IBM’s Managed Service Provider Initiatives for Midmarket: An Interview with Mike McClurg

Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Mike McClurg, VP of Global Midmarket Sales for IBM. [If you’d like to listen to the recorded podcast, click on the orange circle below].

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Laurie: Mike, thanks so much for joining us today. Before we dive into our conversation about IBM’s strategy and programs for managed service providers (MSPs), can you give us a big picture view of IBM’s midmarket strategy?

Mike: Sure. In IBM, we typically classify midmarket accounts as firms with 1000 or fewer employees. Our midmarket initiative is global, and midmarket is one of our fastest growing segments, including growth markets, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and Eastern Europe. We’re seeing real expansion of the midmarket and SMB client base in those geographies as they build out their infrastructure. We’re also seeing nice growth in traditional major markets.

Our products and services range from servers and storage that SMBs use to build their infrastructure, to business analytics tools such as IBM SPSS software and IBM Cognos software which are very popular to help create smarter approaches to manage data and knowledge. We also provide cloud capabilities and management and administrative services, to name a couple of the services we offer.

Trends show that midmarket customers are moving into some of IBM’s core strength areas—for instance, outsourcing through MSPs, business analytics and big data in the services area. So it’s an exciting time for us with the midmarket business.

Laurie: Can you tell us a bit about your background, Mike?

Mike: I have been with IBM for four years. I came from XIV, a storage company that IBM acquired in 2008. Prior to that, I ran channel and SMB businesses for EMC and Sun Microsystems. I’m fairly new in terms of my IBM tenure, but have long experience with the channel and SMBs.

Laurie: Thanks. So, turning to IBM’s MSP initiative, how do MSPs fit into the picture for IBM?

Mike: We look at it from a customer demand perspective. We see more interest from midmarket customers to leverage outsourced solutions. It is very appealing for them to roll out a new application and leverage standard solutions without expanding their IT organizations or building a lot of infrastructure. MSPs can help them do it quicker and with less upfront investment and risk. So outsourcing and MSPs are key trends.

Laurie: There are so many areas in which technology is evolving so quickly—cloud, and mobile, social, and analytics. Even if SMBs want to do some of this in-house, the pace of change is so rapid that they can’t get new solutions in place quickly enough with only in-house resources.

Mike: That is exactly right. Their IT organizations are working 9 to 6 five days a week, so it’s great to have a business partner that can provide a mission-critical applications such as email with a 24/7 service level. And they can leverage cloud capabilities for security monitoring.

Another benefit is that an MSP sees millions of intrusion detections a day, and can do statistical analysis to understand where the next one is likely to come from. That’s a level of sophistication that a midsized firm probably doesn’t have. But they can leverage that from an MSP partner.

Laurie: So MSPs can provide not only economies of scale, but economies of skill because of experience. But the MSP area can be very blurry, with a lot of definitions and overlap between MSPs and other partners like VARs or solution providers. How does IBM define MSP, and what type provides the best synergy with IBM?

Mike: We look at it from a few different perspectives. First, there is the traditional non-cloud MSP, which is what folks typically think of when they talk about an MSP: They provide network system management outsourced infrastructure management.

But we’re seeing real growth among cloud service providers, who fit into three categories: infrastructure as a service, platform as a service and software as a service. The best way to think of it is how much does that service provider provide as an outsource service to the end-user customer?

  • Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) providers are traditional MSPs that provide servers, storage and management capabilities such as security and backup.
  • Platform as a service (PaaS) providers provide infrastructure plus a development runtime environment.
  • Software as a service (SaaS) providers manage everything, including your application and data, for you.

IBM has programs for each type. IaaS MSPs are great partners for our Tivoli management tools, servers, storage and endpoint management tools for mobile applications. PaaS providers also use solutions such as Cognos, an analytics tool, SPSS and Rational development tools. SaaS providers may work with IBM partners who have built on IBM infrastructure or the IBM SmartCloud Enterprise.

Laurie: Several major IT vendors are courting MSPs. What differentiates IBM?

Mike: When we talk to MSPs, their needs focus on two areas. One is they’re looking for a full offering. Can I buy a platform, management tools, platform development tools and services? IBM has a really strong story to tell up and down the whole continuum of offerings—not only the products, but also the services.

We tune our offerings so that an MSP can plug-in anywhere. If they need a platform, we’ve got that. If they’re developing a vertical service that they’re rolling out and they would like to offer a managed backup or a managed security service as part of that, we have it and it’s available, priced and configured so that they can integrate it into their solution and sell it to their end-user customers. We’ve got a lot of flexible offerings and capabilities to address their needs.

