Cisco Cloudifies Spark Collaboration System

Lorna GareyCisco’s head of collaboration, Rowan Trollope, on Tuesday announced an expansion of the company’s Spark collaboration platform.

The evolved Cisco Spark is billed as a cloud-based business collaboration service that enables customers to message, meet and call anyone, anywhere and anytime, and is largely the brainchild of Jonathan Rosenberg, lead author and co-inventor of the Session Initiation Protocol and former chief technologist for Skype.

Dimension Data's Ian HeardIan Heard, Dimension Data’s group director for collaboration, says Spark’s selling points are unified messaging, meeting and calling; monthly, subscription-based pricing set by partners; availability for all-size customers and built-in cloud integration.

“This is where the hybrid story is a big advantage, because you can very dynamically choose what sits in the cloud and what doesn’t,” says Heard. “So for instance, the content repository in Spark can stay on premises, voice can stay on premises and attached to all the relevant call recordings. Or it could be in a private cloud or public cloud” when data governance allows.

The new Spark Hybrid Services, available now in the United States and in 21 countries by end of Q1 2016, will allow customers of on-premises CUCM, BE Series or HCS to connect to Spark messaging and meeting services and connect call, conferencing, calendaring and directory services to functions in Cisco private or public clouds. The Hybrid Services adds what Cisco calls “Zero Touch Meetings,” a capability that adds automated Spark room creation and desktop sharing to calls. It also connects Exchange/Outlook and Active Directory to Cisco Spark for easier meeting setup and access to contacts.

Cisco’s Gary Wolfson, head of global collaboration channels, and Chris Wiborg, director, collaboration portfolio marketing, briefed Channel Partners on new functions in the Spark App, which can run on iOS or Android smartphones, in a browser, or via a client on Macs or Windows PCs.

Other new additions besides Hybrid Services, according to Wiborg, include:

  • Spark the Service: A business collaboration service hosted on the Cisco Cloud and providing a single unified experience with common management for endpoint registration, provisioning, analytics and user control. Features include virtual rooms; persistent chat; content sharing; audio, video, and Web meetings; and voice and video calling via a cloud-based PBX. Customers can also make calls within or outside the organization over the PSTN via partnerships with carriers yet to be announced. Spark cloud PBX services will be on a phased rollout; U.S. availability is expected in Q1.  
  • Spark the Platform: A unified business “collaboration as a service” platform for …
  • … hosting and delivering the Cisco Spark service to customers without on-premises collaboration investments
  • Spark Phone OS: Operating system software that runs on supported phones – that is, 8800 and 7800 series – and provides cloud features including voice mail, single-number reach, mobility and more
  • Spark Room OS: Allows supported video endpoints to connect to the Cisco Spark service in the cloud or on-site Cisco video infrastructure.

Spark uses a “room” model, where any team member can launch a space and invite others to send messages securely, share files and screens, and start multiparty voice and video calls using a wide variety of clients and devices. For the Spark Hybrid Services, which link on-premises capabilities to Spark capabilities in the cloud, Wolfson called out the ability to add “@Spark” to an Outlook meeting invitation and have the system automatically create a shared Cisco Spark room with all meeting invitees for content sharing.

He also stressed that many companies use various tools for team messaging, virtual meetings and phone calls. Spark’s focus is to unify communications channels, and to do so simply and intuitively.

“With a single click you can turn a phone call into a video meeting,” he said. Seemingly with an eye to getting customer IT teams out of the business of moves, adds and changes, an end user could expose a QR code to her Cisco desk phone (7800 or 8800) and have the device automatically provisioned.

Heard says Dimension Data accounts for 20 to 25 percent of Cisco’s voice/video installed base, and he’s seen “high teens to low twenties” growth in Cisco sales in the last two quarters. In September, Dimension announced a global partnership with Arkadin to deliver Cisco’s WebEx Cloud Connected Audio (CCA-SP) platform, making it the first global non-telco or conferencing service provider to do so.

Heard agrees with Wolfson on the current collaboration landscape, saying midmarket customers of Cisco’s Hosted Collaboration Solution tend to have a mix of new and legacy systems, which makes for a massive user challenge.

“It’s ‘legacy plus new,’” says Heard. “What Cisco’s doing with the hybrid story is really interesting because it lets us say ‘legacy with new’ and deliver a single unified user experience.”

He says the hybrid model is especially important in …

… regulated industries, where certain communications can’t be run offsite.

Yeah, We Have An API For That

Dimension is also looking to set some of its 2,000 developers to work on APIs included in the new Spark for Developers platform and community portal, billed as an open and extensible API-centric platform that spans the collaboration portfolio. Developers can use pre-built native integrations in the Cisco Spark app or to create their own links to exchange content in real time between Cisco Spark and third-party applications like Github, Instagram, Trello or Zendesk.

Open APIs are also available in a JavaScript SDK through a community Web portal, scheduled to go live on Tuesday. ISVs and partner-dev teams can build and test apps and access 24/7 support, delivered by developers, as well as code samples and interactive docs.

“We really do feel like Cisco’s got its mojo back,” said Heard. “We were genuinely quite concerned 18 months ago.” Now he says the customer message and monetization opportunities are there.

“We do believe that in the midmarket, Cisco will have a very strong play with its public cloud,” he said, while on-premises HCS will remain strong in larger and compliance-sensitive shops.

“Let’s face it, the days of resellers making large margins just selling stuff are long gone,” says Heard. “The Cisco ecosystem now allows a lot of over-the-top services around that ecosystem, and that really drives client value as well as differentiation for us.”

Given the emphasis on high-end phones and making use of room-based systems easier, Spark may well help partners sell some of that “stuff,” too.

Got an innovative collaboration project under your belt? Entries are open now for our fourth annual Channel Partners’ 360° awards program. Follow editor in chief @LornaGarey on Twitter.

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