Systems integrators play a major role in aiding end user organisations to successfully deploy projects and get the most value from their technology investment. As cloud computing models develop, how will they continue to add value, and how can their customers get the most from the working relationship?

At the most straightforward level, systems integrators play a crucial role in providing a bridge between vendors and customers, to ensure that the customer receives the latest technology solutions for their projects that fit best with their business requirements and budget, and to deliver ongoing support once the project is completed. As technology becomes increasingly complex, however, and particularly as delivery models change, the role of the systems integrator is shifting and evolving.

Probably the single most pressing issues for systems integrators today are the emerging models of cloud computing. In a computing model where applications and platforms are as easily accessible as turning on a tap, systems integrators are very conscious that their traditional role of providing hardware, software, installation and support to individual customer premises, is under threat.

Nicolai Solling, director of Technology Services at help AG Middle East commented: “If you are looking at the revenue stream that a systems integrator is receiving today, a lot of it is based on hardware and licences. A very large part of our revenue stream is potentially going to disappear over the coming years. The systems integrator needs to evolve into a service integrator instead.”

The theme of transforming the business is common among the more advanced systems integrators. There are still some opportunities in provisioning traditional hardware and services as companies prepare themselves for cloud, according to Saed Sakran, GM and acting sales director at Scope Information Systems.

“Migration to the cloud will call for better network infrastructures, increased importance of data centre solutions and quicker upgrade cycles. All of these present plenty of opportunity for channel players,” he explained.

Other systems integrators believe that in the longer term, there will be more need to move to a service model, with more focus on providing services and expertise to customers, rather than hardware and software.

“Customers still require systems integration, but more and more it is transforming into services; people want to integrate their services, they want to provide to their end users the concept of integrated services,” said Ihab Saheli, general manager, CNS.

Most systems integrators don’t expect to become public cloud providers, at least not in the near future, but they are looking to strategic relationships with suppliers so that they are able to offer private cloud solutions or services such as co-location, or to help customers develop their own private clouds.

Sami Abi Esber, president of MDS said: “It is a little bit early for medium-sized or local systems integrators to play a big role. You cannot compete with people like Etisalat, du, or Microsoft unless you have a very strong solution offering, which can bring you volume revenues. The systems integrator should adopt the role to advise customers and help them migrate to cloud solutions.”

Cloud is not the only area of new technology where systems integrators are seeing growing demand. Areas such as security, disaster recovery and business continuity, mobility solutions and integrated solutions are all rising up the agenda in the region. While many of these technology areas have been discussed at length, actual implementation in the region tends to be more difficult, in part because of the lack of expertise and experience in deployment. This skills gap is traditionally an area where the systems integrators have filled an important role, through providing expert knowledge. Miguel Villalonga, CEO of Emitac Enterprise Solutions, said that while there are certified staff available to systems integrators and end user organisations alike, real experience in cutting edge technology is in short supply.

“There is little exposure to real implementation of projects in the region. For example the cloud — not just the concept of cloud, but the specific technical execution of cloud provisioning automation, cloud management automation, cloud service catalogue definition – is an area where its very difficult to find the right people,” he said.

As partners of IT vendors, most systems integrators pursue certification programmes with their vendors. These programmes help to prove the systems integrator’s capabilities in certain technical areas, but that is not to say that systems integrators want to be seen as too closely aligned with the vendor, or that certification should indicate they are just a supplier of specific brands or vendors — far from it. The ideal positioning for most systems integrators is to be seen as the customer’s trusted advisor, with a vendor-agnostic, best-of-breed approach.

“There is a lot of pushing of solutions by the principal vendors; sometimes it is challenge for help AG because we see ourselves as a value-added solution provider,” said Solling. “We want to talk about the problems of the customer before we start talking about products. It can be quite difficult to take that step back when the customer already has in mind that if they buy this specific product from this specific vendor that they will fix all their problems.”

Aseem Gupta, executive chairman & chief visionary, Visionaire, said that his company has always aimed for a best-of-breed approach, and to avoid being pressured by vendor partners: “We are always multi-vendor, best of breed, and we have to go through this struggle with every project that we do where the manufacturing vendor will try to push us into having to buy their technology, and we resist that totally. We have only one customer — the customer is the end user client.”

