once they complete it the opportunities that they can identify are tenfold,” Rang says, noting that enrollees get access to additional training courses plus sales leads.

Other recently added resources with similar objectives include the Advanced Solutions Integration Lab, a virtual facility opened in August that partners can use to explore, configure, and test integrated solution stacks remotely. “It’s really a way of incorporating on-prem technology with hybrid cloud technology and giving them the opportunity to test and feel and try before they buy in a multi-vendor view,” Rang says.

Skills can be a barrier to adding advanced solutions for partners too, which is why Ingram has rolled out a new program called STAFF Assist offering outsourced technical help from Ingram-badged employees. “They’ll be Ingram individuals at Ingram devices, but they become an extension of your team,” says Paul Hagar (pictured), the company’s vice president of services.

Chris Ploessel, president of Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based MSP RedNight Consulting, sees STAFF Assist as a useful way to ease into markets like DevOps, analytics, and AI.

“I don’t have to reinvent the wheel and I don’t have to have my guys 100% trained before our first deal,” he says. “I can kind of do a deal side by side with Ingram and watch what they’re doing and learn from them and listen and borrow their content and get our guys comfortable doing a couple of deals, so then we can be independent enough to do it on our own.”

According to Hagar, the service’s “economical price points” make it “very consumable for the SMB all the way up to our larger partners.”

SonicWall’s new SecureFirst program aims to entice MSPs

Christine Bartlett, the Cisco veteran who became SonicWall’s CMO this week, has her work cut out for her. A lot has changed about the security vendor in the year-plus since Bob VanKirk took over as CEO, including in particular its interest in MSPs, as I’ve written about here and for ChannelPro. Yet a surprising number of those MSPs apparently haven’t gotten the word that SonicWall is no longer part of Dell.

And hasn’t been since 2016.

That’s according to Michelle Ragusa-McBain (pictured), who became SonicWall’s global channel chief in August. Job number one for Bartlett, she says, will be putting misconceptions like that in the past.

“She’s going to help us with just debunking a lot of the myths that people have about the SonicWall of yesteryear,” Ragusa-McBain says. “Marketing’s a key piece of that and she’s going to help drive that for us.”

Bartlett and Ragusa-McBain will both be on point for spreading the word about the almost all-new SecureFirst partner program SonicWall announced last week.

“We’ve revamped that program,” Ragusa-McBain says. “We’ve made it more attractive and beneficial to our partners so that they can earn more money with us, that they can lower their costs with us, and that they can earn other benefits.”

To lure more MSPs in particular to the program, SonicWall has made joining significantly easier. “Literally signing our terms and conditions is the very first step,” Ragusa-McBain says.

Other changes are designed to keep those newcomers engaged. “We are going to help you with enablement and training and education to help you ramp quickly,” Ragusa-McBain says.

Discounts are bigger than before at every level in the new program, she adds, and the thresholds required to collect rebates are lower. There’s more MDF as well, and according to Ragusa-McBain it’s easier to get.

“We are moving from proposal-based MDF to accrual-based,” she explains. “If you grow with us, we want to reinvest back into you to co-brand, co-market, co-sell.”

The revised program has four tiers divided into two tracks, Velocity and Mastered. Entry-level enrollees start in the Velocity track at the bronze level. “That’s when you’re going to start earning rebates and the MDF dollars and getting discounts,” Ragusa-McBain says.

Bring in enough revenue and you’ll ascend to silver status. From there, the next step is the Mastery track, which is divided into gold and platinum tiers. Those rules apply equally to product revenue and recurring subscription revenue.

“Regardless of whatever you’re selling or however you’re selling, we’re going to meet you where you are,” observes Ragusa-McBain.

All of that is in effect for new partners today. Existing SecureFirst members will be slotted into a new tier between now and February 1st of next year. Some of them have status bumps coming their way.

“We’re actually promoting 18% of our silver partners to gold right now, and 8% of our gold partners into platinum,” says Ragusa-McBain, adding that RMM and PSA integrations are coming to further attract MSPs.

SonicWall has two acquisitions coming soon

Finally, here’s a good example of why it pays to read Channelholic all the way to the end every week. We told you back in August that SonicWall has SASE, XDR, and MDR solutions coming soon. We can now tell you that some of those portfolio additions will result from two nearly completed vendor acquisitions.

“We’re very, very close,” Ragusa-McBain says. Both deals, she continues, should be completed and publicly announced by the end of the year.  

Also Worth Noting

Atera says the new “AI-powered IT” functionality in its RMM solution, developed in partnership with Microsoft, resolves up to half of tickets before they reach a tech.

Blackpoint Cyber’s Cloud Response MDR service now supports Google Workspace in addition to Microsoft 365. More on this in next week’s Channelholic, following my meeting with CEO Jon Murchison on Monday.

Bitdefender has a new threat intel service for SOC operators and MSSPs. I’ll be discussing this with a Bitdefender exec next week too.

The ASCII Group has allied with Worklyn Partners to give MSPs a new option for navigating the M&A landscape.

TD SYNNEX has a new short-term credit offering with expanded payment terms that’s designed to give partners extra financing capacity.

TD SYNNEX has also added SaaS security vendor Spin.AI to its line card.

Zyxel’s ZyWALL USG FLEX 100 firewall series now includes Wi-Fi 6 models.