No Company Is An Island: Cisco Readies New UC Server

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The move is part of a push by Cisco to broaden the ways companies use collaborative UC tools beyond their own walls, using Cisco equipment, software and what Cisco hopes will be an industry-standard protocol.

According to Cisco, it will also drive significant new opportunities for Cisco VARs and service provider partners. The goal, according to Cisco, is to connect enterprises more effectively instead of leaving them as individual UC "islands."

"UC has primarily been an intracompany kind of technology," offered Tony Bates, senior vice president and general manager for Cisco's Enterprise, Commercial and Small Business Unit, at a TelePresence briefing for media and analysts Thursday.

How the IME works is that if users in separate enterprises start a video conference session, they can use their existing phone numbers and video-ready UC clients, be they softphones or video phones, to do so. Using the IME, the sessions are VoIP calls, free over an IP network.

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The basic deployment uses the IME server and Cisco's most current UC products, but much of the functionality can extend to older Cisco and some third-party gear using Cisco Session Manager.

The first time a user makes a call using the IME, the IME automatically "remembers" that call -- collects and keeps information about it, that is -- to route it over the proper IP network the next time it's made and determine the UC clients each party is able to use.

After the first session using IME from one company to another, calls made over the system don't go over the public switched telephone network (PSTN) anymore, they go over what the IME has determined is the best IP network to use.

Callers don't change anything about how they initiate sessions, and IT administrators don't have to change or update clients, according to Cisco. Individual administrators can attach policy controls such as restrictions on which callers can use video, Cisco explained, and also encrypt calls.

That's the key difference between enterprise-class UC systems that go company to company, and consumer-driven video calling platforms like Skype, according to Cisco.

What's required is that each enterprise have Cisco UC infrastructure, although in the future, said Bates, the IME will work with any UC system compatible with Viper, a new protocol developed by Cisco for use with the IME.

The IME, with Viper as the underpinning, can direct how information moves between UC systems at different enterprises using SIP (session initiated protocol) signaling.

Cisco submitted Viper to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in November to be considered as a standard.

"The Viper standard means it doesn't have to be Cisco at both ends," said Joe Burton, Cisco's chief technology officer for UC. "What we envision is not just point-to-point but creating a broader opportunity around [IME]. We think about this as a rising tide for everyone in the industry. We're laying down a standards-based way for increasing the value of intercompany communications." IMEs servers will need to be based at each location that uses them. They will be sold through Cisco's UC channel the same way its other UC products are, Cisco confirmed.

Cisco did not confirm pricing for IME, and said it will be made available in the next few weeks. It plans to officially announce IME at VoiceCon in Orlando later this month.

"The interest we're seeing is internal as well as external," said Gerard Florian, chief technology officer for Dimension Data's Australian division, which participated in the briefing. "It presents an opportunity for us to improve relations internally and also move out into industries like education and construction. It's a way to be closer to those customers."

Florian also suggested that for the channel, IME presents a significant managed services opportunity beyond sales of UC products -- opportunities for service providers to tailor services packages with advanced features, for example.

The arrival of the IME is the next stage in a collaboration product blitz by Cisco that more or less began last fall. In November, Cisco announced 60 new products in the areas of video and UC networking, and also saw Cisco enter social media software, hosted e-mail and other business application markets for the first time.

The messaging applications, collectively the Enterprise Communication Platform, will be part of Cisco's UC line. The ECM from a product standpoint will be known as Cisco Quad, according to Bates, and is currently in beta.

Cisco did not offer additional details around its pending acquisition of Tandberg, but according to Bates, "things are on track" and Cisco is at work on how Tandberg's myriad videoconferencing products will fit into the Cisco UC portfolio.

Last month, Cisco offered a few details of how Tandberg will be part of its new Cisco TelePresence Technology Group, and said that Tandberg sales and channel organizations will become a "specialist sales team" within Cisco.