Partners: Cisco Collaboration 'Has Its Mojo Back' With Spark Overhaul

Cisco is overhauling its Cisco Spark from a messaging-centric application to a complete end-to-end collaboration solution while providing channel partners with a slew of new recurring revenue opportunities. The networking giant says that with the new products and services added to Spark, Cisco is leaving its competitors in the dust.

"The comprehensive end-to-end nature of this platform that we're announcing, [competitors like] 8x8, RingCentral, Slack, Blue Jeans [Networks] only have bits and pieces of this experience," said Gary Wolfson, head of global collaboration channels for Cisco, in an interview with CRN. "What our partners tell us is, 'Give us something that really answers the bell end to end'. We believe (that) while those companies deliver bits and pieces of what we're offering, there really isn’t anyone other than [Microsoft], which has some of what we have integrated, that we see as really competing on this plane. But we're really changing the game of what it means to have a modern collaboration architecture system."

The San Jose, Calif.-based networking giant unleashed a barrage of new features and services to Spark on Tuesday, including hybrid services that connect on-premise capabilities to Spark in the cloud, a new Collaboration as a Service platform that hosts and delivers Spark services, as well as a Spark for Developers community portal, where partners can build custom solutions for customers.

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"Collaboration within Cisco, without a doubt, has got a lot of its mojo back," said Ian Heard, vice president of collaboration for Dimension Data, one of Cisco's largest partners, and ranked No. 10 on CRN's 2015 Solution Provider 500 list.

The new Spark the Service is a complete business collaboration service hosted by Cisco and sold by partners. It allows customers to message, meet and call through a single open platform. The service has common management for endpoint registration, provisioning, analytics and user control.

Another new critical launch is Spark Hybrid Services, which connects on-premise capabilities from Cisco and non-Cisco services, such as Microsoft, to the cloud.

Heard said the enterprise consists of cloud-based services and legacy on-premise equipment that work together in the same environment.

"Organizations have come to us reevaluating that decision, saying they're left with two interoperable technology islands and that doesn’t work,’ Heard added. ’Cisco (is) announcing this whole hybrid approach to be able to connect in your legacy into the broader collaboration cloud play – whether it be Cisco's cloud or a partner cloud … and also linked in with managed services to be able to bridge that gap is an extremely strong play for the channel."

"Other vendors in the market are frankly saying, 'You need to rip and replace,'" said Heard. "To be able to really assist our clients with this hybrid story so they're not left to the massive legacy challenge or rip-and-replace challenge is fantastic and is really good news for us."

The set of hybrid services available includes:

"The opportunity for the partner is to create an offer of those integration services whether it be directory integration, calendar integration or integrating the call services into their existing environment," said Wolfson. "There's also the opportunity for on-site network assessment, planning, design and implementation – not of the collaboration platform, but of the underlying network, local and wide-area, that would support the inbound and outbound traffic to enable these services to come to life for the customer."

The Spark for Developers platform and community portal allow partners to build custom solutions on an API-centric platform. The new platform offers organizations a set of tools to extend and embed cloud collaboration services.

"We're now giving partners a complete platform to develop custom integrations for customers that can integrate into their workflow, their business process and that’s an opportunity for partners to differentiate and drive substantial monetization against those customers challenges," said Wolfson.

The portal, which went live Tuesday, allows partners to build, test and even turn on applications.

Cisco said its acquisition this year of Tropo, a cloud API platform provider, has been a vital piece of its API strategy within Spark. The cloud APIs are powered by Tropo, which allows developers to quickly and easily embed communications capabilities into applications and business processes, according to Wolfson.

"Tropo really brought in a developer-first mindset into the business," said Wolfson.

Chris Bottger, senior vice president of collaboration services at IVCi, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based solution provider and Cisco Gold partner, and ranked No. 226 on the 2015 CRN Solution Provider 500, said Spark is getting "more meat around the bone," which will bring in more recurring-revenue services in such areas as analytics.

Professional services and ongoing managed services are where the money is, Bottger said. "We're not building a global Spark cloud because that for us would be uneconomical, but what we are doing is leveraging their cloud by being able to integrate it into a customer's environment. Customers don't necessarily know what the analytics means and everything else around it means. We'll make money on managing that environment and being able to make sense out of the analytics and applying it to the customer's environment."

The Spark application is also being enhanced with new features including search messages and easily configured integrations, says Cisco. The app can now be accessed on a smartphone via a browser or dedicated client on a Mac or Windows PC.

Finally, to connect to the Cisco Collaboration Cloud, the networking leader unveiled a new Spark Phone OS – operating system software running on phone endpoints that allows supported phones to connect to Spark services in the cloud or to a Cisco call control such as Unified Communication Manager or HCS. Cisco also launched Spark Room OS software, which runs on video endpoints and allows supported endpoints to connect to Spark services in the cloud or to Cisco's video infrastructure.

Wolfson said all of the new solutions bring a tremendous amount of opportunities for the Cisco partner community. "We now have the opportunity for partners to drive new value, new services, and new ways to bring value to customers, which means more growth opportunity, more revenue opportunity and more profit opportunity for the partner," he said.

Partners say other collaboration vendors in the space, such as Polycom, Blue Jeans and Zoom, simply can't offer what Cisco can now do with Spark.

"Nobody can compete across the whole portfolio," said Bottger. "You get a Blue Jeans or a Zoom … a standalone isn't the right way to go for most organizations because it creates an island and that island really only creates one or two things and it doesn't allow you to integrate with everything else that you have in order to get the real return on that investment and to get it across your whole organization. [Spark] is now allowing you to do that."

The collaboration solutions will become available in the U.S. sometime in the first half of 2016, according to Cisco, before it's rolled out to the rest of the world in the second half of the year. The new solutions are open to all Cisco-authorized collaboration partners.