Cisco Quad: Collaboration Now, Private Clouds Later

Make no mistake about Cisco Quad, the networking titan's much-buzzed-about collaboration platform: it's a social networking tool, a big addition to its UC suite and a major cloud initiative for Cisco, all in one. And it's also a channel play that Cisco is hoping will sway a legion of collaboration and UC-centric solution providers to invest more heavily in its vision.

Officially unveiled in June and now available in the U.S. and Canada, Quad is a software platform that includes various UC functions, and it's also a social networking platform for businesses that enables everything from microblogging and creating online profiles and virtual communities to document sharing, video, wikis and forums, and policy-controlled access for all of it.

Whereas many company intranets are static -- and various communication functions like e-mail, IM and document creation are siloed -- Cisco sees Quad as an all-in-one that takes collaboration far beyond individual Cisco offerings like WebEx or TelePresence, and also extends it to various platforms, be they desktop PCs or mobile devices such as Cisco's forthcoming Cius tablet.

Think of it as a personal dashboard, Cisco urges.

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"It's the union of all these activities taking place," said Murali Sitaram, vice president and general manager for Cisco's enterprise collaboration platform, in a recent discussion with CRN.

It's designed, in part, to make software-based collaborations more meaningful, and catalyze better use of enterprise resources. Sitaram puts it this way: when a new employee arrives at an enterprise, for example, he or she is usually given a badge and an e-mail ID, as well as certain levels of access and various password protections.

"But in the future, you could give [that employee] a Quad ID, that's it," he said. "You would have access, you would be automatically assigned to certain communities and have certain access to documents."

Cisco is targeting Quad primarily at larger enterprises, with the next phase being its use as part of a private cloud infrastructure. As it becomes more widely available for sales through the channel, it's offered first as a software platform in perpetual license, Sitaram explained, with the same services and back-end support that Cisco partners see from other products in Cisco's UC and collaboration portfolio.

But Cisco is also looking at subscription licensing and selling Quad "by the drink," as part of hosted collaboration services, or as a potential private-label offering through service providers.

"There's nothing that stops us from doing that," Sitaram said. "There are multiple routes to market. It's a wonderful opportunity for partners to create value-added services."

The channel implications for Quad are vast. Quad, for one, gives Cisco an inroad into business enterprise software channels that it didn't necessarily have before, Sitaram notes.

"Not all of our traditional channel is disposed to selling applications, so it gives us an opportunity to extend to a number of partners that have not worked with us," he said.

It also brings Cisco into much closer competition with a number of vendors providing collaboration platforms, from Microsoft's SharePoint to IBM Lotus Live, Jive's Clearspace, SAP StreamWork and the various collaboration offerings from more traditional competitors like Avaya and Siemens. That's happening just as many of those same competitors further encroach on Cisco's UC territory, including Microsoft, whose Office Communications Server "14," now known as Microsoft Lync 2010, is prepped for its own big rollout.

But Cisco says it's also committed to making Quad interoperable with many of the business software tools its potential customers know and love -- even if Quad, itself, is optimized to run in Cisco UCS-based data center environments only. Sitaram is quick to emphasize that it will be integrated with Microsoft OCS, SharePoint and Active Directory, for example, and also support, in a policy-based fashion, social networking services like Twitter and aggregation tools like RSS feeds.

Next: The Channel's Embrace Of Quad

Cisco is rolling out Quad to its employees, and has also begun deployment of Quad with select solution providers. One of them is INX, the Houston-based data center powerhouse and Cisco Gold partner, which has adopted Quad for internal use.

"We have a very de-centralized organization," said Derek Downs, vice president of INX's advanced integration services division (VocalMash), unified communications and collaboration. "We tend to have to find the right resources, and we're also starting to find that there are a ton of duplicate efforts where we have the same work being done by multiple groups. It's almost a place visibly where everyone can see what's going on and what's happening simultaneously."

INX has been reporting back to Cisco with various suggestions on how to tweak the platform. Downs admitted that INX was skeptical Cisco wasn't doing more than building another Sharepoint competitor at first, but having used the platform, the major differences revealed themselves.

"Sharepoint has been around for 10 years and is heavily entrenched, so why would we do this instead of that? Fast forward, we've found it's not really an either/or conversation, it's an enhancement-to conversation," he said. "Sharepoint is very good for managing the content and documents when they're completed, but Quad is actually helping us capture activity during the creation. I haven't seen an application that captures that information like Quad does. We capture the intellectual property around the collaboration piece itself and not just the final output."

Quad will be strong in greenfield scenarios where customers are looking to overhaul their infrastructure, he said, but Downs also admitted that Quad's exclusivity to Cisco's UCS and data center platform could be limiting.

"I do think that can be the case," Downs said. "The reality is that it's a controlled environment to release it on, and you're limiting the moving parts initially. But as you move forward that will be the case. We're already looking at customers saying, 'I like it but I have to integrate with these other systems and structures.'"

Dave Hart, executive vice president and CTO at Presidio Networked Solutions, a New York-based Cisco Gold partner, said he hasn't yet experimented with Quad but sees it as a major collaboration play for Cisco and the Cisco channel.

"When I look at our business in the Cisco UC space, the primary driver remains someone doing something with a dial-tone, which is fine, because that's the bedrock first step as everything moves to IP," he said. "But we really would like to see our customers try to transition to a true collaborative work environment and we need to give them applications to do it. Quad is a great example of an application engine that can drive collaboration through all these different media."

A lot of those collaboration tools are not only becoming nice-to-haves, but also need-to-haves, he said. It'll be up to solution providers to illustrate the business value of investing in Quad.

"As I watch my 14-year-old daughter and what she can do with social media, we only have a few more years to get this right," Hart said. "The workforce coming into the market will reject how we traditionally communicate in enterprise today. We have to have communications tools for the best and the brightest."

"If we're not driving a meaningful business outcome," he added, "someone else will."