Cloud computing has finally come of age, with the unique circumstances of the last two years accelerating its adoption across the world.

In South Africa, and across Africa, a surge in public cloud availability has been welcomed by end-users and partners alike as new solutions have helped to solve both traditional and modern business challenges.

Cloud computing and the services available on this platform are levelling the playing fields, giving small and medium businesses (SMBs) the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with much larger and better-resourced enterprises.

This is of critical importance in the African context, where SMBs are the powerhouses of local economies, employing as much as 80% of the continent’s workforce.

In the face of terrible adversity, like the Covid-19 pandemic and associated disruptions, the adaptability they have shown is remarkable.

Chris Richardson

“Part of that is no doubt down to their own leaders’ grit,” says Chris Richardson, General Manager: Cloud and Hosting at First Distribution. “But another major factor is the technology that’s now available – and this is where cloud comes into its own.”

It’s not just SMBs that have had to radically shift their business models in the face of Covid-19. Large organisations also had to quickly set up staff members at home while taking care of critical IT elements like application availability, security, access control, network optimisation and more.

“The beautiful thing about the cloud is that they were actually able to roll out solutions in the blink of an eye, delivering desktop as a service for remote meetings and remote workspaces, or remote data management solutions that replicate to a business owned data centre or into one of the hyperscalers.

“There was an immense shift for a lot of partners as well as end-users.”

It was quickly apparent when the pandemic struck that companies already well down the road on the digital transformation journeys weathered the storm much more successfully than their counterparts still stuck in traditional models. “And digital transformation is largely about adopting a cloud-first strategy,” Richardson explains.

“Many African businesses, large and small, are already convinced of cloud’s value and its critical role in digital transformation, with the question of migration into the cloud often being a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.”

Pre-Covid, many businesses had already moved either partially or wholly towards an exclusively online model, and the pandemic presented a unique moment in time to try cloud services for their operations.

“Through necessity, rather than choice, many started using cloud tools to communicate, co-ordinate with colleagues and manage their work. And from there, we have seen an inexorable move to more cloud adoption and the implementation of more services.

“Cloud has levelled the playing field for businesses with its flexible, elastic use. During times of particularly heavy network traffic, cloud can scale up in real-time. Conversely, during downtime, capacity can shrink so businesses aren’t paying for bandwidth they don’t use.

“And, of course, customers can pay as they go, so there are no upfront costs.”

Adopting cloud means that organisations can break free from cumbersome and costly upgrade cycles, since they are always current with the latest cloud apps and updates.

“Patches or new versions can be taken care of by cloud providers and app developers rather than the businesses themselves, freeing them of the need to hire huge teams of inhouse technical talent,” Richardson explains.


FD and First for Cloud

First Distribution is a pioneer in the provision of cloud services to the South African and African channel.

First Distribution has been around since 1984 and, over the last 37 years, has grown from its core IBM business to offering a massive product range that covers data centre, networking, security, data security and Cloud.

“During this time we have grown from a South African company to one of the largest African distributors addressing a range of different vertical markets,” Richardson says.

First for Cloud is First Distribution’s inhouse-built and developed marketplace for the African ICT market, delivered via the Epsidon Cloud foundation.

“The First for Cloud platform is an aggregated marketplace, a white-labelled service that we provide to our partners,” he explains.

“It allows partners to accelerate their cloud journey and leverage the cloud to sell their products or portfolios.”

There are 7 500 products available through the marketplace, spanning hardware, software, public cloud offerings and private cloud services.

Partners also have the flexibility to offer products they don’t source from First Distribution through First for Cloud.

“We know that our partners service their customers with countless different solutions, not all of which are available from us,” Richardson says. “So they can offer their own or third-party solutions through First for Cloud.

“In this way their customers have a single port of call from which they can access the services provided by the partner.”

The First for Cloud marketplace is available to all First Distribution’s partners throughout Africa. “The offering is available in 42 different African countries, with multi-currency capabilities, including Rands, US dollars, Niara, Kenyan shillings and more. In essence a full-blown multi-currency ICT aggregated marketplace.”

What First for Cloud offers partners is essentially their own white-labelled marketplace, Richardson says. “Each partner curates their offerings – choosing from the 7 500 products on First for Cloud and adding their own or third-party products if they wish. They can then offer these First for Cloud services to their own customers.”

The value derived from working with First for Cloud is almost incalculable, he adds. “If a partner wanted to build their own marketplace, it would be prohibitive because they would have to invest in all the development and the back-end etc.

“But we have done all that work on the back-end; and the front-end is provided for the partner as if it is their own site – all they have to do is point their customers to what is effectively their own site.”


