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Cisco Simplifies Spark Decision, Buying Process

As further evidence that Cisco is "moving at warp speed" in developing its Spark brand, as Jens Meggers, SVP and GM for the company's Cloud Collaboration Technology Group, told us recently, the company made a handful of announcements aimed at getting the technology into enterprise use more quickly.

The announcements came at the annual Partner Summit, which gathered Cisco's global partners in San Francisco this week for a bit of executive networking and strategy discussions. While I am not a Cisco partner and so was not invited to attend this event, I spoke with Angie Mistretta, director of collaboration solutions marketing at Cisco, to get the low-down on today's news.

To start, Cisco made a couple of announcements geared at making it easier to buy its products and transition to the cloud. The first is introduction of the Cisco Spark Flex Plan, which is a single contract that allows enterprises to select cloud, on-premises, or hybrid solutions under a subscription model.

As is illustrated in the graphic below and detailed on a Cisco Blogs post, customers can select from cloud-based Cisco Spark Meetings, WebEx, or on-premises Cisco Meeting Server for their meetings solutions (see, "Video Interoperability for All, Cisco Style" for more about the Cisco Meeting Server). For calls, customers can pick either Cisco Spark Call or Cisco Unified Communications Manager. Enterprise customers can change their minds and adapt their plans at any time, selecting a different mix of solutions while the price stays the same.

With the Flex plan, Cisco is giving enterprises the opportunity to move to cloud at a pace that's right for their unique businesses, without being forced to make deployment decisions that are rooted in cost, Mistretta told me.

"The two things that we've really been able to combine with this [Flex plan] is simplicity and flexibility," Mistretta said. "In the shift to the cloud, most customers get our vision, and they understand that we're moving a lot of our workloads to the cloud, but they're not necessarily ready to go yet. So that's left them at sort of this weird spot for their purchasing decisions. ... With this model, we've ... decouple[d] the deployment decision from the purchasing decision. It's a cloud-ready commercial arrangement that helps customers get over that hump of moving to the cloud" and transitioning from a capex to an opex spending model.

Cisco also today unveiled the Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service, which is aimed at bringing a little "cloud magic" to on-premises deployments, Mistretta said. This new service enables an enterprise's local media node to communicate with the Cisco Spark Meetings cloud service to determine the optimal location from which to deliver meetings. For instance, if all the participants of a Web conference are located in the same building, sending the call and content out to the cloud and back to the local users doesn't necessarily make sense. In this scenario, the Hybrid Media Service would optimize the meeting experience by keeping the Web conference on the premises server.

Take that same scenario, and say the meeting participants decide they need to bring another person on the call who is working at a satellite office across the country. The Hybrid Media Service would deliver content to that person via the cloud. The idea behind this new service is to provide optimal audio and video quality to users, as well as retain media on premises for privacy purposes and lower bandwidth costs by getting rid of unnecessary hairpinning to the cloud.

The Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service is available this month for Cisco Spark Meetings customers at no additional cost.

With Cisco making some high-profile partnership announcements of late (IBM, Salesforce, and Apple come to mind), and recently integrating WebEx with Microsoft Skype for Business, it should come as no surprise to learn that the company is making more strides in prioritizing integrations. Today it announced Cisco Spark Depot, to "make it super-simple for users to find integrations to make the workday easier," wrote Rowan Trollope, SVP and GM of IoT and Applications.

Cisco Spark Depot is a catalog of apps for connecting Spark with third-party tools. At launch, the Depot hosts roughly 70 integrations that cover a range of purposes, including social and enterprise-specific apps such as Pagerduty, Salesforce, ServiceNow, Jira, and Trello.

The Spark Depot is particularly exciting for Cisco, Mistretta told me, because it helps it "create stickiness with the customer" by allowing them to take other tools that they use regularly and bring them into Spark. "It's a big value," she added.

With Spark Depot and today's other Spark announcements, Cisco is clearly focused on making Spark more than just a team messaging product, Kerravala said. It is starting to "separate from the pack," he added.

In particular, he pointed to the benefits Spark Depot will bring by enabling SaaS providers to integrate Spark into their applications. "This can pay big dividends, particularly when mobile," he said.

The company also announced its Business Edition 4000, a telephone and voicemail appliance for small to mid-sized businesses that supports up to 200 devices. This will be available in the U.S. in January 2017, and elsewhere in the first half of the year.

For partners, Cisco announced the Business Edition 6000 management tool with optimized workflows for pre-configuring and installing core UC applications. With this tool, Cisco said partners can expect to save a significant amount of time they would otherwise spend on-site configuring solutions for customers, effectively streamlining deployments. This will be available in February 2017.

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