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Get Ready for Automation's Huge Channel Impact

Robotic Process Automation

An entirely autonomous enterprise may still be years away, but advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning continue to bring more automation to infrastructure, networks and business systems.

Now that IT automation capabilities are becoming more ubiquitous, channel partners need to shore up their expertise if they want to remain relevant to their clients. AI, machine learning and AIOps have become foundational parts of modern network, IT and operational systems — and partners need to explain them effectively to their clients.

That was the takeaway from a panel session held Tuesday at Channel Partners Virtual 2021. Chris MacFarland, chairman and CEO infrastructure platform provider Masergy, moderated the discussion, called "The Autonomous Enterprise." Panelists included Avant CEO Ian Kieninger, PlanetOne COO Chris Werpy and Telarus CEO Adam Edwards.

The autonomous enterprise in this context is a self-driving business that has applied AI to automate operational and business systems. To fully get to that point will require advances in deep learning technology, which has emerged in certain areas, according to MacFarland.

Masergy's Chris MacFarland“The end game is autonomous networking, which is a 100% set-it-and-forget-it environment that automatically ensures optimization and security,” MacFarland noted in his 2021 predictions, posted in January.

During Tuesday’s CPV session, MacFarland said investments in deep learning have created a $2 trillion market as of last year, based on a recent research report by Ark Investment Management. Those investments will grow in value to $30 trillion over the next 15-20 years, according to the report.

While those are lofty valuations, MacFarland underscored the growth potential. And, like many network and cloud infrastructure platform providers, Masergy has applied those advances in the form of integrating native AIOps.

“When you look across the various solution sets that our agents are taking to the marketplace, AIOps should be a meaningful part of that conversation, whether we're talking about contact center solutions, SD-WAN environments or next-generation networks or SASE and many of the other things that are coming to market,” MacFarland said.

Changing of IT and Business Operations

PlanetOne’s Werpy agreed, adding that the shifts to cloud computing, and increasingly to more distributed and remote work environments, make it that much more a necessary part of any consultation a partner has with a client.

PlanetOne's Chris Werpy“Back in the day, when we were selling networks, it was a predefined amount of sites, circuits and connectivity into those individual locations, and those workflows were very predictable,” Werpy said.  “As we moved all those applications and services into the cloud, and now as we have users all over the place, those permutations are so high that the network needs to be much more dynamic. Trying to manage and operate that network with the same principles and the same ideas in mind, it just doesn't work anymore.”

Avant’s Kieninger added that channel partners need to understand how to present why AIOps is important in whatever they may be implementing now, while understanding what is on the horizon.

“I don’t think clients are calling trusted advisers saying, ‘Can I buy some AI from you?’” Kieninger said.

Rather, they’re asking for a better call center experience or an improved security posture. Using the latter as an example, he underscored that legacy signature-based solutions are no longer the sole solution for solving today’s security problems.

Avant's Ian Kieninger“It's got to be based on change, behavior analysis — it’s got to be based on some version of AI,” he said. “We have to scale that.”

Analogy to a Tesla

Kieninger used the Tesla he drives as an example.

“You can't go sleep in the backseat yet; you’ve got to jiggle the steering wheel every few minutes,” he said. “If you look at AIOps within the network, we're probably halfway down the field.”

Masergy is among those who have integrated that into its network offerings natively, Kieninger added.  

“It’s more or less free,” he said. “And that's something that trusted adviser needs to understand. If you're trying to have an AI conversation, think through some of the products and services you're bringing to market today, whether it's UCaaS, security or networking. You can set yourself up for success, or for the larger conversation when AI becomes a product. Because when we can API any type of AI instance you want, this thing is going to explode to another whole level.”

Partners will also need a different approach when engaging with clients, added Telarus’ Edwards.

Telarus' Adam Edwards“This is not about cost optimization,” Edwards said. “Those who are thriving and have been thriving for the last several years are selling on solution of what is your pain today and how can I make it better? Rather than selling a solution designed to lower costs, [AIOps] is about delegating repeatable tasks from people to software.”

The Fear of Automation Eliminating People

Partners must also be prepared for the elephant in the room. The autonomous enterprise will automate many tasks now performed by people. Werpy noted University of Oxford studies on the matter. While there is no denying that automation will replace the need for people performing certain tasks, partners can underscore the benefits it can have to employees and organizations.

“The reality is, as agents go and have these conversations, that's the antithesis of what this technology brings,” Werpy said. “You're not replacing jobs; you're replacing the administrative steps, and this allows it to be more efficient and way more strategic. And that's what we're seeing with our partners, this conversation around these types of technologies that shifts the conversation from day-to-day menial tasks, resetting passwords, these kinds of things, but allows them then to become a strategic part of that business.”

Citing the aforementioned Ark Investment research report, MacFarland said automation is poised to have a positive impact on employment.

“The reality is that automation does make us more efficient,” he said. "It's really assisting us, and it should create more jobs.”

Channel Partners Virtual, artificial intelligence, machine learning, Avant, PlanetOne, Masergy, Telarus, automation