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Cisco Mashes Up Collaboration

Cisco has always been in the business of connecting people with networking technology. The network -- and how it and its tools can be extended -- is now also the backbone for Cisco's latest push into the world of enterprise collaboration.

The company today is rolling out new updates to its Unified Communications platform (UC) with UC version 7.0, along with a new applications platform called Cisco WebEx Connect, for Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) collaboration mashups.

The new collaboration solutions come as competition in the area from Microsoft, Avaya and IBM grows ever more fierce. At the same time, Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) has also been countering with its own acquisition spree, acquiring e-mail vendor PostPath and instant messaging vendor Jabber.

"Collaboration is just a huge focus for Cisco," Dave Knight, the company's director of product management of collaborative software, told InternetNews.com. "It's an area we think is really the next wave of the Internet and we're investing heavily."

Knight explained that with Cisco UC 7.0, there is an improved focus on the end-user experience, designed to make it seamless for people to collaborate easily with enhanced mobility support and "find and follow" features for intelligent routing of calls and messages to a user's present location and device.

The WebEx Connect platform is a SaaS platform integrating collaboration features like Web meetings with instant messaging and team spaces for document sharing. One area in which Cisco aims to make a name for WebEx Connect is on the extensibility side, with support for technologies like AJAX .

"What we're offering is a full set of Web services APIs that let developers use AJAX to build communication-centric applications, making it easier to build simple widgets, for example," Knight said.

Examples of some of the ways the APIs could be leveraged include mashups for visual voicemail -- that is, listing voicemail messages on a PC screen, useful for sorting and listening to messages in the order of a user's choosing -- or an instant response application.

"The notion that you can build applications and integrate them with all of your communication assets is really powerful, and because it's lightweight Web services, anybody can do it, so it open up a whole new class of collaboration," Knight said.

Pushing collaboration

Those sorts of developments could help further the cause of UC in the enterprise. While collaboration is a term that has been a key part of technology solutions for years, there are still some barriers in getting it further adopted by businesses. A recent report from Nemertes Research reported that many enterprises simply don't understand what UC is all about, nor how best to leverage it.

"Lots of people understand that collaboration is the driver for the next wave of productivity improvements," Knight said. "The real opportunity now is to automate the unstructured interactions between knowledge workers. What we're seeing is varying degrees of success in people recognizing the efficiency gains, and thus, varying degrees of adoption. The ones that are successful are the ones that are tying collaboration to the business process. "

Another potential hurdle may be the security risks that could come in tandem with extensibility: As users are opening up their communications, the potential also exists for confidential information to escape the secure confines of the enterprise. It's an issue that Cisco aims to lock down in both the UC 7.0 and WebEx Connect releases.

"A big area of investment for us is pushing policy and identity into the network, and then doing intelligent things with that," Knight said, adding that both UC 7 and WebEx Connect have sophisticated policy layers, enabling enterprises to apply whole ranges of policy to users -- dictating, for instance, who can share documents with whom, and who can IM.

[cob:Special_Report]"We can do [it] within the enterprise and across company boundaries as well," Knight said. "Collaboration needs to work the way people work, and today, nearly everyone works as part of a distributed value chain, so policies need to apply to all key stakeholders that employees are dealing with everyday."

Applying policy and integration with network assets is where Cisco is aiming to differentiate itself architecturally from its competitors in the market. Knight explained that Cisco's goal is to embed all the core collaboration services in the network and then exposing those services via APIs.

"By pushing all the core services in the network, we get the enterprise reliability and scalability [and] security and intellectual property protection that enterprises are looking for," Knight said. "By exposing APIs as a service, we are able to deliver applications at Web speeds. So we're on a three- to six-month innovation cycle with our applications, whereas traditional enterprise software is on a three- to six-year innovation cycle."

The next steps for Cisco's collaboration innovation cycle will include integration with a pair of new assets that the company recently acquired. In August, Cisco snapped up Linux e-mail vendor PostPath for $215 million. Cisco has not yet not yet announced nor shipped a Cisco-branded version of PostPath, though Knight noted that one will be coming eventually. He also added that there is already some integration between UC 7 and PostPath based on existing interoperability between the two solutions.

Cisco also recently acquired instant messaging vendor Jabber a move that further enhances the networking giant's IM capabilities: Its WebEx unit already has an existing integration with AOL's AIM Pro service, while adding Jabber gives it a foothold in Extended Messaging Presence Protocol, or XMPP , an open source IM technology for which Jabber has served as a chief corporate backer.

"With Jabber, what we'll be doing is an XMPP-based instant messaging integration," Knight said. "You'll see Jabber first in WebEx Connect, then it will be integrated into our UC product lines."