The State of the Microsoft Channel is Strong, for Some Anyway

Seems like just yesterday we learned that the Microsoft Partner Network, along with its 19 competencies and coveted Gold and Silver designations, would soon be replaced by a new Microsoft Cloud Partner Program offering most members a single designation to pursue (“Solutions Partner”) in six cloud-oriented areas like Azure infrastructure, business applications, and security.

Actually, it was March 2022, not long after Microsoft’s New Commerce Experience completely overhauled long-established rules and requirements for selling Microsoft 365, saddling partners with new financial risks along the way, and a mere 16 months before last week’s announcement that the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program had acquired a fresh set of resources and benefits for providers of artificial intelligence solutions plus a new name, the Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program.

That’s a whole lot of change for partners to absorb in a fairly brief time. How has it left them feeling about their relationship with Microsoft?

My data is heavily anecdotal, but based on conversations with a lot of Microsoft partners and on-the-record interviews with two in particular, the answer appears to be this: it’s a great time to be a Microsoft partner if you’re big into Azure, AI, or both. If you’re the kind of firm SMBs are more likely to be doing business with…well, partnering with Microsoft is better than the alternatives.

Count Michael Goldstein, president and CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based solution provider LAN Infotech, among the AI Cloud Partner Program’s more contented enrollees. “I’m very satisfied,” he says. A longtime Microsoft partner, he had little trouble clearing the hefty certification, new client acquisition, and Azure consumption thresholds required to win Solutions Partner status.

Same goes for Dave Seibert (pictured), CIO of IT Influencers, an MSP headquartered in Irvine, Calif. Seibert, however, is also a member of Microsoft’s super-elite Worldwide Influencer program in regular contact with an extensive network of Microsoft partners. The larger ones investing in AI and/or running sizable cloud practices are generally pleased with the new program, which offers them a rich set of benefits, incentives, and resources. Everyone else not so much.

“Most people overall are not happy, not satisfied, and it’s because most of the changes that have happened don’t benefit the masses,” Seibert says.

Indeed, Goldstein adds, those changes have hurt a lot of partners. “There are some people that have 100 clients, and that’s all they keep for the year, and maybe they don’t add new clients. They’re being penalized because they’re not adding new businesses,” observes Goldstein, who has gripes of his own about the new partner program.

“The incentives program and the documents they produce are a little confusing,” he says, and it’s harder to get questions about them answered these days. “I wish that we still had access to personnel.”

Don’t even get Goldstein started on NCE, either. Transitioning Microsoft 365 users to the new program was a labor-intensive process that he’ll have to repeat early next year and annually after that every time renewal dates that he currently tracks manually arrive.

“It’s a royal pain in the butt,” he says, that gets more complicated still when clients go out of business or simply change their mind mid-term. Some such customers buy out the remainder of their contract, Goldstein notes. “Other people just say, ‘I’m just not paying it,’” leaving him on the hook for licenses that he’s barred from transferring to other, paying users or partners.

“I hope they realize some of the mistakes that they made over this past year,” says Goldstein of Microsoft.

And if they don’t? Very few of Microsoft’s many unhappy partners, Seibert predicts, will take their business elsewhere.

“Microsoft holds a pretty good size share of the market, and it’s a little challenging to say, ‘I’m not going to play ball,’” he says. “Could you? Of course, you could. But that’s probably not real practical if you’re in business servicing, selling, supporting, and developing, because Microsoft product is the big gorilla.”

More like the only gorilla, according to Goldstein, because Google and Amazon have even less to offer small and midsize partners.

“We have to pick our evil,” he says, “and I don’t think it’s any better on any other side.”

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SonicWall has a wave of MSP-friendly programs and products coming soon

A recent, characteristically insightful post from Larry Walsh of Channelnomics explored why inflation, recession anxieties, and eroding margins have many vendors cutting their channel spending. There are exceptions to that trend though, including (per a post I wrote in June) Barracuda Networks. SonicWall, it seems increasingly clear, is another.

As regular Channelholic readers have known since April, SonicWall is in the midst of a major push to add rank-and-file MSPs to a partner base more heavily populated with big-time MSSPs in the past. An early step in that effort, taken in May, was naming Michelle Ragusa-McBain, formerly of Cisco and consultancy JS Group, the company’s vice president of North American channels.

Just three months later, as you may have seen elsewhere this week, Ragusa-McBain (pictured) has been promoted to global channel chief. Somewhat less discussed in those reports are the many other MSP-friendly changes SonicWall has coming soon, including a revamped version of the vendor’s SecureFirst program with enhanced front and backend rebates, additional MDF, and more.

“There will be a soft launch in September” for North American partners, says Ragusa-McBain, noting that new partners will join the revised program immediately while existing ones will transition in gradually. An expanded edition of the vendor’s SonicWall University with additional business and technical training resources for MSPs is due in September as well, along with new Café Tech and Café Biz webinar series.

Look for more integrations “in the RMM, PSA, and born in the cloud distribution space” to follow those rollouts in the months ahead, Ragusa-McBain continues. “We want to make sure that we are making it very easy to do business with SonicWall, and that’s one of the ways,” she says. “It’s a requirement right now for MSPs and for us to be successful with them.”

All of that follows the introduction of new firewall-as-a-service offerings in June and precedes the introduction of forthcoming SASE, XDR, MDR, and SD-WAN solutions.

“You’ll start seeing a lot of new innovation coming from us pretty quickly,” Ragusa-McBain promises. “We’re looking at building, partnering, and acquiring in a lot of different ways.”

A new chapter in the Cisco XDR story

You read it here first! Channelholic disclosed the approaching release of Cisco’s first-ever XDR solution back in April, weeks before it happened. This week, the company added recovery functionality to the system’s existing detection capabilities, enabling businesses to capture and restore a snapshot of business-critical information more or less immediately after the beginnings of a ransomware attack.

“The exponential growth of ransomware and cyber extortion has made a platform approach crucial to effectively counter adversaries. Our objective is to build a resilient and open cybersecurity platform that can withstand ransomware assaults and recover with minimal impact, ensuring uninterrupted business operations,” said Jeetu Patel, EVP and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco, in a press statement.

New to Cisco XDR as well this week are integrations with Cohesity’s DataProtect and DataHawk solutions. Those join previously released integrations with solutions from CrowdStrike, Microsoft, Palo Alto Networks, SentinelOne, Trend Micro, and others.

Also worth noting

Syncro’s new industry affiliate program grants educators, content creators, and other non-MSP players in the MSP market $1,000 every time a managed service provider they send Syncro’s way becomes a paying partner.

NetApp has a new partner program packed with incentives for solution providers who join its strategic march toward flash and cloud storage.

The pen testing solution Kaseya acquired along with Vonahi in April is now SOC 2 Type II certified.

Penny wise, pound foolish? 91% of IT leaders say privileged access management software decreases the risk of insider and external breaches, but 62% will likely cut PAM spending due to economic uncertainty, per Keeper Security.