CRN Exclusive: Cisco Exec On The Role Partners Will Play In IoT And How Cisco Spark Is Changing The Game

Cisco's Trollope Leading The Way

Leading Cisco's Internet of Things and collaboration charge is Rowan Trollope, who partners say is breaking down innovation barriers with solutions such as Cisco Spark and strategic partnerships with companies including Apple and IBM.

"You'll see us do lots of partnerships in IoT because there's a brand-new stack that's emerging to basically enable IoT, and that new stack touches everybody -- it touches Microsoft, Cisco, GE, everyone," said Trollope in an interview with CRN.

As to the role of channel partners in IoT, all of the new technologies being developed mean that "you have to go vertical. … So channel partners become more important, not less."

Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's new IoT and Collaboration Technology Group, spoke with CRN about the future of IoT, building Cisco Spark and revolutionizing Cisco's collaboration organization. Following are excerpts of the conversation.

How important was it to Cisco to partner with IBM around IoT?

IBM has made huge investments in cognitive [computing]. One of the big drivers over the next 10 years is machine learning and machine intelligence, which IBM calls cognitive. That's a really important thing for IoT.

Essentially there's lots of data that’s locked up in lots of devices all over the world. It's already there; it's just stuck on the device. What we're doing is to unstick it.

How can IBM and Cisco 'unstick' that data and make IoT useful for businesses?

So Cisco is doing the connectivity platform to get that data off the device and up to the cloud. Once you get it into the cloud, you need to do something interesting in it – that's where IBM's research and IBM's analytics [come in]. [IBM has] an incredible platform there in the Watson IoT platform to actually make sense of all that data and to turn that stuff into something that's useful, so you need both parts.

You need us to get the data off and also to, once something interesting happens and you figured it out, to send data back down to change the device in some way to complete that loop.

Cisco is partnering with giants like Ericsson, GE and IBM around IoT. Should we expect more IoT technology alliances in the future?

You'll see us do lots of partnerships in IoT because there's a brand-new stack that's emerging to basically enable IoT, and that new stack touches everybody -- it touches Microsoft, Cisco, GE, everyone.

Will channel partners' role in the IoT world become more or less important looking ahead?

Because of all these technologies, especially in IoT, you have to go vertical. As we move beyond commerce and telephony and the areas that have been disrupted so far by IoT, as we move into every other industry on earth – health care, for example -- you have to be plugged into the ecosystem of that vertical.

So far Silicon Valley has delivered a lot of interesting horizontal platforms that then get applied to every business in a standardized way, but as you move into IoT and the products, they're very different. So the product offerings in IoT and next generation of IT really become very vertical. They're not usable across many different industries, so channel partners become more important, not less.

How exactly will channel partners' role increase because of IoT?

Channel partners are the ones to help actually create that for that specific vertical and to assemble it with a solution that connects into the existing platform and everything else. I think the transformation is exceptionally beneficial to channels because of the fact that the generic business process is generic ... but the thing you make is not generic..

Can you give an example?

An oil pipeline is very different from a teddy bear, but the way you run a business for an oil pipeline and the way you run a business to make a teddy bear actually looks pretty similar. The billing, ERP, payroll – it's all the same thing. So you can use the same horizontal platform there, but teddy bears are not oil pipelines. That technology is radically different. … This is where channel partners come into play.

You joined Cisco in 2012 and have since given the company its 'mojo back' in collaboration with Cisco Spark. What was your vision coming into Cisco?

I was a user of collaboration technologies … and I was pretty frustrated with it in terms of the technology was terrible in my meetings, engagement with my employees was terrible – I was just frustrated. I felt like in my home life, technology had become delightful all of a sudden. [It was] very exciting in the consumer wave of 2007 to 2011 and so my vision and mission at the time was, 'I think that businesses communications technologies [have] to go through a similar transformation like we saw in consumer.'

So why did you pick Cisco compared to, say, Microsoft?

I looked at who had done the best in consumer world and it was Apple. I looked at what the big differentiator with Apple is and it is they have the hardware and software. When you look at the collaboration industry, there's only one company that has the hardware and software and that was Cisco.

My sense was like, 'Going to Microsoft was you couldn’t deliver an Apple-level experience with Microsoft' because they don’t have control of the hardware. And if you go to a hardware company, they don’t have actually control of all the infrastructure and other things.' The only company in the world that had both was Cisco – and had it at scale.

So Cisco was the only company who could make collaboration technology better for businesses?

So there's only one company that realistically could solve that problem and that was Cisco. ... And also [Cisco Executive Chairman] John [Chambers, pictured] is a great salesman.

