Despite being a $20bn-plus company, when it launched into the channel Google appeared to be the noisy upstart, tweaking the nose of Microsoft and other long-established enterprise software players.
Three years on, with a growing list of blue-chip clients and a new, more demanding partner scheme, it must now be judged against the same metrics as the venerated vendors whose place it seeks to take.
The Google Apps channel programme is now divided into two tracks, covering SMB and Enterprise, which is defined as 250 seats and above. Each of these includes two tiers: Authorised, and the recently launched Premier level. To attain Enterprise Premier status, resellers must undertake rollouts covering at least 5,000 seats a year; have three certified deployment specialists and produce three case studies from named clients.
David McLeman, managing director of partner Ancoris, said: "The way they are building the channel programme is very disciplined. They are very demanding of us, but are very collaborative in their approach. We have had more transparency in the relationship than I have seen with any other vendor."
Like Ancoris, London reseller Cloudreach is one of the first firms to nab Enterprise Premier partner status. Technical director James Monico said the company moved 25,000 users to Google Apps in 2011, and wants to migrate "double or triple" that number this year.
"The main reason many of these deals were signed in the early days was because of low cost. More recently, it seems to be the quality of, and demand for, collaboration tools that is driving adoption," he said.
Paul Grimshaw, managing director of Google Apps partner Totally Techy, claimed that once his customers have trialled Google, they "almost always" buy. The cost of using Google compares favourably to the purchase and rollout of a new Microsoft Exchange Server, he said.
"Most of the companies we have moved across are small, say, 10 users, and they have Exchange Server which is flaking out," he added.
But Monico claimed that many Microsoft VARs might remain wary of signing with Google due to concerns over upfront licensing cash and the revenue-share model of the Apps Marketplace.
Platform for growth
Google's stated vision is of a world where businesses go "100 per cent web". Stuart Keeble, managing director of partner Appogee, claimed that, at the high-end enterprise level, cloud technology has a little catching up to do before this vision can become reality.
"You cannot go 100 per cent web until such time as there are cloud alternatives to the entire Microsoft stack, including Active Directory," he explained.
Appogee bills itself as "a systems integrator in the cloud space". He claimed that Google is mulling formalising these kinds of relationships in its channel programme, and that this is something he would like to see implemented. He added that the focus for his firm, and for Google, over the coming months should be to ramp up its engagement in the platform-as-a-service space through its Google Engine offering.
"It is at an early stage of maturity, but that is something for the next 12 to 18 months. We already have a number of customers to whom we provide this solution," said Keeble.
McLeman claimed that Google must ensure it cultivates a reputation as a serious enterprise vendor. The Ancoris boss pointed to the importance of high-profile customers including BBVA, Trinity Mirror and Hillingdon Council (see opposite).
"It can be difficult to separate that message out from the general noise about the cloud," he said.
"The biggest thing we would like to see it do is maintain the high ground in terms of real customer transitions."not had much traction with them [to date]," he added.
Google: We are still ambitious and in a hurry
Three years into its channel adventure, Google Apps' EMEA head of channel Peter Lorant has claimed the vendor would be happy with its current rate of progress if it were judged against its initial expectations.
"But the cloud market is even larger than we thought," he added. "We are very ambitious and we are in a hurry. We want our partners to move as quickly as we can, and our customers to move as quickly as we can. There is still so much more out there."
The vendor still needs to build volume of partners in the SMB arena, claimed Lorant, while the launch of the Premier certification will allow partners to clearly demonstrate their credentials as cloud experts.
"They can differentiate themselves in the market when [end users] are evaluating potential partners," said Lorant. "They also receive access to marketing funds and technical and sales training. It becomes a much tighter relationship [with Google]."
Some partners suggested to ChannelWeb that, in the past 18 months, Google has begun to behave as if the channel is its key sales engine, rather than a "nice-to-have" additional revenue generator. Lorant stressed that "Google is not a services company - partners have always been critical for the reach and scale we need".
"But what has definitely happened is partners are delivering incredible volumes. It is one thing to think about that when you are building a programme - it is another to see that in action."
Lorant revealed that, in addition to the recently launched certification for deployment professionals, a sales badge will be introduced for channel staff.
Lorant endorsed the view that moving towards a platform-as-a-service world would completely change the economics of partnering with Google for resellers.
Microsoft:We are gaining cloud partners, not losing them
Throughout the past three years Microsoft has remained stolid in its insistence that it is not losing any ground to Google.
Despite this, the vendor has, at the very least, frequently acknowledged the presence of one of its newest, but fiercest, rivals and continues to do so. At the software giant's global partner summit in July, chief operating officer Kevin Turner summarised the recent launch of the firm's Office 365 cloud suite as "nothing but a Google butt-kick".
Janet Gibbons, Microsoft UK's director of partner strategy and programmes, told ChannelWeb that the vendor has not been aware of partners defecting to Google or using it as a complementary part of their portfolio.
"In fact, Microsoft has doubled its number of partners selling online solutions year on year and is seeing increasing interest in offerings with new partners joining the cloud programmes every week," she added.
Breadth is the key word for Gibbons (pictured), who insisted that partners focusing on Microsoft, rather than Google, would benefit from the widest possible array of technology solutions and consumption models.
"We believe that we offer the widest choice of ways customers can consume IT, including on-premise, Microsoft-hosted, partner-hosted or any combination of these," she explained. "We also offer the widest portfolio of solutions from one single vendor including Office 365, Dynamics CRM Online, Windows Intune and Windows Azure."
Gibbons also pointed to a recent survey of 400 VARs by research and journalism organisation the Cloud and Technology Transformation Alliance.
The report ranked Microsoft as the top vendor to partner with in the cloud space, having been cited by about 28 per cent of respondents. Google was second, with about 22 per cent.