Video Interoperability for All, Cisco Style
Cisco releases Cisco Meeting Server to allow everyone to connect to Cisco video rooms, including Skype for Business users.
Many businesses operate with a mix of communications technologies from different vendors, and that can only mean "interoperability challenges ahead," as UC consultant Brent Kelly so aptly noted in his recent No Jitter post, "10 Cisco/Microsoft Hybrid UC Deployment Options." Solving them is a business imperative.
In an announcement earlier this week, Cisco took another step toward solving UC interoperability woes with the unveiling of Cisco Meeting Server (CMS), which allows people using Polycom, Avaya, Skype for Business, a mobile client, or a WebRTC-enabled browser to join in on meetings with those in a Cisco video room. And as Cisco tells it, "It's as simple as clicking a link."
This is good news for Cisco customers, as at least 90% of them are operating in a mixed environment, said Snorre Kjesbu, VP and GM for the Cisco Collaboration Endpoints Technology Group, who hopped on a video call from Norway to chat with me about the new offering and Cisco's strategy behind it.Acano's Role
CMS is the first fruit to come from Cisco's acquisition of Acano earlier this year. It is essentially a reskinned, enhanced version of what was formerly known as the Acano Solution, which captured Cisco's interest for its scalability (via high port density) and interoperability within multivendor enterprise video environments, Kjesbu said.
CMS gives Cisco the ability to support what Kjesbu calls "everyone's invited," a term he said he likes a lot "because when I say 'everyone's invited,' that means that you can be on your phone, you can be on your desktop, you can be on your room system, you can even be on competing equipment, for instance, from Microsoft and others."
Cisco already has its Cisco WebEx Meetings Server, a cloud solution that has been generally available for more than a year. CMS is essentially its on-prem equivalent that also incorporates capabilities from the Acano platform, Kjesbu explained to me.
Cisco absolutely sees a demand for on-prem solutions from enterprises, Kjesbu said. "It's not an 'or' game, it's an 'and' game. ... There will be a number of organizations shifting to the cloud swiftly, and there are certain organizations that wish to continue on prem," he added. "And what [we have] communicated clearly ... is that moving forward, we're making solutions that can be consumed both in the cloud and on premises."CMS in Real Life
At Exelon, a major energy provider, the challenge of navigating a mixed UC-video environment is indeed a day-to-day reality, Andrew Heintz, manager IT, video and wireless engineering, told me in a recent phone interview. Exelon is a Cisco shop for video infrastructure and video collaboration rooms, but a Microsoft shop, leveraging Skype for Business, for UC, Heintz said. To address the interoperability challenge, Exelon decided to go with what had been the Acano Solution.
By the numbers, Exelon has around 40,000 employees and contractors, all of which are Skype for Business users. It has about 500 Cisco video rooms, and much of the communication that takes place is between corporate offices. "We were trying to come up with a way that was both simple on the technology side and simple for our clients to use either method -- either a Cisco video room or a Microsoft Skype for Business client -- to connect to the same audio/video meeting," he said.
Exelon ran a six-month pilot, placing two Acano servers in each of its major data centers, with about 1,500 users in its IT organization. With Acano, a user could schedule a meeting in Skype for Business and then dial in to that meeting either via the Skype for Business client or from a video conference room, Heintz said. Production deployment took place in mid-May.
Exelon is now in the process of implementing CMS to gain features around meeting management, better connectivity, and improved integration with Cisco touch panels that Heintz said should be particularly beneficial moving forward. It has no plans at this time to standardize on one vendor, he added.
"We're really centered around Skype for Business on the desktop as our tool of choice; we're really centered on Cisco as our conference room solution of choice. I think that when you're a company as big as we are, and you're constantly undergoing mergers and acquisitions, bringing on new technologies is more about ensuring you've got a good way to integrate everything than it is about going greenfield with one technology. You're going to keep doing that over and over again if you keep expanding like we do," Heintz explained.
When Exelon was looking for a solution to fulfill its interoperability needs, it looked at cloud-based, on-prem, and hybrid options. But when making the decision to go on-prem, it came down to the way the company was using video. More than 90% of Exelon's video meetings happen between different Exelon sites, Heintz said. "So to take all that traffic, send it out to the cloud, and then bring it right back in, didn't make a lot of sense for us."
As usage shifts and Exelon begins having more video conferences with parties outside of its corporate sites, Heintz said he intends to continue to reevaluate on the cloud vs. on-prem decision.
The big test for the CMS solution came to bear when Baltimore had a record-breaking snow storm this past winter, Heintz told me. "They got something like 30 inches in a day, and in a city like Baltimore, that pretty much just shuts the city down for a week."
As a result of the storm, no one was able to make it to the office and everyone was working from home. "Had this happened to us the previous winter, we would've had no real way to connect to our colleagues in Chicago and Philadelphia. They would've been in their offices in their video rooms and we would have had to be connected by audio and you would have that awkward experience where some people could see each other and some people can't, and you don't really feel part of the conversation," he described.
"But because we had implemented the Acano solution ... really everything was pretty much business as usual. Everyone who was in the office just dialed in from the conference room like they would have normally, and the people who were working from home just connected with their Webcams from their home office via Skype, and it really didn't matter where you were working."Cisco vs. Microsoft: The Rivalry Continues
While other Microsoft-Cisco shops also will undoubtedly benefit from CMS, enterprises with other mixed environments will do so as well, Kjesbu said. "I would absolutely say that Microsoft is important, but so are other players."
For enterprises that are new Cisco customers that want WebRTC interoperability, CMS "is the way to go," Kelly told me when I checked in with him for an update on that 10 options article I'd mentioned.
CMS will provide good Skype for Business interoperability (Option 9 in the "10 ways" article), and much better Skype for Business content sharing interoperability, Kelly said. CMS provides transcoding from the Cisco to the Skype for Business content format, and video appears in the Skype for Business gallery, he explained.
Companies that have established Cisco video solutions can continue to use Cisco Telepresence Server and Expressway, which will give them video interoperability and basic content sharing from Skype for Business, Kelly suggested (see Option 5). The content is actually a video stream sent by Cisco Telepresence Server via Expressway to the Skype for Business client, he said.
Clearly, as Kelly said, " video interoperability is going to be key going forward." And, with the Acano-based CMS, Cisco hopes to be living in the center of it all.