Cisco Beefs Up Spark Ecosystem

Cisco yesterday announced a series of enhancements around Spark, its ever-growing collaboration platform/ecosystem. When we last heard from Cisco, in late January, it had just launched its new interactive whiteboard, Spark Board, along with Spark Meetings, the company doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon.

Yesterday's announcements cover quite a bit of ground -- ranging from video hardware to security, meetings services, and customer care. Here's a look at the news.

Video Hardware

To start, Cisco revealed the Cisco Spark Room Kit Series, comprising Cisco Spark Room Kit and Room Kit Plus. This new video collaboration hardware was designed to work with Cisco Spark, and gives integrators the tools to extend conference rooms of all sizes by attaching to standard HD screens and converting them into video collaboration systems.

Room Kit is aimed at small- and medium-sized rooms and up to seven people, and the Room Kit Plus is for larger rooms and up to 14 people. As Jens Meggers, SVP and GM of Cisco's Cloud Collaboration Technology Group, described in a pre-briefing the other day, Room Kit is an all-in-one device with camera, speaker, and built-in microphones. Room Kit Plus adds a separate quad camera bar that has four cameras to provide better views of larger rooms. While these two devices are designed to connect natively with Cisco Spark, they also are for on premises. Both systems are "fully cloud managed," enabling fast and simple set-up.

Room Kit will be available this month for $3,990 plus an additional $99 per-month subscription fee. Room Kit Plus will be available in May, for $7,990 plus that same $99 per-month subscription fee. Later this year, Cisco will release Companion Mode for these systems, which will let users combine the Spark Room Kit and a Cisco Spark Board to cater to larger conference rooms.

Security

Cisco has long made security a priority with its devices and services. As a refresher, it built Cisco Spark with end-to-end encryption for data in transit, at rest, and in use. It handles encryption and decryption of content via dynamic keys from a Cisco Spark Key Management Server (KMS), which creates, stores, authorizes, and provides access to the encryption keys that all Spark applications use.

Cisco yesterday announced that it is opening up those encryption keys to its customers so they can own and manage their keys and do things like search encrypted data; this will be available in early June. Spark customers who have particular security requirements, such as businesses in regulated industries, will be able to install KMS on premises.

Opening Up Cisco Spark Meetings to All

The third bit of news is the addition of a persistent SIP URI to all Cisco Spark spaces, enabling people to join Cisco Spark Meetings from any standards-based SIP hardware or software client. This means that people using a third-party softphone solution, legacy Cisco video conferencing products, and even competitive video conferencing endpoints will be able to participate in Spark meetings.

This capability is also available for Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Services. As shown in the below graphic, this is accomplished by customers placing a Hybrid Media Node on their networks for local media processing for on-premises attendees of a Cisco Spark meeting.

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It's aimed at eliminating the risk for businesses to try out Spark meetings, as they can retain existing video infrastructure and conferencing solutions. No additional licensing is needed for Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service, and the capability will be included in M3/C3 Spark meeting and WebEx licenses.

Customer Care

The final piece of news from Cisco is Spark Care, a digital customer support solution for help desks and small teams to interface with external and internal customers through Web chat and callback. It's aimed at helping organizations provide better customer service by leveraging historical context from previous interactions.

For greater detail on Spark Care, see contact center analyst Sheila McGee-Smith's post, "Cisco Spark Meets Customer Care."

The Bigger Picture

That idea that the Spark ecosystem is constantly expanding, growing, and improving was echoed by Meggers both in my briefing with him and in sessions on stage at Enterprise Connect.

With Cisco Spark, "our goal is to create powerful, well-designed end-to-end experiences -- for the user, IT and the enterprise."

"We want our products to go beyond being business tools to becoming a natural part of how you interact and collaborate," he wrote in a blog post. "To help you work faster, smarter, more productively."

We're at a turning point with enterprise collaboration experiences, Meggers wrote. "And it's all powered by amazing technology: cloud platforms and deeper integrations between hardware, software, and networks."

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