While it can be hard to stick to a best-of-breed approach, the customer enjoys the benefits of not being locked into one vendor, and a best-practice approach improves overall standards. Reyadh Ayesh, managing director & CEO Smartworld, said that his has taken a best-of-breed approach to break two monopolies with a major airport customer. Previous suppliers had not even suggested alternatives, but the customer appreciated Smartworld’s focus on their business objectives over any particular brand.

Ayesh also said that systems integrators find that they are increasingly required to pick up the support function for vendors to a greater degree: “One of the major challenges is the high cost of international support services. What we are faced with is this commitment from the vendor is shrinking, whereas the customers want it to be extended. We try to overcome this challenge by buying as much commitment as we can from the manufacturer, and we keep ourselves equipped with local resources who are knowledgeable of the product, and we make sure that we keep spares, for the whole period that we commit to the customer.”

At the heart of the business for most systems integrators, is the relationship that they can develop with their customers. Generally they see a strong level of technical awareness among customers about solutions, but this does not always come with the right openness with the SI.

“Customers, to a high degree, know what they want,” said Saheli. “They understand their objectives. The challenge here is they are still shying away from sharing these objectives with their systems integrators. They still prefer to share this with consultants.

“I think they still believe that it is better to have different people in the supply chain, assuming different roles. Someone helps me to understand my requirement and articulate it, and I bring in another body to implement on those.”

The systems integrators argue that the closer the alignment between them and the customer, the better the relationship and the chances of a successful project. Issues such as vague or inaccurate scope of work documents, lack of focus on business objectives, selection of unsuitable or over-specified equipment can all be mitigated through better communication.

Seyed Golkar, director, GBM Business Solutions, commented: “Generally, it is very important for vendors and SI partners to align strategies. The current business market is evolving at a very fast pace and IT requirements differ from one sector to the other which, in turn, forces SI partners to continue exploring ways and means to keep up with it and provide value through IT technology, in order for customers to get best results. Understanding our customers’ exact requirements and needs is key, and it is becoming more and more crucial for our customers to have the IT capabilities that will allow them to respond and adapt to the changing market needs.”

A closer relationship between systems integrators and customers can help develop better scope of work documents and to set more defined project objectives. Gupta also pointed out that systems integrators can also assist in areas such as contract negotiation and understanding differences in vendor pricing. Variations in pricing policy can mean that solutions with the same specifications might come with a big difference in TCO.

“It is finding that small print that says there is a licence fee and you have to pay the vendor every year to get that activated,” he said. “A smart customer will understand the value that the integrator adds to that process;we need to build this concept in the minds of the end user, because [the systems integrator] is the guy who gets the work done for you, he is the one that makes sure your system will be working in five years.”

Customers should also look to long-term relationships with systems integrators as well, rather than focusing just on pricing.

“There is no substitute for quality work delivered by an experienced integrator at the right price. Those customers who are mature enough to appreciate this basic concept will end up with a much lower overall cost of ownership than those who sacrifice experience and quality in favour of what might initially look like a low price offered by a low-cost integrator,” Golkar said.

Building a relationship that goes beyond a project-by-project basis will deliver more value, the systems integrators believe.

“It is all in the way they see the systems integrator as a partner,” says Villalonga. “The relationship with the customers can benefit from a long-term approach. When we have visibility into the customer’s overall IT roadmap, we can understand the projects they are launching, how critical these projects are in their environment and what are the budget constraints. We can help them much more than if they isolate each project by project, and squeeze the competition on price on each project, and create an isolated road map with different systems integrators.”

The systems integration business is undergoing a period of change, but the major players don’t expect this to slow the market in the region.

“The systems integration business will keep growing, and I expect this to be in double digits,” said Esber. “There will be more focus from customers on quality of services, the ability to execute on time, and skillsets, and this will change the role of many of the systems integrators and the map of the major players in the coming few years.”

Saheli of CNS added: “Advancement in technology will never stop, as long as new technology is there; you will need somebody to understand, to implement, to integrate, to deliver. The challenge here is in the systems integrator’s ability to adapt to the change in the technology and trends.”