Sheila McGee-Smith
Sheila McGee-Smith, who founded McGee-Smith Analytics in 2001, is a leading communications industry analyst and strategic consultant focused on the...
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Sheila McGee-Smith | December 08, 2015 |


Cisco Spark Grows Up

Cisco Spark Grows Up Once a collaboration application, Spark is now so much more -- including a platform for cloud PBX services.

Once a collaboration application, Spark is now so much more -- including a platform for cloud PBX services.

Today at the eighth-annual Cisco Collaboration Summit taking place in San Francisco, the company unveiled a series of enhancements that, as promised, turn its Spark collaboration application into a platform.

Regular No Jitter readers and industry watchers will recall that Cisco previewed its collaboration application as Project Squared at last year's summit. It then formally launched the app under the new Cisco Spark brand and announced general availability at Enterprise Connect 2015 in March.

I take my title from the opening comments of Ross Daniels, Cisco senior director, collaboration marketing leader, during an hour-long pre-briefing for industry analysts last Friday. Kudos to Daniels, a 15-year Cisco contact center and collaboration veteran, on an excellent session. He has worked with so many of us for so long that he wasn't just prepared for our questions, but he often predicted which analyst would ask which question.

While Cisco has made an enormous investment in Spark, it recognizes that "a massive portion of our installed base, indeed of the market as a whole, still wants to have one foot, one leg, half a body remaining in the on-prem world," Daniels said. "We aim to help them extend the value of that prem investment while allowing them to participate in cloud services."

Recalling Cisco Collaboration Summit 2015, Daniels pointed to the declaration there by Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, that "we're showing you an app, but we're building a platform." Cisco is now making good on that promise, turning Spark into a full collaboration and communications platform with a number of services, Daniels said.

Spark Calling Service
Arguably the most important of those services, which you can see in the graphic above, is Cisco Spark Service. With this offering, for small and medium-sized businesses and the midmarket, Cisco will go head to head with cloud communications providers such as 8x8 and RingCentral. Cisco describes the Spark calling service as "a complete business collaboration service from the Cisco cloud that enables customers to message, meet, or call anyone, anywhere, and anytime."

Those of you familiar with the Cisco collaboration app will know that users have been able to make Spark-to-Spark calls for a while. The Spark calling service is an extension, or as Daniels said, "a re-invention," of that providing full cloud PBX capabilities under the Spark brand.

The Spark calling service includes:

  • Full dial capability
  • Enterprise directory, including optional integration to on-premises Microsoft Active Directory and Exchange systems
  • PSTN connectivity through "preferred media partners"

"The calling service is new code. This is not a port of Unified Communications Manager to the cloud. This is built from the start as a cloud PBX. The same way that we built Spark as a messaging service, we built the calling service as a cloud PBX," Daniels said.

In other words, he added, Spark calling service is not available for on-premises use. "It's just not possible -- it is true multitenant."

Voice Peering
Cisco has not announced which of its preferred media partners will provide the PSTN services. That information should come closer to the first-quarter 2016 availability Cisco has planned for the Spark calling service, Daniels said. He did say, however, that Cisco will form peering relationships with those providers for voice calling.

Voice peering refers to the forwarding of calls from one service provider to another directly using VoIP technology. In other words, the peering arrangements will let Spark calls move from one VoIP cloud to another without needing to traverse the PSTN and taking the transcoding hit that would require. This means Cisco should be able to offer the service at lower cost and better quality than it could in the absence of peering partners. I suspect that existing Cisco Intercloud partners such as British Telecom, Deutsche Telecom, and Telstra will be on the list of preferred media partners for Spark the Service.

Hosted by Cisco, Sold by Partners
Cisco will host the Spark platform in its data centers for partners to resell. This is in line with how Cisco has offered Spark to date, as well as how it sells its WebEx Web conferencing service, but represents a departure from how Cisco has handled its premises-based collaboration offerings and sold its Hosted Collaboration Service (HCS). This is a major change -- and potentially a challenge -- for the company, which for years has emphasized a go-to-market model based on its technology hosted within partner data centers.

"We've been briefing major HCS partners for several months. There are no secrets here; they know what we have been doing," Daniels said.

Cisco believes existing HCS partners will have opportunities as Cisco Spark services expand, Daniels said. The Spark platform will allow partners -- presumably more easily than was true with HCS -- to extend the services they offer beyond voice into conferencing, video, and collaboration, he added.

Similar to the flurry of posts that followed on the announcements of Project Squared, Unify's Circuit nee Project Ansible, and Interactive Intelligence's PureCloud, No Jitter will be filled this week with stories coming from Collaboration Summit. Look for another by me on Spark for Developers, which will highlight the integration Altocloud announced with Cisco Spark and other Spark implications for the contact center market.

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