Cisco Bridges Gap With Microsoft in Collaboration

The Cisco Meeting Server makes it easier for Microsoft's Skype for Business to interoperate with platforms from Cisco, Polycom, Avaya and others.


Cisco Systems and Microsoft have for a while been the dominant players in the competitive and rapidly evolving enterprise collaboration space. Now, Cisco officials are offering new technology that will make it easier for Microsoft's Skype for Business to interoperate with other platforms.

The giant networking vendor on Aug. 15 unveiled the Cisco Meeting Server, a product that enables Skype for Business users to connect with others who are using systems from other vendors—not only Cisco, but also those like Polycom and Avaya—mobile clients or WebRTC-enabled browsers, all by simply clicking a link.

Video is becoming an increasingly important part of an enterprise's unified communications (UC) strategy, according to Snorre Kjesbu, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Collaboration Group. There has been a 97 percent increase in the number of enterprise users of video over the past two years, and 85 percent of large meeting rooms now have video conferencing capabilities, Kjesbu told eWEEK.

The global video conferencing market is expected to grow 13.2 percent a year over the next several years, hitting $11.4 billion by 2020, he said.

However, interoperability has been a problem for several years. A key challenge has been the fact that Microsoft's Skype for Business doesn't interoperate well with other platforms, such as Cisco's, that use standards-based technologies. Interoperability between Cisco's technologies and those of other competitors, such as Polycom and Avaya, has become relatively simple.

However, if video conferencing is to become as widely embraced in the enterprise as it should, the platforms of the two top collaboration vendors should have equally easy connectivity, according to Kjesbu and Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's IoT (internet of things) and Collaboration Technology Group.

"I have always believed deeply that technology should solve the world's hardest problems—it shouldn't cause problems," Trollope wrote in a post on the company blog. "But frankly, collaboration technology has been causing some big problems for people who are just trying to connect and get their best work done. … Cisco Meeting Server helps to fix these problems. Specifically, it fixes problems created by certain vendors (I mean you, Microsoft) whose technology hasn't always played well with others."

Cisco Meeting Server is the result of technology inherited from Cisco's $700 million acquisition last November of Acano, a company whose collaboration hardware and software touched on everything from video and audio to web conferencing and UC. Cisco engineers were able to leverage the Acano technology to create a product that—in addition to bringing interoperability between Microsoft and other vendors—offers a consistent user experience, improved bandwidth use, lower costs, better security and scalability that can run from small groups to thousands of participants, Kjesbu said.

The Cisco Meeting Server essentially is a standard x86 server, he said. It's what is running on the system that makes the difference.

"It's really, really complex software and algorithms running on industry-standard servers," Kjesbu said.

The interoperability will be important as enterprises migrate away from proprietary hardware systems and embrace software- and cloud-based solutions as they try to manage such trends as the cloud, greater workforce mobility, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and a greater demand for video.

Analysts with Synergy Research Group (SRG) said in a report in March that total revenue from collaboration—which includes everything from voice, UC applications and telepresence to enterprise social networks, email and hosted/cloud applications—passed $9 billion in the last quarter of 2015, with among the fastest growth coming in such areas as hosted video and voice, UC-as-a-service (UCaaS) and other hosted solutions.

"Collaboration continues to be a market that is characterized by a long list of disruptive and high-growth companies, with no less than 12 companies achieving year-on-year growth rates in excess of 25 percent," SRG founder and Chief Analyst Jeremy Duke said in a statement at the time. "We have seen lots of new cloud-based applications which have gained traction in the small-office environment and I now expect to see many of these start to penetrate mid- to high-end enterprises."

In the same report, SRG found that Cisco and Microsoft remained first and second, respectively, in the market, followed by Avaya.