2004 CRN Certification Study

Read this article at CRN

by John Roberts CRN

New York (August 30, 2004) – Solution providers are asking for a new deal in certifications, and vendor-neutral programs could well be the wild cards that trump the current vendor-centric certification model.

While vendor-specific certifications are important today and will to continue to play a key role in the future, a new certification model appears to be evolving, one in which solution providers look for vendor-neutral certifications first and add on technology-focused, vendor-specific certifications as needed.


It is uncertain how long it will take this model to evolve. Some vendors have the market power and presence to resist this trend, and as long as solution providers ally themselves with these key vendors, they will continue to find those certifications essential to their business.


“Today, 98 percent of our business is IBM, and the IBM certifications hold the most value for us,” said Jim Torney, president of Essex Technology Group, an IBM Premier Business Partner in Rochelle Park, N.J.


But like many solution providers, Torney said that as the industry, driven by Linux, moves toward a more open-systems environment, he’d take a closer look at vendor-neutral certifications. The results of the CRN Certification Study, now in its fourth year, indicate the trend toward vendor-neutral certifications is already under way and will become irreversible as the certification model evolves.


The roots of this evolution go back as far as the collapse of the technology spending bubble in 2001. As sales margins declined and competitive pressures increased, solution providers increasingly complained that certification costs were becoming burdensome to the bottom line and producing decreasing returns on investment (ROI).


Changing channel economics is not the only factor. The shift by solution providers toward multivendor solution-selling, accompanied by a need to deploy an increasing array of products, is giving rise to the desire for a “knowledge-on-demand” support model, where vendors make product knowledge accessible wherever and whenever it is needed–and by whoever needs it.


“You have to offer customers multiple-vendor solution options because it is too dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket, especially when vendors are making decisions that might adversely affect your ability to sell them through the channel,” said Marty Andrefsky, vice president of sales and operations at Integra One, Allentown, Pa.


As solution providers expand their vendor relationships, the cost of maintaining an escalating number of certifications is becoming prohibitive. “Under this scenario, you could have technicians spending 30 percent or 40 percent of their hours in certification training, which is too costly with product margins so thin,” Andrefsky said. “The return on investment just isn’t there.”


Vendor-neutral certifications could move to center stage by giving solution providers a cost-efficient, all-in-one package of core knowledge useful for deploying products from various vendors within the technology area. “Vendor-specific certifications will become specializations added to vendor-neutral certifications,” predicted Anthony Awtrey, vice president at I.D.E.A.L. Technology, a Linux solution provider in Melbourne, Fla.


For example, a solution provider that holds a vendor-neutral networking certification but will be installing a Cisco-based IP telephony solution for a client might want—and need—to add Cisco’s IP telephony specialist certification to his or her repertoire.


“The future certification model will encompass a modular approach, with strong vendor-neutral certifications encompassing 60 percent to 70 percent of the commonalities in vendor-specific certifications,” said Brian McCarthy, COO of CompTIA, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. “To this, technology-focused, vendor-specific certifications can be added where there is a unique product or service.”


The Certification Study provides abundant evidence of the growing importance of vendor-neutral certifications. Six of the 14 certifications identified by solution providers as growing fastest in importance were vendor-neutral. And four of the top five fastest-growing were vendor-neutral, including CompTIA’s Linux+ and Security+, Planet3’s Certified Wireless Network Administrator and the Linux Professional Institute’s Level 1 and 2 certifications.


The vendor-neutral certifications on the fastest-growing list also represent a wider variety of technology areas than in past years, spanning networking, Linux, security, storage and wireless technology.


Solution providers, however, say many vendor-neutral certifications are not completely up to snuff. They would like to see more rigorous standards, including a hands-on testing and interview process, as well as more focus on cutting-edge technologies.


“CompTIA’s certifications are a good starting point, but they need to go beyond that, to make their certifications stronger, tougher to get and more high end,” said Oli Thordarson, president of Alvaka Networks, Huntington Beach, Calif.


