IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

2019 ChannelPro SMB All-Stars

THERE ARE STAR PLAYERS throughout the SMB channel with great products and great partner programs. Every year, though, a handful of vendors, distributors, and member communities do something especially bold, interesting, or important that sets them apart as not just stars but All-Stars. Here are the winners of that honor for 2019.

Where They Come From
The 2019 ChannelPro All-Stars were selected by ChannelPro’s editors based on their assessment of the year’s biggest vendor-related storylines, as well as input from a variety of outside experts and channel partners. The All-Stars list varies in size annually, and has neither a minimum nor maximum length.

ChannelPro SMB All-Star

AMD

AMD has been a major name in processors for decades, but has consistently trailed big brother Intel in everything from sales to specs for just as long. With the launch this year of its new 7 nm Zen 2 platform generally and Zen 2 EPYC server processors specifically, however, AMD has at long last achieved performance parity with Intel while beating it to market with a 7 nm manufacturing process. The upshot for builders and buyers of hardware is a wider range of CPU options to choose from. Unless AMD stumbles badly, moreover, greater selection should be the norm in processors for some time to come.

Aruba, a unit of fellow All-Star Hewlett Packard Enterprise, has been a trusted and familiar name in networking for so long that it’s hard to believe the company has never had products for small businesses before. Yet it didn’t until the launch of its Instant On portfolio of access points this June. Designed from the inside out for organizations with up to 100 users and available for as little as $119, Instant On devices offer an impressive combination of simplicity, functionality, and affordability. More importantly, they finally give the smallest SMBs access to a vendor that midsize and large businesses have been working with happily for a long time.

The list of tech companies open for business in 1984 and still going strong today is a short one populated heavily by names like Microsoft and Intel. IT provider community The ASCII Group, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, is part of that small, storied club. Though its offerings and priorities have changed through the decades, its formula for staying successful and relevant hasn’t: Focus relentlessly on helping members grow their business, adapt continuously to changing times, and take chances on new ventures. Latest example of the latter? The new peer groups ASCII introduced in August.

Boom! That’s the sound of Cytracom, a channel-only VoIP vendor for MSPs, executing what was arguably the biggest big bang product release of the year. In one fell swoop late in April, the company introduced its first custom-made mobile app, first browser-based desktop interface, first business SMS messaging tool, and first custom-manufactured desk phone, as well as an all-new integration that embeds unified communications functionality directly within the Outlook Online component of Microsoft Office 365. To top it all off, those enhancements were accompanied by new and more flexible pricing plans with deeper volume ordering discounts. Vendors rarely make bigger or faster roadmap leaps.

D&H is hardly the only distributor reinventing itself for a new era of IT, but it took long strides forward in that effort this year with the launch of new business units dedicated to cloud computing and pro AV solutions. Both groups are bundling software, hardware, and complementary third-party services together in ways that empower the smaller resellers who have long been D&H’s bread and butter to take on new markets, add recurring revenue streams, and become solution providers rather than product peddlers.

Big investors with big expectations are investing big dollars in makers of managed services software suites. While ConnectWise, Kaseya, and other companies swept up in that wave have mostly resisted the temptation to limit integration with competitors to grab MSP wallet share, Datto has exhibited an especially strong—and increasingly important—dedication to openness. Most notably, at a time when some vendors are spending less on integration, Datto made a point early this year of spending more by rolling out an all-new partner program for third-party developers designed to make connecting with its products easier. MSPs who run their businesses with best-of-breed toolsets should hope others emulate that example.

Face it, selling hardware can be more trouble than it’s worth. As one-time VARs become MSPs, therefore, many of them leave hardware sales behind—only to find that their customers still have plenty of questions for them about which laptops and desktops they should buy next. Kudos to Dell for noticing the emergence of such companies and finding an innovative way to provide them meaningful value. Launched late last year, the Dell Expert Network is a partner-like program for non-partners that offers cash rewards, dedicated account management, expedited tech support, and more. Its swift growth suggests an unrecognized need is finally being met. Will other PC makers follow suit?

We recognized Aruba for offering small businesses something that midsize companies already enjoyed. Aruba’s parent company, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, made our list as well for offering midsize businesses something that large companies already enjoyed. Specifically, HPE extended GreenLake Flex Capacity, its consumption-priced managed infrastructure program, deeper into the midmarket with new offerings that let a wider range of SMBs enjoy the kind of efficient, pay-per-use purchasing options they and every other cloud-era technology buyer covets. While they were at it, they also rolled network as a service, network access control, and other products from Aruba into GreenLake for the first time.

