CRN speaks with Microsoft partners who took home the top awards in Power BI, Teams calling and meetings, and Azure-based IoT.
With Microsoft’s channel partners numbering in the hundreds of thousands worldwide, getting recognized in the company’s annual Partner of the Year Awards is never a small feat.
Microsoft handed out the awards in 49 categories last month, chosen from among 3,300 nominations.
Since the awards were announced, CRN has been speaking with several of the Microsoft Partner of the Year winners in key growth markets.
The solution providers stood out for their differentiated approaches in Power BI data analytics, Teams calling and meetings, and Azure-based IoT, according to Microsoft.
What follows are the top takeaways from the three solution providers: Slalom Consulting, Continuant and Mariner.
2020 Microsoft Partner of the Year-Power BI
For Slalom Consulting, No. 30 on CRN’s 2020 Solution Provider 500, tackling Power BI data and analytics projects is all about empowering customers to understand the direction of their business, two Slalom executives told CRN.
“When you define where you’re going in your business, you need a good data visualization to do that,” said Dan Alling, Microsoft alliance manager at Slalom. “Power BI development Vietnam is an exceptional tool for providing that data to our customers.”
Seattle-based Slalom was recognized with the Partner of the Year award in Power BI development thanks to its work for an international retailer, which involved giving store managers real-time data about the products on the shelf and the flow of customers.
The work enabled the store managers to “operationally adjust in real time with dashboards—in terms of when stock-outs were going to happen, or what promotions were working, or just the overall customer experience that they ultimately were having,” Alling said. “They were able to meet customer demand through a dashboard of data that was accurate—versus just managing by gut.”
The deployment replaced a “very clunky process with non-real-time reports that weren’t updated, that weren’t at their fingertips,” he said. “Now they had a mobile-friendly view to be able to see exactly in real time what the experience was, and to be able to adjust accordingly.”
Andrew Houston, managing director of the Microsoft relationship at Slalom, said that to make the project happen, a lot of work had to be done initially in Azure solutions.
“The project was the culmination of a lot of preceding work around getting the data structures, the data environment established properly—to be able to bring in data about the customer and about the store and about the products from many different places, and get them into an Azure database,” Houston said. “And then from there, we were able to build the reporting on top of a trusted and relied data source.”
The project concluded at the end of February, just before the COVID-19 crisis reached the U.S.—hitting many retailers hard.
However, the project is “a long-term opportunity for [the customer] to build the right infrastructure and the right reporting environment,” Alling said. “The concept was developed pre-COVID. The reality will be completely felt in a post-COVID environment, where you’re going to have to be more strategic and more capable.”
For Slalom overall, the crisis has created growing demand for solutions and services. The company’s Microsoft business is up about 40 percent so far in 2020 compared with last year.
“There are a lot of customers that are realizing they have to accelerate a lot of the conversations and transformation they’ve been thinking about—and do it sooner. Because they need to build more virtual storefronts, find ways to engage with the customers who aren’t going to be physically present, find ways to engage with their teams who aren’t all in one place,” Houston said. “So a lot of the things we’ve been talking about, and that Microsoft’s been talking about, around digital transformation—those conversations and that work has started to accelerate. Because there’s a real need to figure out how to get it done faster.”
Ultimately during this crisis, “while some of our customers’ industries have been hit particularly hard, even the ones that have not been impacted directly, they’re impacted on their ability to transform their business in a new environment,” Alling said. “And so that lends well to Microsoft and Slalom, and really enabling our customers to do more with technology.”
2020 Microsoft Partner of the Year-Calling and Meetings for Microsoft Teams
Continuant is leveraging its decades-long experience in managing telephony and unified communications services for customers in its approach to enabling Teams usage, two Continuant executives told CRN.
The solution provider has been a Microsoft partner since 2005, and throughout its partnership has been looking to take customers running on telephony solutions into UC and collaboration, said Jon Shelby, vice president of business development at Continuant.
As a result, Tacoma, Wash.-based Continuant has amassed both a large customer base and a “high level of expertise around calling and meetings,” Shelby said. “That’s led very well into the Teams migrations that we do. We have a lot of expertise around legacy environments and what customers expect out of them—and it makes for a smooth transition, and a high level of adoption, as we take those customers to Teams.”
