Cisco IME Server to Expand Reach of UC Beyond Firewalls

Cisco Systems is preparing to launch its IME server, designed to extend the same sort of video collaboration that is found within a company to partners and customers. A new protocol proposed by Cisco, dubbed ViPR, will help Cisco's IME server work with third-party systems.

Cisco Systems is looking to bring the advantages of unified communications, which primarily are seen within individual companies, to dealings between businesses.

Cisco is rolling out a new appliance and a protocol designed to make it easier for companies to communicate with their business partners, suppliers and customers via video conference calls rather than traditional telephone calls.

In introducing the IME (Intercompany Media Engine) and ViPR (Verification Involving PSTN Reachability)protocol March 12, Cisco officials said the technology will improve collaboration capabilities between businesses, just as UC (unified communications) has done within company borders.

"UC has primarily been within a company, [an] intracompany experience," Tony Bates, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Enterprise, Commercial and Small Business Unit, said during a TelePresence conference with analysts and reporters. "This will extend the ease of collaboration."

The goal is to do away with what Barry O'Sullivan, senior vice president of Cisco's Voice Technology Group, called "islands of productivity" by expanding the UC capacity between businesses.

"From a productivity point of view, people can work the same way with partners and customers that they can with people inside the company," O'Sullivan said.

The IME servers, which will be available over the new few weeks, initially will work with current Cisco UC technology. Each site will have an IME server, and when a person at one site makes a call to a person at another site, the IME takes the information and finds the best way to route the call over the Internet or private IP network. From that point on, calls between the two numbers will run over IP networks rather than over traditional phone lines, and callers will begin the call as they always have. The IME, which establishes the route, won't have to process the calls after that, and there won't be any changes needed on the end devices.

Cisco officials stressed the ease of use and the economics of the offering. The calls go over a VOIP (voice over IP) connection, so there is no cost. And with the IME, users can start a video conference by simply using existing telephone numbers, and IT administrators don't have to update their UC devices.

The ViPR protocol will get into play as Cisco looks to extend the reach of its IME beyond Cisco UC customers. Any third-party video collaboration technology that supports ViPR will be able to use the technology. Cisco officials demonstrated that with a call from Cisco headquarters to a customer site that was using telepresence products from Tandberg, which also has adopted the ViPR protocol. Cisco is in the process of buying Tandberg.

Cisco officials said several times during the conference that they envision a wide-ranging community of people communicating regardless of their end-user devices over secure UC passageways created by Cisco's IME servers.

Cisco has submitted the ViPR protocol to the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) as a proposed standard, according to O'Sullivan.

Another strength of the system and Viper is the use of standard SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), which contributes to the openness of the platform, Cisco officials said.

Joe Burton, CTO of UC for Cisco, said the technology is attractive not only to businesses, but also to service providers, who can offer it in a hosted fashion as another service for customers.

"They've been very, very interested as we've been talking to them," Burton said.

Elena Pokot, CIO of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said she has used the IME technology and the ease of use has been a benefit to her and others at the school.

"One of the true differentiators is the simplicity of it," Pokot said during the conference. "You just dial the phone. Technology is no longer a barrier."

Some analysts on the call were skeptical about the demand for such a technology. Thomas Keitt, a Forrester Research analyst, questioned whether the IME is really something that businesses are looking for and that will spread in a viral way, or a "top-down" technology that a larger company like Procter & Gamble or Wal-Mart will adopt and force on its smaller partners.

In addition, Vanessa Alvarez, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, said IME seems to offer the same functionality as companies like Skype, which also offers video collaboration over IP networks.

Cisco's Bates said for end users, there may not be much difference. However, he said, IT administrators have a much higher level of control over the IME offering, with the ability to set policies to control which employees can use it. In addition, the content in the calls is encrypted, and the system can prevent spam and denial-of-service attacks.

As with other Cisco products, the IME will be sold primarily through the channel, Bates said. It will be officially announced at the VoiceCon show March 22 to 25 in Orlando, Fla.