Building a community of partners

All reseller partners have their own unique capabilities and areas of specialisation, but often find that they can’t supply every service their customer wants.

At times like this, leveraging a community of partners lets them offer a wealth of third-party services.

First Distribution encourages its partners to offer their specialist services through First for Cloud’s GoFirst Cloud Services portal.

The result is a consortium of partners that come together to offer services on behalf of other partners, Richardson explains.

First Distribution vets and quality controls all the services offered on GoFirst Cloud, and they are then available for all partners to use.

“When the specialist partner is performing the service they wear the contracting partner’s hat, so as far as the customer is concerned they are working with just their chosen partners.

“In this way we build out our vertical offerings on a business-to-business (B2B) level, evangelising on behalf of our channel partners.”

The GoFirst Cloud offering is available for all partners. “If they have a niche service and they want to push it through distribution, we can help them do it,” Richardson says.

“We’ll help them to commercialise their service, do some marketing and lead generation on their behalf. They really have to just supply the service and we do all the rest.”

Partners never have to run into issues again from promising a service they can’t deliver, he points out. “Now they just populate their web store with services their customers may want, and when the customer clicks on it, that service will be performed by the specialist partner.

“It is all about creating a partner services community, and we already have around 15 partners that regularly supply services to the others.”

Services on offer include data management, archiving and data recovery, Office 365 migration, Azure assessments or deployments, security deployments at partner level, Teams services and more.


Partnering with First Distribution

Digital transformation and cloud migration can be a daunting task for any organisation, so choosing the right partner is critical.

User organisations are advised to choose a partner that is certified to offer the required services. “The right consultant is always going to tell you what is possible and what is not – don’t follow a trend because you are keeping up with the Jones’s,” Richardson warns. “Do what is right for your business and the correct consultant will lead you down that path.

“Bear in mind there may be one of more consultants involved when a specialist is needed to help with specific elements or issues. The GoFirst services ecosystem was created for this exact reason, bringing partners together to work on projects and to put their expertise together in order to deliver the outcome for the end-user.”

The GoFirst cloud service is very much a consulting approach, Richardson explains. “This is not a click-buy process, but very consultative.”

First Distribution has a partner-centric approach to business, and delivers all of its First for Cloud services via the channel.

“We don’t engage with end-users at all. We rather empower the partner to do all or parts of the deployment, and engage with other partners for areas they do not specialise in,” Richardson says.

And the model is working: First for Cloud processes around 4-million transactions every month. “This is a significant transaction value,” Richardson says.

It didn’t just happen, though, a tremendous amount of investment and hard work has gone into getting First for Cloud to where it is today.

“We have paid our school fees,” Richardson says. “Our cloud business is 14 years old – we haven’t been around for just a couple of years. First for Cloud was the first service of its kind on the African continent and we have been talking about cloud aggregation since before anyone else had a clear idea of what it meant.

“In fact, we were the genesis of the cloud industry on the continent.

“And this experience, the hard lessons learned, are what we offer to our partners so they can have an easy transition into the cloud.”

The investment in partners can also be seen in the number of activities that First Distribution runs with vendors and resellers alike. “We also funnel funding back to partners to help them acquire new customers, net skills and more profitability.”

This value-add is vital in the cloud market, Richardson says. “It’s no secret that the cloud vendors could very easily deal directly with end-users – the way the whole process and industry is built would make it relatively simple.

“So what we do is help our partners to create their own differentiation. The vendor should actually be secondary to the partner’s engagement with their customers.

“The conversation with the customer should be about the solution, not the vendor, and how the partner is addressing the customer’s business pain. The vendor is a consequence of this engagement, not the reason for it.”

Richardson describes how customers will sometimes ask a reseller partner to engage with a particular public cloud hyperscaler. “In these cases we always encourage them to ask why and to help customers understand the particular strengths of each vendor.”

First Distribution will also help its partners understand the vendor’s programmes and how they can drive better margins and revenues by enrolling in the right parts of the programmes.

“However, arguably the most value that we add to our partners’ lives is the continual evolution of the platform, adding functionality and making it easy to use,” Richardson says.

“The platform is constantly evolving, and we are always adding different product value-adds. Things like automated billing and customer invoicing that help partners offer a better and more profitable service.”

Because the platform is completely owned and built by First Distribution, it has total control of its future development.

“It’s our platform, but we let partners create their own differentiation for their customers, including things like multi-tiered billing and product supply. We don’t know of anyone else globally that does that, but we’ve done it on a South African-owned and built platform.”