Turn the clock back a year and Ingram Micro barely had an Internet of Things solutions group in the U.S. By the spring of this year, it had an online marketplace stocked with dozens of preassembled solutions and an extensive inventory of kits and products, not to mention an increasingly robust selection of training courses, business-building consultation services, and more for would-be IoT solution providers. Ingram was one of the last big-time distributors to go after the IoT opportunity in a serious way. The head-spinning speed with which it’s turned that around has been something to behold.

Intel made the All-Star list last year partly for introducing its first Optane memory products. Based on the company’s 3D XPoint technology, Optane is designed to be faster than hard drives and SSDs but cheaper than DRAM. This year, the technology logged a major milestone with the debut of Intel’s Optane DC persistent memory modules. The chips give system builders and data center operators a powerful new tool for accelerating performance-sensitive workloads by shifting larger amounts of data closer to the processor, keeping it there longer, and minimizing the latency that comes with retrieving information from external storage systems.

It’s a big deal when Lenovo adds a whole new name to its iconic list of “Think” brands, like ThinkPad and ThinkServer. It’s an especially big deal for channel pros when that new addition takes aim specifically at SMBs. Lenovo’s ThinkBook line of laptops is significant for more than just its name and target market, though. The growing product family, which debuted in May with 13-inch and 14-inch models and will gain a second 14-inch unit and a 15-inch option next month, thoughtfully combines the slim, stylish form factors that millennial workers in particular crave with the durability Lenovo is known for at an economical price.

Insurance companies trying to wriggle out of paying legitimate claims? Who’d a thunk it? And yet that’s exactly what’s happening more and more often as issuers of cyber-insurance policies refuse to pay benefits to policyholders who can’t prove they’ve exercised due diligence in protecting their IT assets. Enter RapidFire Tools, a Kaseya company, and the new cyber-insurance edition of its Compliance Manager solution (formerly named Audit Guru), which automatically maintains evidence that end users have deployed properly configured firewalls, applied software patches, and otherwise taken reasonable security precautions. An easy source of incremental monthly income for channel pros, the product is the secret weapon SMBs increasingly need to keep stingy insurance companies from dodging their responsibilities.

Competition, more often than not, fuels innovation. If that pattern holds true, there’s more innovation coming soon to the BDR market thanks to StorageCraft’s OneXafe Solo 300, a compact, high-capacity, affordably priced appliance that replicates data on servers, PCs, and virtual machines to StorageCraft’s cloud, where users can virtualize recovery environments within milliseconds of a system failure. Due to reach market this month, the device closes a gap at the low end of StorageCraft’s portfolio while giving SMBs an alternative to Datto’s popular entry-level Alto appliance. We expect only good things to follow for MSPs as Datto and others respond to the new offering.

Switching from old-school product seller to next-gen solution provider is hard enough without the additional challenge of designing the solutions you’re going to provide from scratch. The complete, ready-made solutions for cloud computing and the Internet of Things that Tech Data  has been rolling out this year in steadily expanding numbers accelerate that process dramatically. Coupled with the outsourced services and Practice Builder training courses Tech Data provides, they’re a potent shortcut into new business models and revenue streams.

Zyxel might well have earned itself an All-Star award for the disruptively priced VPN firewall it made available to SD-WAN users late last year, or the firewall for midsize businesses it shipped in February, which uses a real-time cloud querying service to protect users from otherwise undetectable zero-day attacks. What sealed the deal for the networking vendor, however, was the portfolio of purpose-built switches for video surveillance it introduced this July, which come with use-case-specific features like Gigabit Power over Ethernet, support for extended cable runs, and reinforced surge protection. Other companies have since announced similar products, but hats off to Zyxel for getting there first.

ChannelPro SMB Not for Profit All-Star

ChannelPro’s Not for Profit column recognizes lots of companies each year for inspiring contributions to their community. This year, for the first but not last time, we’re naming one of them an All-Star. D&H earned itself that honor through its partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which began as an effort to help one child go to Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and soon turned into a year-long crusade by the entire company to fulfill every wish in the distributor’s native Dauphin County, Pa., for the fiscal year that began in August.

ChannelPro SMB Lifetime Achievement All-Star

Arnie Bellini
Arnie Bellini's picture

Since their debut, ChannelPro’s All-Star Awards have always gone to companies rather than people. This year we make our first exception to that rule, and for good cause. In February, ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini stepped into an advisory role at that company after a 37-year run during which he played pioneering roles in the creation of the managed services business model, PSA software, MSP software suites, and more while building the company he founded into an industry powerhouse. In fact, it’s hard to name any one person more singularly responsible through the years for the evolution of managed services and the MSP channel as we know them today.

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