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When IBM gathered a collection of solution providers for an online introduction of a new channel program for managed service providers, it started with a bold admission.

“IBM did not connect with the managed service provider community at all, and we were completely wrong,” Andy Monshaw, general manager for IBM’s worldwide midmarket business told the assembled at a recent online launch event for its first-ever MSP-centric partner program.

But if Big Blue has been late to the party recognizing the value of MSPs, it’s made up for its tardiness by taking a fresh look at the traditional partner program.

Here’s a little background: It’s not fair to say that IBM has completely ignored managed service providers in the past. In fact, over the last 18 months, the vendor has been quietly courting MSPs, and currently works with about 1,400 managed service providers around the world, and that number is growing at a rate of 20 per week, according to Ed Abrams, vice president of marketing for small and medium business at IBM.

But it’s never had a formal partner program for working with managed service providers. Until now. And in adding an MSP category to PartnerWorld, IBM execs were adamant that this wasn’t just another “me too” channel program. In fact, as Abrams tells it, Big Blue doesn’t look at MSPs as a channel at all.

“Many of our competitors simply look at MSPs as another channel, and we’re not approaching the market that way at all,” Abrams said. “MSPs have a very different way of going to market, and looking to build a unique program that meets their unique needs.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for this different mindset from IBM’s perspective is that it sees an opportunity for MSPs to be both go-to-market partners and important customers. The logic goes something like this: for many MSPs, automation is the absolute key to their success. Automation also happens to be where IBM’s shiny new PureSystems servers shine. And the company is betting that the interest in automation will before even stronger as MSPs look to roll out next-generation solutions, particularly those looking to build or support private or hybrid clouds – again, a major focus for IBM in the design of PureSystems. A match made in heaven, but assembled in Armonk.

To help MSPs make that marriage easier, the company has opened the doors to MSPs to four new Centers of Excellence for MSPs. Locations in New York City, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Ehningen, Germany. These centers will exist to help MSPs get hands-on experience with PureSystems, and to work with IBM technical experts to build out solutions. The offering will also include support from IBM Global Financing, including 12-month zero-percent loans for IBM systems, storage and software, with 90-day deferred first payment options.

MSPs will also have access to 40 IBM Innovation Centers worldwide for customer engagements, and the company describes plans to open a “virtual briefing center” that will serve as a way for IBM to share best practices with MSPs, and for the company’s MSPs to share best practices amongst themselves.

As with most channel program, marketing support is a big part of the new MSP program. But consistent with IBM’s view that MSPs are a little different from its average partner, it’s going a little bit different in terms of marketing support for the program. Rather than the typical vendor-centric marketing offers (co-branded brochures, sell sheets and the like), Abrams said IBM will focus on helping MSPs roll out their own full marketing plans – plans that don’t necessarily tie in the IBM logo. Abrams said the company will also have marketing agencies “on call” to execute those marketing plans once developed, and will invest in preaching the power of social media, data and analytics in a marketing campaign.

And underlying the whole program will be an MSP Concierge service, which will serve as “a single point of contract to access all of the benefits of the program,” Abrams said.

Rolling out an MSP program like this seems to be just the first step for Big Blue. Indeed, the company has scheduled an “MSP Influencer’s Forum” at the end of this month in New York City, bringing together a variety of experts from a variety of disciplines around the MSP industry to discuss the state of the market current and future, and help further refine the direction of Big Blue’s managed services strategy. Your humble correspondent plans to be there, and I’ll be your “fly on the wall” at the Forum in an upcoming post.

But for now: how do you view IBM as a partner to your MSP business? Has the company come calling on you? Is their different approach different enough to pique your interest? Or does a company have to prove its in it for the long haul before you’re ready to commit? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Big Blue’s presence in the managed services community.