Microsoft overhauls its partner program with a distinct focus on Azure

The company set out new programs for partners that entice them to sell services across six distinct cloud products and service areas.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at Microsoft Inspire 2019

The Microsoft Cloud Partner Program will be focused on six areas: Azure data and artificial intelligence, Azure infrastructure, Azure digital and app innovation, business applications, “modern work” and security.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft is revamping its partner program and setting new recertification requirements for the 400,000-plus companies that sell and support its enterprise products and services and build their own solutions and devices around them.

The changes reflect Microsoft’s investments in the cloud as a strategic growth area and the need to align partners with the evolving requirements and buying patterns of customers, according to Rodney Clark, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Channel Sales and channel chief.

“While we've delivered on this promise of customer value in the past, the reality is that this has shifted, especially in the last two to three years,” Clark said in a press conference Wednesday. “It's no longer us — Microsoft and our [partners] — leading our customers on this tech-intensity journey of innovation and ongoing development. It's very much our customers that are directing us based on their emerging needs.”

On Oct. 3, the current Microsoft Partner Network, which is more than 15 years old, will become the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program. The new program will be focused on six areas: Azure data and artificial intelligence, Azure infrastructure, Azure digital and app innovation, business applications, “modern work” and security.

The new two-level program will continue to be open to Microsoft’s current partners — resellers, systems integrators, managed services providers, device partners and independent software vendors — but Microsoft is changing the way it categorizes them to signal their cloud expertise and experience to customers. Those partners are a critical part of Microsoft’s success: The company previously has credited them with having a hand in 95% of its commercial revenue.

“The scale of our success that we see through our partners drives these incredible results — $28 billion in partner co-sell value in the past four years — and we continue to refine and enhance the sales motion with partners as [evidenced] by the 37% revenue growth,” said Nick Parker, corporate vice president of Global Partner Solutions.

Microsoft is retiring its Silver and Gold competencies that partners could earn to help differentiate their businesses to customers beyond a baseline partner network membership status.

The first new partner qualifying level — a “solutions partner” designation — will validate Microsoft partners that meet specific requirements for each of the six new areas. A new partner capability score will rank partners’ technical skills and performance based on their certifications, new customers added, successful deployments and overall growth. That score will be a telemetry-based calculation based on reporting in Microsoft’s Partner Center portal, and partners must earn at least 70 points out of 100 points to earn the designation. Partners now can access the portal to see their current progress toward that goal.

“From there, we provide technical skilling if there's a gap that we need to close to help them get to 70 points,” Clark said. “There's proactive support to help partners navigate exactly where they need to go and how they need to invest in order to get there.”

The three Azure-related solutions partner designations — infrastructure, data and artificial intelligence, and digital and app innovation — also will be prerequisites for the Azure Expert MSP program beginning Oct. 3.

Microsoft’s second new partner qualifying level will include specializations — renamed from the current advanced specializations — and expert programs. They will recognize partners’ deep technical expertise and experience in specific technical scenarios under each solution area. The solution partner designation will be a prerequisite for earning specializations.

Microsoft stressed that there will be no immediate changes to partners’ business or program statuses, including anniversary dates, prior to October. Partners’ incentive eligibility will not change in the program year that runs from October 2022 to September 2023.

“It's important to know that as part of this evolution, we're not removing any benefits that partners receive today,” Clark said. “In fact, we're increasing investment in our program by more than 25%.”

In addition to renewing benefits they're already using, partners will be able to access new customized benefits packages, according to Microsoft. They’ll also continue to receive internal use rights licenses — which will be called “product benefits” — including on-premises licenses, cloud service subscriptions and Azure credits.

SAP specialist Lemongrass adopted a multi-cloud strategy last October and started partnering with Microsoft and Google Cloud after working as an AWS-only shop. Its acquisition this year of Wharfedale Technologies, which specializes in the migration and management of SAP on Microsoft Azure, jump-started its Microsoft partnership.

“Microsoft has given us a lot of love, and they’ve helped us navigate through what is a very large company,” said Tim Wintrip, chief sales officer. “They’ve given us a lot of help in understanding how they work, understanding their tools, helping us engage in different programs to better engage with their sellers. There’s been good collaboration at the engineering level as well.”

Microsoft’s partner program overhaul follows controversial changes associated with its New Commerce Experience platform that included adding a premium on monthly Microsoft 365 subscriptions purchased through partners in its Cloud Solution Provider program.

Partners have until Sept. 30 to decide whether to join the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program or renew their legacy Microsoft Partner Network benefit status for another year.

“We are engaging with our ecosystem and giving plenty of time for our partners to understand where and how they should be investing,” Clark said. “We want to make sure that our ecosystem, who contributes so much to our commercial success, is set up for success — that we don't allow competitors to come in and basically, through their set of offerings or their capability, impact the value that we deliver to customers.”

This story was updated to add comments from Lemongrass and to correct the age of the Microsoft Partner Network.

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