The startup behind the ubiquitous NGINX web server is ready to embrace the channel

NGINX has been powering advanced web applications for a decade and a half. But until this month, the partners had no way to formalize the relationship through which they marketed the web server.

In January, the San Francisco-based startup behind the ubiquitous technology launched its first channel program, recognizing that its next phase of growth would come through partners, NGINX chief marketing officer Rob Whiteley told CRN.

“We were still in and around the channel, but it wasn’t a concerted effort by the company to invest heavily in that side of the equation,” Whiteley told CRN.

This has changed with the realization that in recent years more and more consumer enterprises have realized the value of deploying the enterprise version of NGINX’s open source technology to deliver their web applications at scale, said Whiteley.

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This potential commercial user base typically looks to VARs and system integrators to help them select and implement technology. Without a channel program, “we realized we were missing a big piece of the pie,” he said.

Despite the open source project’s phenomenal market penetration – NGINX is now downloaded four times per second, powering some 400 million websites and counting – many people don’t even know there’s a company behind the technology, a said Whiteley.

Part of the reason is that for many years there was none.

Igor Sysoev, a Russian engineer, first developed NGINX in 2004 after becoming frustrated with existing solutions for handling high levels of web traffic.

In 2011, the demands of maintaining the project became impossible to juggle with a full-time job as an administrator for a Russian internet company. Sysoev decided to launch his own startup.

The company’s guiding strategy was to develop and integrate load balancers and all the other features that sit in front of its core open-source web server – a marketplace dominated by Seattle-based F5 Networks – to bring applications online. faster, safer and more reliable. F5 dominates the load balancer market with over 50% market share and offers other application delivery components such as application acceleration, access control, and security.

Two years later, the startup began shipping NGINX Plus, the enterprise solution that still accounts for 95% of revenue.

In those early years, NGINX created new use cases, and growth came from selling to very tech-savvy companies like Zendesk and Salesforce that weren’t buying through the channel.

But that dynamic changed as traditional businesses increasingly focused on digital engagement and found they needed to deliver more sophisticated web applications to customers and internal users.

To drive growth, NGINX tapped Cassandra LaBouff to lead channel development efforts as Director of Product Marketing and Programs.

“We were seeing existing partners, some becoming more mature, wanting to deal with us in different ways,” she told CRN. “Some have developed their own modules, but then thought it might be easier if [they] may also resell the NGINX software.”

But the challenge for her team was to develop the right program, she said, “because of the amorphous nature of the partners we have”.

There were few pure-play solution providers in this space, so NGINX studied how VARs and system integrators sought to engage with its open source and commercial offerings.

The channel team built the benefits and requirements of the program “based on the routes to market that different types of partners are looking to execute with us,” LaBouff said.

Most NGINX resellers have experience selling commercial products from enterprise open source vendors. Red Hat’s channel is a source of recruiting, especially given NGINX’s integrations with the open source leader’s technology.

Whiteley said the company had carefully crafted a channel schedule, recognizing “that the channel itself is transforming.”

Partners who previously recommended NGINX were increasingly interested in more interactive engagements.

And “companies that used to be traditional resellers are starting to offer managed services, or cloud services, or practices on how to take you to the cloud,” he said. “System integrators are becoming DevOps experts in addition to core implementers.”

Since NGINX is typically applied for edge use cases, there is almost always a skills gap among potential customers, which further drives demand for channel expertise.

This is the gap that channel partners like Li9 Technology Solutions can fill.

Armando Arias, founder and CTO of the Phoenix-based solutions provider, said there was a big opportunity to take on F5, the current market leader.

Li9 has historically sold Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Dell EMC storage and servers to large data centers. About three years ago, the company got into the cloud and then discovered NGINX as another data center disruptor it could bring to market. Company executives quickly learned that some of their consultants were already familiar with the open source solution, which made it easier to develop a practice.

“It’s a growth-ready product. It’s a great value proposition,” he said. “It’s not very hard to say.”

NGINX Plus allows partners “to build a turnkey solution, much like the F5 product, which can also include hardware and consulting services,” Arias told CRN. “You have an audience on the development side, and if you find the right infrastructure people, you have a good audience there that’s willing to listen to that value proposition.”

The new curriculum adds the clarity needed to enable successful practice, he told CRN.

With the new distribution program, NGINX vendors and support personnel clearly understand that they have partners like Li9 who have agreed to resell the products and are eager to work with them, Arias said.

The program “just adds another layer of structure and sets the right expectations on both sides,” he said.