September 24, 2008
by Charles Waltner
Cisco Systems is selling peace of mind to IT.
These days, the people responsible for managing the computers, software, and networks that run modern businesses are in a tough spot. The realities of this new era - driven by the second wave of Internet innovation - are crashing down upon them as employee demand soars for technologies that are evolving faster than ever.
At the same time, businesses still need to control and protect their information and computing resources, something that doesn't always fit nicely with new fast and loose Web 2.0 ways.
What to do? The answer from Cisco, as always, is the network. But in this case the technology leader has another card up its sleeve. Today, Cisco unveiled a new software service for a comprehensive Web 2.0 communications "platform." Company executives says it avoids many of the headaches information technology (IT) managers encounter with traditional software while providing all the advantages of new communications options.
"We don't supply all the possible communications applications a company might want to use, but we do enable all of them."
The service, Cisco WebEx Connect, couples the software expertise of Cisco's subsidiary with the company's industry leading networking and unified communications technologies. In particular, WebEx Connect uses an approach to computing known as "software as a service," or SaaS, a component of a major technology trend called "cloud computing."
The strong appeal of SaaS is that it makes it possible for IT departments to skip all the hassles of installing and maintaining "fat client" software on every desktop and laptop computer.
Providing a New Model with SaaS
Such technology advances as virtualization and bandwidth increases are helping Cisco and other SaaS application providers leverage enormous economies of scale to make it both financially and technically compelling to offer such elaborate software-based services over the Internet.
SaaS applications also make it much easier for using and sharing applications with employees on the go or with partners and clients outside of a corporate network, says Zeus Kerravala, a senior analyst with Yankee Group Research. "The corporate network now needs to be everywhere."
Kerravala says such a pre-packaged application framework, particularly one running as a pay-as-you-go service, is also very appealing to overworked IT personnel. "You can build these kinds of things in-house, but that takes lots of time, money, and people. Who can spare that?"
While WebEx Connect provides a one-stop shopping experience, it also offers an application platform for companies to explore Web 2.0 communications at their own pace. Organizations can dial-in their usage from standard WebEx hosted applications to a wide mix of customized and customer-managed unified communications technologies and collaboration tools.
"We don't supply all the possible communications applications a company might want to use, but we do enable all of them," says Doug Dennerline, senior vice president of Cisco's Collaboration Software group. "If you need a widget for voice mail, you can plug it in."
The first iteration of Cisco WebEx Connect works in Microsoft Windows, with Web-based and mobile versions planned for release in 2009.
Dennerline concedes that Cisco's Web 2.0 collaboration offering is "hugely ambitious," but he says Cisco is up to the task. The company's peerless networking expertise coupled with the open and flexible application platform from WebEx provides the best means for companies to take advantage of the new and yet-to-be-invented communications technologies flowing from the Internet, he says.
Addressing the Web 2.0 Conundrum
While the WebEx Connect framework provides both an easy and flexible way for companies to start exploring Web 2.0 communications, most importantly, Cisco executives say, the collaboration platform can help IT executives sleep better at night.
Integrated throughout WebEx Connect is Cisco's host of security, access controls, and policy functions that ensure no matter where or how employees are communicating, a company's computing resources and information are safe, Dennerline says.
Mark Levitt, vice president for collaboration and enterprise 2.0 strategies at the technology research company IDC, says IT shops have already lived through a precursor to the challenges of Web 2.0 when instant messaging found its way into the workplace during the late 1990s.
At first, IT managers did not want to support this technology born from the Internet. "They said, 'It's for consumers, it's not secure, and we have email,'" Levitt explains.
Employees, it turned out, simply kept finding ways to use the streamlined communications applications because they were so helpful. Eventually, businesses realized that instead of trying to stop instant messaging, they needed to adapt and support what the employees demanded. "That experience shook IT to its core," Levitt says. "IT found out that their old approach of just saying 'no' wouldn't work anymore."
After learning the hard way with instant messaging, IT departments now face an onrush of many new types of Web 2.0 technologies, from Web video and social networking to wikis and mash-ups. And with limited resources, businesses are at a bit of a loss for how to keep up with all of the new communications options. They want employees happy and productive, but they must also maintain control and security of their computing resources and information.
By providing both the necessary network-based controls and a rich and flexible application platform, Cisco hopes WebEx Connect is the answer to the Web 2.0 conundrum. "We're trying to provide IT departments the carrot and the stick," Dennerline says.
A Burgeoning Market
Certainly, Cisco has been investing heavily in this technology area. The networking giant has acquired more than 15 collaboration technology makers, including buying WebEx Communications in 2007 for $3.2 billion. Some of its smaller purchases include Metreos Corp., a maker of IP-based communications application development tools, and, most recently, PostPath, an email and calendaring software vendor, and Jabber, an instant messaging and presence software supplier.
The networked collaborations market is a $20 billion to $35 billion opportunity for Cisco, depending on how you slice it. But, of course, Cisco faces more than a few competitors in this wide-open field. Scores of smaller companies are inventing new technologies by the day, while some of the biggest players in the business, including IBM, Google and Microsoft, are rolling out their own approaches.
Given the significant investments most businesses have already made in various communications systems, Levitt says most organizations plan to use multiple vendors to expand their collaboration efforts, with the aim of keeping their options open as this technology matures.
Analysts say that the long-term success of Cisco's Web 2.0 offering will depend in large part on how well it can cultivate an independent software developer community. These companies will help build new applications and integrate them with the Cisco WebEx Connect platform, much as Microsoft and Apple have legions of independent software companies and individual programmers building applications that work on their computer operating systems.
Cisco executives emphasize that the company has been taking active steps to provide support for independent software companies and IT shops to develop communications tools that integrate with the WebEx Connect framework.
Dennerline adds that Cisco has also been working diligently the past few years to open up development for its unified communications technologies. "Cisco WebEx Connect is really designed from the ground up for third-party developers," he says.
While the Web 2.0 communications space is complicated and competitive, industry observes say that Cisco has one clear advantage over its peers: its networking expertise. "The farther you can build features into the network, the more scalable they are," Kerravala says.
Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.