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Defining the ‘New’ Cisco Webex

The Cisco Webex team has been busy. Over the last six months, it has steadily rolled out an impressive number of innovative Meetings features -- things like People Insights, facial recognition, and a digital assistant… all part of its cognitive collaboration strategy. These efforts, as Cisco Collaboration leaders shared with analysts early this year, come out of their “sausage making” -- the intentional work that has gone into transforming Webex into a globally scalable, enterprise-grade platform for collaboration. That process is starting to sizzle -- in how the team is able to churn out innovative features at a rapid clip, yet maintain enterprise-grade reliability, encryption, and predictability.
But what about the “old and outdated Webex” that Eric Yuan, Zoom CEO, seems to talk about so often?
Zoom’s recent IPO and run up to it put Yuan in the spotlight. While he is best known as the leader of Zoom, he was also one of the people who built Webex, which Cisco acquired in 2007. He stayed at Cisco until 2011, when he left to create Zoom. The attention of late has given Yuan a platform to talk smack about Webex, almost WWE-style, calling the architecture old and outdated, which is why, he says, Cisco can’t compete with Zoom.
Yes, when Yuan left Cisco in 2011, Webex did have many of the architecture issues he has surfaced. The irony is, he’s poking at his own design and code. But over the past eight years, Cisco has worked diligently not only to fix the broken parts but also to rearchitect for modern-day scale -- so does Yuan really know the current state? You’d be naive to think when he left, Cisco tossed its hands in the air and left the platform alone. It’s quite the opposite.
Cisco leaders have spent a fair bit of time explaining the new Webex user interface, but the product’s changes go far deeper than an improved UI. I got a good download of everything in a recent conversation with Anurag Dhingra, VP and head of engineering of Webex Meetings. The iceberg analogy works well here: The Webex facelift is what people see above the water, but underwater, there’s a mass that’s orders of magnitude bigger. I’ll break these up into three different buckets:
Security Is Fundamental
After Yuan left Cisco, the Webex team focused on modernizing Webex for enterprise scale and security . “Since Eric’s days, we’ve doubled down on security,” Dhingra said. “Both SMBs and large enterprises trust us with some of their most valuable assets -- their meetings, presentations, sensitivity discussions, and [intellectual property] live in our recordings. Do you know where those are stored and who has access? You have to earn your customers trust with uncompromising focus on security -- something that startups routinely make tradeoffs on.”
When you’re dealing with SaaS-based video and meetings, encryption is critical. Encryption should be turned on everywhere by default, which isn’t always the case with other vendors. In Webex Meetings, all communications between Webex apps and the Webex cloud happen over encrypted channels, which means your various media streams are secure.
Startup Velocity, Enterprise Scale
When Dhingra took over what used to be Eric’s job, the development process was old and outdated. Remaining the market leader required a reinvention of the process Eric built, so that’s what Cisco did. Cisco’s architectural and automation investments, combined with a rebuilt development infrastructure, has enabled a continuous integration/continuous delivery process and the ability to transform how the Webex team builds and releases software. Starting in October 2016, it reduced the 12-month delivery cycle of old to monthly updates with 20 to 30 features. Cisco could further shrink the upgrade cycle, but most large customers don’t want that, Dhingra said.
The Webex codebase is huge -- several million lines of code. Yet this codebase has gone through substantial change, with pretty much all of the original Webex code repositories having undergone significant rewriting, Dhingra said. These changes have allowed his team to ramp up the innovation engine, as seen in:
  • Shared client media stack that powers Meetings and Teams on all desktop and mobile platforms -- This is what lets Cisco deliver 30 frames-per-second video across all applications with no degradation of quality, Dhingra said.
  • New Webex meetings desktop app that includes pre-, during, and post-meeting capabilities -- The client code has gone through almost a complete rebuild to optimize the user experience.
  • Cross-platform and unified client framework strategy across Teams and Meetings -- The shared client framework will allow Cisco to build features once and expose them in multiple apps.
  • Feature-rich WebRTC client -- Prior to this, Webex only supported a thick desktop client. The WebRTC implementation is as full-featured as the software client and enables two-way audio and video and screen sharing as well as host and attendee controls.
  • Control hub -- This is a single administrative portal for all Cisco collaboration tools. It includes a common analytics backend that powers reporting and connected diagnostics.
  • New APIs and SDKs for third-party app integrations in Webex, and vice versa.
  • Webex Graph and Intelligence, bringing data, analytics, and contextual information into the Webex environment. Cisco refers to this as “cognitive collaboration.”
In addition to all these new features, Cisco has significantly invested in test automation in order to build and deliver innovations at cloud speed. As an example, the Web page refactoring resulted in a codebase that is 90% smaller, yet improved test coverage by three times, Dhingra said.
Video Expertise & the Webex Backbone
Cisco has doubled-down on video by tapping the expertise of the big wigs from its telepresence business in order to make a video-first platform. The work started with Spark (now Webex Teams), a microservices-based architecture, where the assumption was that we would be living in a world where “video-first” was the norm. It carried that architecture over to the Webex Meetings platform; it enables innovative features, such as Video Mesh (formerly Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service). Video Mesh transparently allows use of on-prem and cloud resources, bridging them as necessary.
The video platform enables tight integration with all the new video endpoints, and enables features such as proximity, wireless sharing, and whiteboarding. The new Webex is now designed to be flexible and elastic so the Webex software can run in Cisco’s data centers or in a public cloud, something that wasn’t possible with the old Webex.
Another architectural change is Webex Edge, a flexible, consolidated edge for enterprises, service provider interconnects, and interoperability services. This enables edge connectivity and edge audio services so customers can peer directly with the Webex backbone, a service built and optimized for real-time media. It also connects with on-premises Cisco UC infrastructure, and enables interoperability with third parties.
Webex has been around for a long time, and its codebase from the Yuan era was problematic for today’s requirements. However, Cisco Webex has reinvented itself and it’s fair to say that this isn’t the same Webex as the one Yuan designed and left behind. Zoom has gained traction in the enterprise, and certainly grabbed the spotlight last month with its successful IPO, but the new Webex -- through the combination of a cloud-scale backend, a modern frontend, and a nimble development pipeline, as Dhingra said -- will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.