What wasn't Cisco doing right in the collaboration space when you stepped in?

Cisco had a bunch of, I would say, 'magical experiences' in the portfolio, but they were just way too expensive or way too limited or [had] too few number of customers because of price and complexity. So the idea here was to simplify it down. Transform that UX by building a next-generation infrastructure and rethinking it. So we thought about what the future should look like from a communications system perspective and what should that experience be like for a customer. Then how do you do that and do that cost-effectively so you can deliver it at a price that could be more available to everyone.

You said Cisco Spark was a three-year process. Can you break down the first year?

The first year was about transforming and getting the team in place and putting the strategy in place and hiring people. We reduced the product counts, we went from like 65 different hardware SKUs to 17.

We really dramatically changed the [collaboration] team in the first year. We probably turned over 20 percent of our staff and like 98 percent of our leadership team.

What about the final two years of Cisco Spark leading to its launch in 2015?

The second year was laying the foundation for the future. The biggest inhibitor on cost and complexity was on-premise infrastructure. What had been shackling this business to the past was premise PBXes and premise videoconferencing technologies – all the stuff that was on premise. The cloud was there and the cloud was the way to go.

So the first change was, 'We need to move all the infrastructure to the cloud and we need to take the management control of that so we can evolve it rapidly.' And in the process we said, 'A lot of the legacy protocols and approaches of the premise don’t even make sense in the cloud.' So we almost had to start over and write it from scratch, and that's what we did.

So we built that new thing and that was Spark. And that allowed us to deliver an incredible experience and we did it from the cloud in a way that would make it cost-effective and consumable for every business of every size.

Did you hire anyone specifically to help create Spark?

During the process, I hired Jonathan Rosenberg, [pictured] the CTO from [Microsoft] Skype at the time, to come join us to help lead that transformation.

[Rosenberg is the current vice president and CTO for Cisco's Collaboration Business.]

What makes Spark such a huge differentiator in the market in 2016? (Part 1)

Spark is the infrastructure of the communication system. It is the business communication system.

Spark lets you do messaging. If you look at the history of unified communications, we had Jabber and IM – so we saw messaging being a really important part of the future and that's emerged to be the case. The most important transformation was the development of Spark as a messaging platform – that's the new method of communication for business. People are shifting from email and finding messaging to be a better way to communicate with their teams.

What makes Spark such a huge differentiator in the market in 2016? (Part 2)

Another capability of Spark is calling. So we have phones on desks today. People just need to be able to call – voice and video calls – and to call the legacy systems. So Spark has a full calling infrastructure built into it – PBX, etc. – but not a PBX like you know it today. It's been completely re-imagined.

Spark can also do meetings. We identified that Cisco had two different pieces of meeting technology – videoconferencing and web conferencing. And those two things never met and they were totally separate. We recognized in this new world that it needed to just be one thing. So Meetings in Spark converges both of those into a single experience. So Spark is next-generation messaging, calling and meetings.

Would you call Cisco Spark an open solution?

We recognized that we had totally separated the platform underneath and said, "OK, we shouldn't just keep this platform to ourselves. We should open it up to everyone else.'

So the Spark platform we launched [we] made it open. We said, 'All these APIs, everything that we're using to deliver our applications, you can use too.'

Will you be launching another set of APIs?

We launched the first set of those APIs last year. We're launching another set of APIs [this month] that really rounds out the whole picture of the API platform. That basically lets software developers and startups and other companies and even IT build integrations directly into our system, but also build their own applications right on top.

Can Spark interoperate with legacy Cisco technology?

If I've got Cisco's existing videoconferencing infrastructure and I want to start using Spark for some of my communications stuff, it should natively work with our existing infrastructure. So that's why we built Spark Hybrid Services. It ties the native infrastructure to the new cloud. So Spark can seamlessly interoperate with existing infrastructures.

Can you talk about the new Cisco Spark Room OS?

We're now shipping all of our MX and DX line with this new Spark Room OS. That actually turns our video room systems into something that looks like a Meraki endpoint. When you power it up, it needs the cloud to operate and you have to have a subscription to that cloud service in order to use it. You no longer have to deploy any infrastructure for our videoconferencing systems. So we're talking a very substantial change in the market.

How has Cisco Room OS, Spark Phone OS and other new solutions changed the way Cisco operates?

All of our room systems are being updated with our new Spark Room OS. Then our phones are similarly being updated with Spark Phone OS. Spark Phone OS is the same as the [Spark] Room but for the phone it lets you connect to the Spark cloud and have full capabilities … we have all kinds of new capabilities now. We've freed ourselves from the shackles of legacy protocols.