Recently I showed my new racing bicycle to a friend who's so serious about the sport that he looks at any roadster costing less than $1,000 with a jaundiced eye. "A little heavy," he commented. I picked up the bike and started doing curls with it as though I were lifting weights. "Not just a bike," I quipped. "It's a complete fitness solution."Over the years, the word "solution" has been transformed into a marketer's Holy Grail - sometimes with real meaning and sometimes without. Nowhere is this more apparent than in relationships between vendors and value-added resellers, integrators and other members of the indirect channel who sell, deploy and support their products.Just about all the vendor programs that support these alliances urge partners to approach their customers as an all-encompassing technology provider - leading with that particular vendor's products, of course. Perhaps this approach is linked to the shriveling profit margins associated with point products. In any event, channel partners constantly are encouraged to piece together solutions that include hardware, software, connectivity and support.This is generally good news to "one-throat-to-choke" advocates who seek to avoid the inevitable finger-pointing that occurs when different parties team up on a "solution." But a certain amount of due diligence is warranted. Not all forms of expertise are created equal, and end users must learn to distinguish between areas of genuine competence and wishful thinking.If you've worked with a particular reseller for an extended time period, you probably know its skills and follow-through capabilities well. If you're about to enter a new area with the company, a basic discussion about the direction of its business and degree of training will probably suffice. Many vendors also bestow some form of a seal of approval when a channel partner develops competency in a new area. This is worth asking about - especially if the new offering represents a significant expansion from the partner's core business.When working with a channel partner for the first time, it is wise to add the extra step of validating its responses, either through the specific vendors or through checking references with other end-user companies that already have traveled this path. In many cases, end users might also know of individuals in the industry who are not integrators but have sufficient grounding in the given technology to provide a basic sanity check on a channel partner's proposal. If their recommendations are at odds with those of the channel partner, ask the vendor to help arbitrate the conflicting viewpoints.All things considered, having one channel partner that can meet all of your technology needs - and do so economically - is probably more the exception than the rule. The key is to develop relationships with knowledgeable partners who can admit what they don't know and assemble the necessary outside expertise to fill in the gaps. With such a relationship in place, IT managers can capitalize on this streamlined approach to technology.Presti is research director of IDC's Network Channels and Alliances service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.