Really and seriously, and I mean it this time.
In my work in the last twenty years on IP communications, the holy grail of the industry was to enable solutions that provide true any-to-any communications. That is – in the workplace environment – it would be possible for any user in Company A to talk to any user in Company B. And when they communicate, have a perfect experience without loss of features or functionality (a.k.a. feature transparency).
In other words, users would have the same experience communicating with colleagues inside their company, as communicating with colleagues outside of their company. While we have yet to achieve this Nirvana state, the industry has been working toward this with a set of capabilities that generally go under the term federation.
Cisco Spark provides the next generation of B2B communications using a capability we call universal federation.
It turns out that solving this is way, way harder than it seems. And indeed, if we look at the history of IP communications in the enterprise, it has evolved through two phases over the last two decades.
Phase 1: No Federation
In the beginning, there was nothing. Company A and Company B would buy IP communications systems, but they couldn’t talk together. The only real way to exchange communications between companies was to rely on one of the two worldwide interconnection services: the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) providing basic narrowband voice, or email. It wasn’t possible to connect systems for video, instant messaging, or content sharing (outside of email attachments). Largely this was due to lack of industry maturity and lack of industry standards.
Phase 2: Bilateral & Multilateral Federation
A baseline set of industry standards matured to the point where we could achieve bilateral federation — interoperable communication between companies for voice, video, basic meetings, and instant messaging. The latter was definitely still complex since no single standard won.
Different vendors continued to implement different variations. As a result, if Company A deployed Vendor A’s messaging product and Company B deployed Vendor B’s messaging product, you might be able to get them to work – but it required manual configuration of the connection by both companies. And when it was configured, it was sorely lacking in features, difficult to troubleshoot, and hard to use.
Worse still, because it had to be setup by IT ahead of time, it completely eliminated the ability for end users to opportunistically communicate with each other. It also made it nearly impossible to communicate with consumers because they might not even have a paid collaboration product.
This was augmented by the arrival of federation clearinghouses which could provide multilateral federation – basically a star topology with the clearinghouse in the middle. This fixed some of the problems of bilateral federation – once you got interop working with the clearinghouse it would work with everyone connected to the clearinghouse. However, it still required configuration ahead of time, and did not provide the same set of collaboration features inside the company as outside the company. Today, most of the enterprise industry is stuck in phase 2 – bilateral federation. Business-to-business (B2B) collaboration remains a dark blemish on the success of the technology.
Fortunately, the consumer world began to explore a new model. Consumer tools did one thing really well: They enabled any user to talk to any other user. They did this by making it easy to invite people (through email or SMS), and making it easy to join (through a free app that a user could download, or use on the web). This enabled truly borderless communication. And it is why many of these modern consumer tools, like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, are now some of the largest communication fabrics on the planet.
With universal federation, a user of Cisco Spark in one company can communicate with anyone else, anywhere in the world.
Phase 3: Universal Federation
So, we at Cisco asked ourselves this question: Why can’t we take that same goodness and apply it to business communications? After many years of hard work, Cisco Spark provides the next generation of B2B communications using a capability we call universal federation.
Universal federation brings the goodness of consumer any-to-any communications to the workplace while providing the security and policy capabilities needed to make the tool suitable for business use. It improves on the prior generation of bilateral federation by providing three key things that weren’t there before:
- Zero setup or configuration
- Feature transparency
- Ability to communicate with free/consumer users
With universal federation, a user of Cisco Spark in one company can communicate with anyone else, anywhere in the world. If users at different companies happen to be using Cisco Spark, there is nothing to do. The IT admins don’t need to set anything up. There are no bilateral-peering agreements. There is no need for clearinghouses.
Cisco Spark uses work email addresses to form a unique global namespace across all companies. A user in Company A only needs the email address of the other user to message with them in a Cisco Spark space, or to place a call to them — that’s it. They’re communicating in Cisco Spark.
Even better, universal federation gives both users feature transparency. Feature transparency means that there is no loss of functionality communicating outside the company, compared to inside. As an example, while bilateral federation would provide basic instant messaging, file transfer often would not work. Or, the solution inside of one enterprise would have photo sharing, while the solution inside of a different enterprise would not. Connect them together, and there would be no photo sharing.
With universal federation, feature transparency applies to every single feature Cisco Spark provides. That means voice calling, video calling, spaces, content sharing, group read notifications, message deletion, and so on. This is exactly what users experience with consumer products. When Facebook Messenger ships a new feature, everyone using the app gets it and can use it together. Now with Cisco Spark that’s true in the workplace too.
Finally, Cisco Spark’s universal federation enables communications between an employee and anyone else in the world, even if that other person is not a paid user of Cisco Spark. This includes free users who use it just for fun, consultants at small businesses using it for work, or a group of users in a large company trying it out. This is because Cisco Spark provides a free version of the app that anyone can access from mobile, web, or desktop.
A free version that is exactly the same as the paid product – and that anyone can download and use — is essential for any modern global communications service.
Because the same technology is used for free users as paid customers there is once again total feature transparency. Every feature provided by Cisco Spark works for both free users and paid users. A free version that is exactly the same as the paid product, which anyone can download and use, is essential for any modern global communications service.
We’re really proud of Universal Federation, and have already seen huge usage of it. As one example, the majority of Cisco sales teams use Cisco Spark to communicate and collaborate with their customers, showing off the power of this technology for connecting people across boundaries. Sales people have told me that it has strengthened their connection with their customers, making them more responsive and able to share information more easily.
And so, the 20-year journey of the IP telecommunications industry toward any-to-any communication is finally coming to a close. The technology changes enabled by modern cloud software allowed us to imagine a different solution – universal federation – and with it, finally provide end users and IT admins alike the tools they need to do their jobs most effectively.