Xchange 2009

by Dave Michels

I attend 2-4 technology conferences a year. I just got back from Xchange 2009 in Washington DC. This show is a little more about business than technology. It is targeted to dealers, VARs, system integrators, managed service providers, or whatever name they happen to go by. The cost of the show is heavily and squarely placed upon the vendors.

This was my third or fourth Xchange conference over the past 7 years. While most tech shows have changed considerably over the years, Xchange is remains pretty consistent. It is a valuable and interesting experience, but surprisingly isolated. Dell still shows up trying to convince the audience they are really channel friendly and only a few months away from implementing major “channel friendly” changes.

The terms “VAR” and “channel” are generally very broad, but at this show they refer to traditional IT equipment resellers that typically buy from distributors. As a result, the show’s themes are dominated by Microsoft, HP, Cisco, and all the related services such as virus management, printers, and security. The VARs I met were actually much broader, but the topics (largely determined by sponsorship levels) are pretty vanilla.

The biggest change at Xchange is the host; the faces are the same, but the business cards are new. It used to be hosted by CMP, former publisher of reseller publications CRN and VAR Business. CMP (I think) is gone as is VAR Business. The remaining core is now called Everything Channel and its brand CRN (Computer Reseller News – still in print), now all part of United Business Media.

The theoretical highpoint of the show is the Annual Report Card (ARC) Channel Awards presented for endless categories to superior channel programs. The awards tend to go to the big boys such as Microsoft, Cisco, and Lenovo. It is kind of nice to see channel programs recognized, but as CRN, Xchange, and Everything Channel is all funded (exclusively?) by sponsors it is a little hard to take seriously. The only other shows that are so focused on the channel per se that I’ve attended are put on by distributors (such as Tech Data’s TechSelect Conference), but these are limited to one distributor’s brands and customers.

Direct sales, retailers, and webtailers are not considered part of the sales “channel” at Xchange – and the topic of channel conflict is a part of every conversation. Distribution strategies are complex because the three parties (OEM, Distributors, and resellers) all have different objectives exacerbated by different perspectives of “value”. A good sales channel is actually much more difficult than one might guess.

A few observations for Xchange 2009.

Despite the world of convergence, this was not a voice show. Convergence, it would seem, applies more to technologies than to dealers. In reality, most of the dealers I met are doing some voice. This Microsoft centric group of dealers are the ones that bit on Microsoft’s ResponsePoint – but other than some side grumblings, it wasn’t mentioned.

The only telecom equipment vendors present were Digium and Catalyst (Avaya/Polycom distributor). But Digium and Polycom both do well with IT VARs; besides most telecom OEMs don’t use distributors which is a slightly different model than most vendors at this show. There were some carriers and master agents, and the only telecom panel on the program discussed circuit sales.

Actually, I don’t really know which vendors were present, because it would seem quite a few more were present than exhibited. This is a new trend I don’t like. Microsoft, Cisco, VMWare, Lenovo, and many others were there (and even sponsors), but they they didn’t have booths. I don’t get how you can deliver a keynote (Microsoft) without having a booth. I think the logic is that if you are important, they will invite you to private meetings. That’s great, but they don’t need a conference to do that – shows are also about new relationships. I understand booths are expensive and hard work, but an invaluable way to spread a message to a targeted group.

FYI: Microsoft’s keynote was mostly about Windows 7.

Another topic (the elephant in the room) was the cloud. The cloud threatens many of the revenue streams this audience relies on. There were plenty of side discussions about the cloud and cloud computing. Virtualization was even an ARC category (Microsoft and VMware were the winners) but the major tone and theme was around selling servers and related software and services. I believe there are plenty of cloud based revenue opportunities for the VAR, and shows like this need to be discussing them. On the exhibit floor, there were only two cloud services and no cloud computing solutions.

This show blocked wifi in all of the sessions. This is a very high tech crowd and wifi was sorely missed. I believe the goal was less mental competition, after all these vendors paid a lot for this audience. No live Twitter screens projected, and we were even told to turn off (not silence) our cell phones in the breakout sessions.

I am glad I went, and there were a few nuggets that made it worthwhile. I give the show high marks in some content and uniqueness, but I felt CRN is trying too hard to preserve this show. The vendors, awards, and general subject matter really weren’t much different than back in the day when people read VAR Business. There was one social media keynote, but it was geared to enterprise CIOs, not the audience present.

This was the first time in years I attended a technology show without any topics on the cloud or convergence. The exhibit hall was missing several key players and the social web was pretty quiet. If you would like to read more about Xchange, pick up any old Xchange issue of VAR Business for additional information.

1) The keynote screen had a single very wide screen (32×9?). It was very nice. The AV was top notch.

2) The hot raffle prize was netbooks. Nice to see we are getting past iPhone frenzy. Netbooks are actually surprising for this crowd considering their low maintenance and low margin. Not to mention they are ideal for cloud services.

3) There were several young adults there under a community service program called Channel @ Work which sponsored them as Future Tech Leaders with high-tech Microsoft training and education. That was very nice and it seemed well executed and appropriate. Congratulations to all involved.