Part of that expertise comes into play when transitioning customers from legacy phone systems to Teams because they’re not always directly comparable on features, said David Ellis, vice president of collaboration at Continuant.
“So you need a company that understands both sides of that. You need somebody who understands the legacy phone system, and understands the Teams platform, and how to translate requirements and functionality between those two platforms,” Ellis said. “I think that’s really where our market differentiator lies—we are very good at translating the old to the new, and making sure that all the business requirements and functionality is captured.”
In some cases, there have been “years and years of feature-building within a legacy environment to get those to work the way they did, and they’re different in Teams,” Shelby said. “So we have to look at adoption and change management, and how that feature is going to translate to Teams.”
For one major customer, Continuant oversaw the migration of more than 20,000 users—spread across 33 countries—to Teams from a prior voice solution in mid-2019. The customer is expected to see cost savings of $18 million in the first five years by using Teams.
Continuant’s key differentiator is its “understanding of the business requirements that tended to drive feature sets within legacy environments,” Shelby said. “We understand the business requirements and how they’re going to be applied to Teams. So when you look at the operations side of our business, the architecture, the design engineering, the deployment engineering folks—many of them came from backgrounds in Avaya, Cisco, etc. So they really have a tight connection and understand what that transition needs to look like.”
One of the big focus areas for Continuant with Teams has been around governance since Teams is a “truly unified platform—where you have calling, meetings, file-sharing, co-authoring, calendaring—everything in one pane of glass,” Ellis said.
“There’s a lot of open architecture where you can really make it work for you. And so you have to govern that and figure out how your organization is going to consume that responsibly,” he said. “And so our ECM [enterprise content management] practice really helps our clients envision what the future could look like—but then also puts healthy guardrails around that so that they can function effectively.”
The high demand for Teams has kept Continuant busier than ever this year, the solution provider’s executives told CRN. “We’re just slammed all day, every day at this point,” Shelby said.
While some customers are just now deciding to get onto Teams and seeking out help with that, others “kind of threw Teams out there in a rushed fashion” and are looking to fine-tune the deployments and usage, Shelby said.
“They’re coming back to us now saying, ‘We’ve got to clean this thing up. We need to get some adoption change management. We’ve got to make sure we’re using this the right way and get it fully deployed across our community,’” he said.
2020 Microsoft Partner of the Year-Internet of Things
Mariner is working to vastly improve the yields in manufacturing through the use of enhanced visual inspection, deep learning and analytics, which leverage Microsoft Azure technologies, CEO Philip Morris told CRN.
“There are companies out there doing smart factory but almost no one is doing the visual inspection,” Morris said. “We now have the ability to collect telemetry from the production lines, collect quality data from the visual inspection system, and correlate the two. And then we help customers understand the conditions in which they produce the best-quality product.”
Charlotte, N.C.-based Mariner initially deployed its solution with a global glass manufacturer, which had a vision system that wasn’t highly accurate—leading to “false rejects,” where the company ended up scrapping pieces of glass that were actually of sellable quality.
Mariner’s solution—Spyglass Visual Inspection—involves training a deep learning model on an edge server, collecting images off the vision system and then performing inference on the images. The system then connects back to the production line to instantaneously provide information on whether the piece passes or fails.
For the glass manufacturer customer, Mariner was able to reduce the false reject rate from 25 percent to 0.2 percent, Morris said. The company went on to get similar results with a second customer, a manufacturer of automotive interiors.
“What we like to tell our customers is that our visual inspection system will be as accurate as your best inspector on their best day,” Morris said.
Mariner’s system currently leverages Azure IoT Edge, although the solution provider is planning to standardize on Microsoft’s Azure Stack Edge once it becomes generally available.
The solution also goes beyond eliminating false rejects, Morris noted.
“If a defect should start occurring in a frequency that exceeds the normal threshold, we can alert the customer—so that in real time they can reduce defects,” Morris said. “So it’s not just about identifying defects more accurately, but also now being proactive to try to reduce the creation of the defects in the first place.”
Following its initial customer wins, Mariner now has 50 deals in the pipeline across sub-industries including carpeting, textiles, glass and automotive, he said.
While many manufacturers are currently operating factories with reduced personnel amid the pandemic, “they still have the problems they had before COVID,” Morris said. “The more progressive manufacturers are seeing this as an opportunity to get out ahead of the competition for when things open up full blast.”
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