Cisco is to compel its channel partners broaden their own areas of expertise. The company is preparing to roll out a new set of guidelines at its annual partner conference to be held in San Diego this week.

The new requirements, which all certified partners will have to meet by March 2008, are intended to help customers buy complete, advanced networks with new capabilities such as security, IP telephony and wireless from one provider, according to Andrew Sage, senior director of worldwide channels marketing. A survey of Cisco customers revealed they are using a greater variety of network technologies than before and want fewer partners with more expertise, he said. "It's the one-hand-to-shake concept," Sage added.

More certifications will mean that partners will have the capability to carry out bigger jobs, he added. The networking vendor will make big investments in training and certification testing for the partners, including both free online courses and paid in-person classes, he said.

The changes to be announced this week are Cisco's way of pushing its resellers to compete on expertise rather than price, which is likely to help maintain profit margins but also to help customers find a good supplier, said TC Doyle, an analyst at Amazon Consulting.

The idea is that, for the customer, "In front of them on their bids is a really proven expert in a given field," Doyle said.

Resellers that want the highest Cisco certification will need to have certified expertise in routing, switching, wireless, security and voice technologies, Sage said. Silver and Premier certification will also require certain specialisations.

Cisco also plans to launch three channel partner programmes over the next year specifically for partners that sell globally or provide outsourcing or managed network services. Up until now, Cisco has had a single programme that is meant to fit all types of partners but is primarily suited to companies that resell Cisco products within a single country, Sage said.

For example, today a partner that wants to provide managed services to customers in one country from a network operations center in another would have to become certified to sell and support Cisco products in the traditional sense, "on the ground," in both countries, Sage said. Under the new managed services program, Cisco would recognise that the partner was providing a service over a network, across the border, and would leave aside the requirement for traditional country certification, he said.