He would also like to see more vendor-neutral certifications in fast-growing technologies, such as IP telephony. “A vendor-neutral certification of the caliber of a CISSP [Certified Information Systems Security Professional] doesn’t yet exist in areas such as network management or voice-over-IP,” Thordarson said. “CISSP is one of the few certifications that actually has credibility and meaning.”


Indeed, the CISSP program has emerged as one of the most prominent vendor-neutral certifications in the channel. It ranks as one of the eight “must-have” certifications and is No. 1 in ROI. And Thordarson is not alone in considering it a good model for other technology areas.


“The CISSP certification provides a holistic approach to security, viewing it as a process, not a product,” Awtrey said. “Security problems arise where the appliance meets the next device, and CISSP goes into this problem in depth, including system design, weak points, where security monitoring is needed.”


The CISSP, launched by the nonprofit International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium in the early 1990s, is structured into 10 core areas ranging from access control systems and methodology to telecommunications, network and Internet security. CISSPs are required to participate in continuing education courses every three years, forcing them to stay up-to-date on all of the latest technologies.


While CISSP certification testing can cost in excess of $5,000 per employee, it has credibility: More than 60 percent of the survey respondents indicated that they hire people holding this certification because of the technical competence that comes with it. And, significantly, Symantec has already begun recognizing it as one of the vendor-neutral certifications that fulfills a requirement for its Symantec Certified Security Practitioner and Symantec Certified Technology Architect certification programs.


Another sign of the growing importance of vendor-neutral certifications is that they are now figuring prominently when technicians add new certifications to their portfolios. According to the Certification Study, of those technicians holding one certification, only 20 percent hold vendor-neutral ones. That jumps to 48 percent, though, for technicians with multiple certifications.


This is especially true in the security area, according to Alex Solomon, co-founder of Net at Work, New York. “Security requires a vast knowledge of hardware, software and procedures,” he said. “Technicians need to learn a lot about security in general, not just products. It’s like going to college and majoring in security.”


Adam Hirsch, a senior security engineer at Net at Work, already holds Check Point and Cisco security certifications but is now training for a CISSP certification. “With vendor-specific certifications, you learn how to deploy the product, but you need to go beyond this to learn how security affects the rest of the company,” he said. “You need to take into account factors such as security assessments, security management and corporate governance. Vendor-neutral security certifications provide this critical knowledge.”


Still, vendor-specific certifications are not going to go away. Certifications from key vendors such as Microsoft and Cisco dominate the 15 most important list and are likely to continue doing so, given these vendors’ dominance in their respective technology areas. Solution providers in the study also valued vendor certifications that deliver competence in specific products and technologies, particularly in emerging areas. In the study, 41 percent of the respondents said technology-specific certifications are more important than less-focused, more general types of certifications, and another 43 percent said they were equally as important. Only 16 percent said general certifications were more important.


“Solution providers are now focusing on niches where they can make margins, such as IP telephony,” said Pete Busam, vice president and COO of Decisive Business Systems, Pennsauken, N.J. “We all used to be the ‘tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it’ type of generalists, but not since the technology spending bubble popped. This has changed the type of certifications that solution providers need.”


As such, vendor certifications will continue to play a key role in the evolving model, but the difference is that vendors will need to adapt their programs to the emerging model, as Symantec is doing with the CISSP. In other instances, IBM and Microsoft now rely on CompTIA certifications as elements in their programs and Novell recognizes Linux Professional Institute certifications as meeting some of its requirements.


Solution providers have become both more specialized and more solution-sales oriented, but the vendor-dominated certification model has been slow to adapt, resulting in too many certifications delivering too low of an ROI. The growing marriage of credible vendor-neutral certifications with more focused vendor-specific programs could produce a new deal that once again gives the channel a winning hand when it comes to certifications.