A New World: Cisco Holding Hands With Microsoft

After years of battling it out for collaboration supremacy, the ice between Cisco and Microsoft is thawing. Cisco Monday launched a new offering – wrapped in channel incentives -- that allows interoperability between Cisco collaboration products and Microsoft’s Skype for Business.

’The Cisco approach up until the last year or so has been around, ’It has to be us or nothing,’’ said Chris Bottger, chief technology officer at IVCi, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based solution provider and Cisco Gold partner. ’Cisco realized that they’re not going to be able to persuade customers to completely come onto their platform because Cisco doesn’t have the office suite or email environment like Microsoft, but this tactic of allowing greater interoperability allows them to get some of their Cisco services inside of that world, which is going to be key.’

The new Cisco Meeting Server allows customers to easily connect people in Cisco video rooms with others who are using Skype for Business. The solution was built based on technology Cisco acquired from Acano, a collaboration startup that specializes in Microsoft. Cisco purchased Acano for $700 million in January.

[Related: 5 Cisco Channel Initiatives Launched Around New Meeting Server Product]

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The San Jose, Calif.-based company said Cisco Meeting Server allows anyone to join a collaboration meeting regardless of whether they’re using competitors' gear such as Avaya or Polycom, said Snorre Kjesbu, general manager and vice president of Cisco Collaboration.

’Interoperability might not have been in our DNA in the past, but it is now our DNA – this is another litmus test of that statement,’ said Kjesbu in an interview with CRN.

Cisco partners said under the leadership of CEO Chuck Robbins, who officially took the reins in July 2015, Cisco is breaking down barriers around interoperability and becoming closer with rivals such as Microsoft and VMware.

Robbins’ focus around speed and execution is mandating Cisco move away from its proprietary history and form more strategic partnerships to capitalize on new opportunities across its broad portfolio, according to partners.

’[Cisco Chairman] John Chambers was absolutely on the money when he said ’Chuck will be able to executive more quickly and better than I could’. That’s exactly what’s happening,’ said Bottger.

The major player reinventing Cisco’s collaboration strategy is Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's IoT and Collaboration Technology Group. Trollope, who pondered joining Microsoft, joined Cisco in 2012 with the goal of driving simplicity, innovation, interoperability and cost-effectiveness inside Cisco’s collaboration portfolio.

In a statement about the new Cisco Meeting Server, Trollope said, ’Connecting should not be hard. But it has been because certain vendors’ technologies have not played well with standards-based technologies, like Cisco’s industry-leading video systems. We just fixed that [with Cisco Meeting Server], and the impact is huge,’ he said. ’Just as you don’t think twice about whether an iPhone can call a Samsung Galaxy, enterprises need to know that everyone can join the meeting. And now they can.’

Cisco’s collaboration business has skyrocketed over the past year under the leadership of Robbins and Trollope. During the company’s recent third-quarter fiscal earnings, Cisco reported collaboration revenue of $1.07 billion, a 10 percent increase year over year. In Cisco’s first fiscal quarter, its collaboration business jumped 17 percent to $1.1 billion compared with the previous year.

The networking giant’s collaboration business is on track to pull in between $4 billion and $4.5 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2016.

For years, Cisco and Microsoft have been neck and neck in market-share leadership in the collaboration space. For first-quarter 2016, Cisco led the market owning 14 percent share, following by Microsoft with 13 percent, according new data from Synergy Research Group.

The acquisition of Acano was a key play for Cisco in extending its lead against Microsoft as the technology allows Cisco access inside Skype for Business environments.

Cisco Meeting Server uses Acano technologies – with deep Microsoft roots -- to address scalability and interoperability from the browser to the boardroom solution, said Cisco’s Kjesbu.

’Acano had technology for unprecedented scalability and also great interoperability with competitors as well as great interoperability with Microsoft,’ said Kjesbu. ’We’ve been working very, very hard on making this product an integral part of the Cisco collaboration offering around things like manageability, orderability, user experience and our channel partners.’

Cisco said Cisco Meeting Server reduces high bandwidth costs caused by videoconferencing at multiple offices through optimizing bandwidth use between sites. The solution was built to work best with lower-cost, standard Cisco UCS servers -- giving customers flexibility to add servers as needed to keep up-front Capex costs low, according to Kjesbu.

Cisco Meeting Server was built to support small organizations with only a few users to global enterprises with thousands of users, according to Cisco. Security is also built into the solution.

Customers can consume Cisco Meeting Server in a user-based licensing model where companies can buy services up front and then add as they grow.

Cisco is incenting its channel partners to convert existing video infrastructure to Cisco Meeting Server, which also provides net new revenue opportunities, said Gary Wolfson, head of Cisco’s Global Collaboration Partner Organization.

Cisco's Wolfson said to accelerate the transition, Cisco is providing partners with discounted migration offers to encourage upgrades, incentives for trading in competitive video endpoints, and simplified licensing to deploy personal and room-based video systems.

No longer will channel partners have to pass on an opportunity because a customer has chosen to have a Microsoft environment instead of Cisco, he said.

’The partner now has the opportunity to create an infrastructure that lets the customer have an interoperable experience where they want it and that’s fundamental in making sure that every opportunity that crosses a partner desk is an opportunity that they can go sell into,’ said Wolfson.

Cisco Meeting Server is now available to the channel.