Laurie: It sounds almost like they can get as many of the LEGO pieces as they want.

Mike: That’s the way we like to think of it. You define what your business is, and IBM will plug-in the areas that are not core to you or where you could use some help. If it’s another service that augments the business that you’re in, then that’s the way we’d like to work with you.

The other thing that’s really exciting is that IBM is very focused on how do we build a business relationship with an MSP? What do we do for joint marketing to drive demand for their services? We both have an interest in them being successful because the more they sell, the more they consume the technology we provide to them.

We focus on their people and capabilities, leveraging our background and business partner experience. We’ve done a lot in the last three years to assist with marketing support for our business partners to help them go to market as opposed to us just handing them a lead. We’re much more efficient if we put more money and investment and skills in their hands, supported with marketing investments and some other services that we can provide to them.

Sure, we’re a technology provider, we’ll hit all of your needs there, but we’re really focused on the business relationship and how we provide you the marketing support to drive demand, and how you can leverage the IBM brand and logo in the marketplace.

Laurie: What is the traction like with IBM for MSPs so far?

Mike: Explosive growth. We’ve gone from a couple hundred of MSPs to 1400 globally in just a few months since we’ve focused on bringing our message to them. We’ve kept it kind of a quiet secret; but since we’ve been starting to drive the discussion with partners, it’s starting to expand very rapidly.

Laurie: What are the best opportunities for MSPs in the midmarket to work with IBM on, if you had to pick a couple of sweet spots?

Mike: Most of our business today comes from the IaaS providers—the traditional hosters that are building out infrastructure. In major markets, they’re looking at systems like IBM PureSystems, which is an advanced fully functional platform. In growth markets, they’re saying come in and help us with our data center strategy and how we should build out these data centers.

But the other two areas, PaaS and SaaS, are ones that we’re really seeing explosive growth in. In PaaS, we’ve got partners developing environments based on IBM Rational software and IBM Cognos software, and some SaaS partners are using IBM SmartCloud Enterprise and Cognos tools. All three are great areas, and we’ve got a good story to tell for all of them.

Laurie: Can you give me an example of a specific MSP that’s really taken the bull by the horns and done a great job?

Mike: Yes. I’ll talk about one from Austria, a company called Pitagora. They developed a CFO dashboard around SmartCloud Enterprise in Cognos, which they host in our environment. They had been a traditional IBM Business Partner, so this was a great way for them to add significant value and launch a whole new services arm based on Cognos and their expertise in business analytics.

Laurie: What should an MSP know about the programmatic aspects of working with IBM?

Mike: Where to get information. Go to IBM PartnerWorld – Managed Service Providers, which is part of IBM’s global partner program. We’ve got information about the top offerings, depending on the type of business partner or service provider you are, and what would be the right way to engage with us from an offering perspective and from a business development perspective.

There’s a form you can fill out there, and we’ve got a business development team to understand your business and help you map IBM’s resources to your business. We’ve got folks that are really smart about this business. All they do is work with service providers to understand their needs and how to bring the full force of IBM to help them.

Laurie: How is the business model structured?

Mike: We’ve made it a lot easier to register, and the business development executive we assign will stay on and work with the MSP partner. Our business motto is that the partner will have an assigned person not just for the sign-up phase, but also once we’ve both decided this is the right partnership, getting those first few customers and starting to scale the business.

Laurie: Mike, I just have one more question to ask. What would be the most important takeaway you would want an MSP to have in terms of how they view IBM?

Mike: You know, it’s funny. I think when we have that conversation with MSPs, generally we’re not the first name that they think of in this space. But our team is focused on being an active participant in this marketplace. We’ve been listening, and what we’re hearing is that MSPs need a full set of offerings and somebody that really views this as a partnership and is willing to invest upfront in developing the business jointly.

Our key message to MSPs is that we are very interested in this business and in working with you. We’ve got a lot of very exciting things to offer, and there is a lot of leverage and benefit from being affiliated with IBM—so we would absolutely love to talk to them. The next step would be to take a look at IBM PartnerWorld – Managed Service Providers and get the ball rolling, and we’ll follow back up with them. We’re very committed to this business, and we would love to talk to them.

This is the second of a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs. In the next post, we’ll look at the opportunities and challenges from an MSP perspective.

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