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Microsoft's Certification Is Golden

Certification programs aren't new to the ASP world. To ally themselves with what promises to be a major market, many major IT players — including IBM, Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems, among others — have established programs designed to bestow their version of the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" on fledgling ASPs (as we will discuss in detail in an upcoming Summit Strategies report).

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In March, Microsoft joined the certification celebration, adding an ASP-focused element to the Microsoft Gold Certified Partner program that the company introduced last fall. Initially, the Gold program targeted a range of software and services partner companies, with designations for e-commerce solutions, software products, support services and enterprise systems. Now, with the new element, ASPs can earn Gold Certification for applications hosting or for specific solutions such as Hosted Exchange, Office Online, Managed Desktop, Windows Media and e-commerce.

For the point-solution certifications, Microsoft evaluates ASPs' competencies in regard to the specific application. For the broader, Application Hosting stamp of approval, Microsoft examines all facets of the ASPs business process and operational infrastructure that certifies the robustness of the ASP's overall capability to deliver hosted-applications services.

Three Get the Gold
Along with the announcement of the ASP certification program, Microsoft anointed its first three U.S. Gold Certified Partners for hosting and application services: ManagedOps.com, for applications hosting; Qwest Communications International, for Hosted Exchange; and USinternetworking (USi), for applications hosting, Hosted Exchange and e-commerce.

Gold Certification for ASPs is also part of Microsoft's broader set of ASP initiatives — and its Microsoft .NET vision. It intends to use the program to help develop the market for Microsoft .NET-centric software and services by helping its Gold Certified partners gain credibility in the ASP arena.

To be eligible for this certification, ASPs must offer service-level agreements (SLAs) directly to end-user customers. Microsoft bases its certification assessment on the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) standards for managing information systems. ITIL has an 11-year history of documenting best technology practices for managing and deploying applications.

Originally developed to create best practices for IBM mainframe systems, Microsoft has applied the ITIL criteria to the Windows 2000/PC platform. It uses the criteria to measure ASPs in ten core IT competencies, and to appraise their service readiness, competency and capacity for hosting Microsoft and Microsoft partners' solutions.

To become Gold Certified, ASPs must first provide Microsoft with written documentation about the solutions they want to certify and how they will deliver and manage them. Microsoft also conducts an onsite evaluation of the ASP's technical infrastructure and operational structure --including everything from its sales and marketing capabilities to its in-house training techniques — and takes quarterly customer satisfaction surveys to ensure that ASPs are meeting SLA and other customer-satisfaction metrics. Regarding ManagedOps.com and USi — both of which have received the applications-hosting certification — Microsoft is essentially certifying their business maturity, operational procedures, and their capability to add and deliver consistently new applications in conformance with ITIL criteria.

Gold Is No Small Investment
ASPs that are ready to meet these criteria will need to invest, on average, about three months and a total of approximately 200 to 300 man hours, to go through the process and become Gold Certified. Notably, USi — the only one of three ASPs named as a charter Gold Certified ASP partner that also runs solutions on Sun systems — indicated that Microsoft's certification was much more substantial than Sun's SunTone certification.

Microsoft will reward ASPs that pass its test with marketing support, and will use its direct-sales force and Microsoft.com to help promote and recommend its Gold Certified ASP partners to customers and partners. It will also include them in its planned U.S. road show to evangelize .NET to customers. A portion of the tour relates to ASPs and hosting services. Microsoft's ASP partners will be able to use the show to highlight their hosting capabilities to customers. Of course, Microsoft intends to expand the program. It has about 20 ASPs in the certification pipeline now and is encouraging ASPs that believe they can meet its hurdles to apply for certification.

What does this latest arrival at the ASP certification party mean? For its three charter partners, Microsoft Gold Certification will help raise customers' awareness and consideration — though it's doubtful it will actually be the determining factor in winning them customer deals. Microsoft's stamp of approval, however, is likely to give them a more considerable advantage in recruiting Microsoft-centric independent software vendors (ISVs) and channel partners to their fold.

Over the longer term, adhering to Microsoft's .NET services vision (see Summit Strategies' March 2001 report, Assessing Microsoft .NET: Just a Windows Wolf in Internet Clothing?, for a full examination of this topic) may give the ASPs that align with it a standard that will allow them more easily to integrate data across different Microsoft-centric solutions. As a result, ASPs would be able to provide customers with multiple, tightly integrated hosted services more easily.

Microsoft's arrival on the ASP-certification scene underscores its intent to rally ASPs and developers around its .NET strategy and align them with its version of the software-as-services world.

It aims to use its Gold Certified ASPs to help propel .NET toward providing ASP customers with the same types of deployment, integration and system-management advantages that its integrated desktop and back-office suites provide today — and correspondingly, to achieve the same types of market advantages.

Never Underestimate the Power of Microsoft
While Microsoft's entrance into the ASP certification game — and into the whole software-as-services paradigm, in fact — is late in relation to competitors, its timing is likely to be more attuned to the mainstream market's readiness to adopt hosted services. While it didn't invent or pioneer these paradigms, it didn't invent mail, the desktop graphical user interface, or word-processing, presentation and spreadsheet software either. Whether observers want to criticize Microsoft for a me-too play or praise it for marketing prowess, Microsoft's knack for timing and its gift for converting the mass market should — once again — not be underestimated.