Cisco to expand video calling with IME

The Intercompany Media Engine will let unified communications users make IP video calls over existing phone numbers

Cisco Systems plans to extend unified communications beyond individual enterprises, introducing a new appliance and a protocol that the company hopes will become an industry standard.

At a press briefing via telepresence on Thursday, Cisco gave details of the Intercompany Media Engine (IME), a server that will make it easier for employees in separate enterprises who are using Cisco's unified communications (UC) tools to start making video conference calls in place of regular voice calls. They could start those video conferences using existing phone numbers and current UC client devices, such as video phones and PC softphones, as long as those devices support video. In addition to having the video component, those sessions would be VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls, and the whole session would travel over an IP network for free. The IME will become available within the next few weeks.

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UC is a set of capabilities designed to help workers collaborate more closely and reach each other more easily. In addition to video calls, it can include instant messaging, presence information, click-to-call buttons and the extension of office-phone capabilities to mobile devices. But UC platforms mostly have been deployed within enterprises and not between them, said Tony Bates, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Enterprise, Commercial and Small Business unit. In the IME, Cisco claims it can make those capabilities easy to use among a network of companies that frequently work together.

To start, the company's effort will be built around its own IME server and current Cisco UC platforms, though with the Cisco Session Manager, enterprises could make the IME work with older Cisco equipment or third-party UC systems. But Cisco wants to extend these capabilities to as many users as possible, so it has made the technology underlying the IME, called Viper, available to the industry. Viper stands for Verification Involving PSTN Reachability. Last November, Cisco submitted it to the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) as a proposed standard, said Barry O'Sullivan, senior vice president of Cisco's Voice Technology Group.

"We don't want these islands of productivity at all, we want to connect them all up, whether they're Cisco customers or anybody else's customers," O'Sullivan said.

IETF standardization typically is a two-year process, and Cisco will implement any changes made to Viper as it winds through the process, said Joe Burton, Cisco's chief technology officer for UC.

An IME will reside at each enterprise location. The first time a user makes a call to someone at a partner company, the IME will collect information about that call and determine the best route for it over the Internet or a private IP network. From then on, calls between those numbers won't go over the PSTN (public switched telephone network), and they won't have to be processed by the IME, which is only responsible for setting up the IP path in the beginning. Users won't have to change the way they initiate calls, and the IT department won't have to reconfigure anything at the client, Cisco said.

The IME, and the underlying Viper protocol, use standard SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) signaling to exchange information between the UC clients at each organization. As a result, other UC capabilities, including presence information about people in other companies, can already be added through Viper, Burton said.

"You can generically exchange all kinds of intercompany information. They're simply not in the first release of IME," Burton said.

Cisco said IME and other possible Viper-based products are better suited to enterprises than is the popular Skype service. IT departments can set policies that control who employees can call with the system, and ensure information about their communications is captured for regulatory compliance, Burton said. The content of the calls and all the information about them is encrypted, and IME includes mechanisms to prevent spam and denial-of-service attacks, he said.

Although the Cisco executives pitched IME partly as a money saver that could eliminate many expensive PSTN calls, they also said it presents an opportunity for service providers to sell lucrative new services. Those could include guaranteed quality of service over a high-quality IP network as well as hosted IME capability. The latter would free enterprises from having to install anything on their own networks, Bates said.

Also in the telepresence session, Cisco revealed that its Enterprise Communication Platform, announced last November, will be called Cisco Quad. The enterprise social-networking system is designed to bring together video, voice and other types of content produced by a company's employees, with advanced search functions. It is in beta testing.

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