It's one small step for the Google Apps partner program, and one giant honor for channel partners like Cloud Sherpas, Onix Networking, PA Consulting, Softbank and SPH. Indeed, Google Enterprise President Amit Singh and other company leaders have honored the company's top partners -- the latest indication that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is very serious about building and celebrating a world-class partner ecosystem.

The awards were delivered at last week's innaugural Google Global Partner Summit, which attracted 400 attendees. In some ways it was a low-key affair; it was held in Silicon Valley, and much of the discussion was not open to the press. But the gathering also arrived at an intriguing time -- one day before Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) highly touted Office 365 for business product expansions.

Google used the occassion to launch a partner university. It includes self-guided online courses, instructor-led online courses, and in-person classes that can be taken individually or sequentially, Google indicated. 

Google has also extended its Premier Reseller designation from the Google Apps market into such areas as the Search Reseller Program and a new Maps for Business Reseller Program, the company added.

Lingering Questions

Some channel partners continue to view Google with a skeptical eye -- wondering if the search giant hopes to dominate the cloud landscape while cutting out consultants and integrators along the way. But in reality, Google's top partners are fiercely loyal and seem quite pleased with the company's approach to partnering.

A prime example: Google has long permitted partners to manage end-customer billing for cloud services, a key feature that Microsoft is only now rolling out. While Google Apps is a low-cost service -- generating only about $10 per user per year for partners -- it sure looks like top partners are profiting from migration, consulting and managed services. 

Cloud Sherpas, for instance, ranked among the world's top 100 cloud services providers in 2012, and recently raised $40 million for new acquisitions and business expansion plans.

Meanwhile, Google wants to drive home the fact that its channel engagements stretch well beyond the Google Apps market. Additional key priorities include the Google Search Appliance, Google Maps and Earth, and Google Cloud Platform. 

So where did top partners thrive? Google's 2012 Global Partners of the Year included: 

  • Google Apps - Customer Acquisition: Softbank (Japan)
  • Google Apps - Implementation: Cloud Sherpas (USA and APAC)
  • Enterprise Search: Onix Networking (USA)
  • Maps for Business: SPH (Korea)
  • Cloud Platform: PA Consulting (UK & USA)

Whether you embrace or reject Google's channel strategy, VARs and MSPs need an answer for it. Thousands of customers are deploying Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365 and other emerging SaaS applications. Parthers that sit on the sidelines risk losing relevance.