Late last week, Microsoft announced its first-ever Gold Certified Partners, companies which meet rigorous certification requirements and have proven their expertise in certain solutions by providing real-world customer references. The Microsoft Gold Certified Partner program was introduced last fall with the revamping of the company's Certified Partner Program, and there are five Gold Certified Partner designations to which companies can aspire. These include e-Commerce solutions, software products, support services, enterprise systems, and hosting and application services (ASPs). Two more designations, Collaborative Solutions and Business Intelligence, will be added this spring. Microsoft awarded 32 companies as Gold Certified Partners.

"Our partners want to be able to differentiate themselves," Rosa Garcia, the general manager of Microsoft Partner Programs, told me at the launch of the revamped Certified Partner Program in October. "In the past, we had relationships with partners, but this new vision opens up new opportunities for everyone."

All Microsoft Gold Certified Partners must have at a number of Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) or Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) certified employees and must provide a number of verifiable customer references. The specific requirements are based on the designation of the certification; for example, the e-Commerce designation requires four technicians with either an MCSE or MCSD certification exclusively linked to the Microsoft Certified Partner program and a minimum of three verifiable references that relate to projects that went live within the previous 12 months.

For more information on the Microsoft Certified Partner Program, please visit the Microsoft Web site.