Last week we were honored to be named as the top Service Provider channel program for Network Connectivity Services for the second year in a row. We are extremely humbled, for this is a reflection of the views of our downstream partners on our program and services across many categories. It was fantastic to be recognized with others such as Cisco, IBM, HP, Dell/EMC, Intel and VMWare for their wins in their respective categories.

This award came at the same time I watched Frank Vitigliano—a long time channel veteran from IBM, Juniper and Dell—inducted into the CRN Hall of Fame for his efforts over the last 30 years in the channel. It was eye opening. It gave me some pause to think back on how any of us in today’s channel would like to be remembered when we pass on the baton. I thought about the millions of miles we travel, the thousands of channel partner meetings we have enjoyed, and the hundreds (or thousands) of industry events we have attended in order to sell more of our services or products.

Frank credits a few key attributes to his channel success: integrity, work ethic and building relationships. Looked at this way, not a lot has changed; these attributes are just as important now as they were in the 80s and 90s when he and IBM built the original channel. And despite technology and strategy changing over all the years, it's quite comforting to see these sort of “old fashioned” attributes of success repeat themselves. I believe they will remain as important as they were 30 years ago today, and even 30 years in the future.

But, as we all know, that original channel was oriented much more toward hardware margins and break/fix service, and we have crossed oceans of time since those days. As technology evolves and networks move to a software-centric model, IT vendors and channel partners will change their approach to services to remain relevant for the foreseeable future.

How they do this will be the question. The underlying network is vitally important going forward, and companies like Comcast that provide the connectivity are at the center of it all. These companies are in a similar position to that of Cisco’s a couple of decades ago. With the advent of the PC, Intel had provided an essential element to computing – the processor – but after a while customers stopped paying much attention to the silicon inside their machines. To them, the chip became a commodity. They just took for granted that Intel would continue innovating by regularly adding processing power.

Now it’s network service providers that deliver an essential element often taken for granted: the connectivity and bandwidth for customers to connect to their data centers as well as the cloud infrastructures that have become an integral component of the enterprise network. And as with Intel processors, customers simply assume we will continue to innovate and deliver more and more capacity to meet their growing needs.

We are moving from a world reliant on physical network boxes to one driven by cloud software. This greatly simplifies network management, but also raises the specter of disintermediation for traditional channel partners and hardware providers. That doesn’t have to happen, however, as long as these players understand that their roles need to change so they can seize new revenue opportunities. Partners that already have figured out how to build services on top of networks receive a commission and charge their customers for the value-added services they deliver. For instance, a partner that operates its own NOC can manage a 1,000-site network for a customer, delivering services such as firewall, application optimization, edge Quality of Service (QoS) management, and traffic rerouting to support bandwidth-hungry applications.

That’s just the beginning of what we will be able to do with software-defined networks. Innovative partners will stack their services on top of our SD-WAN offering and deliver unprecedented levels of value for their customers. And they won’t take the network for granted because they will see how it is intrinsically linked to their solutions and the cloud infrastructures where those solutions increasingly reside.

Which brings me back to the subject of building a channel legacy. We must realize that it is indeed the channel industry relationships we build over time that endure and help determine our success or failure. If I were coming out of college now, I would embrace this new cloud and recurring revenue opportunity and find as many people as possible who could help me advance my career in the space.

Looking at Frank’s career and others can help us determine how we can do that same thing and mentor those coming into the industry behind us. Hopefully, we all will be able to look back as Frank did. We will then point to some key events in our lives that changed our paths forever and influenced how we not only got involved in this business we call “the channel,” but how we persevered and flourished in both good and bad times. Some things never change.

Craig Schlagbaum is Vice President of Indirect Channels at Comcast Business.

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