The collaboration team at Cisco has been working to find solutions that ease the buying decision process and remove some of the barriers typically associated with purchasing a business communications solution. Upfront costs, complex installations, lengthy deployments and long-term contracts – all part of the traditional on-premises communications system buying process – are viewed unfavorably in today’s fast-paced, highly competitive business environment and detract from what should be the focus of any organization, namely streamlining operations, making employees more productive and improving customer service. Subscribing to unified communications “as-a-service” (UCaaS) is gaining favor in part for the associated budgetary advantages that include reduced capital expenses and predictable per-user monthly fees (there are also a number of strategic benefits; more on that here).
To this end, Cisco has come up with a way to take at least the “how to buy” decision – cloud versus premises – off the table by offering the same subscription-based pricing (a recurring, operational expenditure or OPEX) for both cloud and premises deployments. The new Cisco Spark Flex Plan makes the buying process simpler for customers, whether they opt for a cloud-based service or an on-site installation – or even a mix of on-site equipment and cloud-based services if that best fits their particular business requirements.
Business communications vendors like Cisco that have added cloud UC services to their portfolios of on-premises IP-PBX, contact center, messaging, meeting and UC solutions are uniquely able to offer these flexible cloud-premises arrangements. A number of market studies, in fact, indicate a growing preference for hybrid implementations, and vendors are responding by rolling out hybrid solutions at a fairly rapid pace. A single subscription price is even more desirable in these mixed scenarios.
Cisco Spark Flex Plan
Some businesses require on-premises communications equipment for their particular business operation and would welcome a simpler payment model. The new Cisco Spark Flex Plan addresses this, with a single subscription plan that offers the same pricing for both cloud and on-site Cisco deployments. With the plan, customers that opt to install a telephony system on-site will have no up-front software licensing expenses, and instead will spread this out as a pay-as-you-go monthly subscription fee (customers will still need to purchase the server equipment that will run the software). The consistent cloud-premises pricing also makes it easier to move to an all-cloud solution in the future, if and when this makes sense for their particular business operation.
Earlier this year, Cisco introduced Spark pricing packages comprised of cloud services, namely Cisco Spark Message and Cisco Spark Meetings (“M” level packages – M1, M2 and M3) and Cisco Spark Call (a “C” level package that can be layered on top of each M package – C1, C2 and C3). The new Cisco Spark Flex Plan extends the pricing packages to include premises-based equipment. Specifically, the Message and Advanced Meetings package (M3) now lets customers select either WebEx cloud services or Cisco’s on-site Meeting Server (introduced last August and based on technology from the Acano acquisition). Additionally, the Call (C level) packages allow the customer to select cloud-based or on-premises call control, either Spark Call (cloud) or Cisco’s on-premises Unified Communications Manager, Unity Connection, Emergency Responder or Expressway products (Cisco’s Business Edition 6000 servers and Cisco’s Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS) are planned for inclusion in this new pricing model later).
The Flex Plan monthly subscription pricing depends on the number of users, with three tiers as follows: 250-1,999 users, 2,000-9,999 users and 10,000+ users. As an example, Message and Advanced Meetings (M3) is priced $12.50 per user per month for the 250-1,999 volume tier, whether the company selects WebEx or the Cisco Meeting Server. Cisco Spark Call (C3), which includes M3, is $24.25 per user per month for the same volume tier, whether the company selects Cisco Spark UCaaS or deploys Cisco’s Unified Communications Manager on-site. Cisco customers with existing perpetual licenses (CUWL, UCL, or UC ELA, etc.) will be able to trade these in for six months of credit toward an M3 or C3 plan (some rules and restrictions apply). The minimum contract term is one year for all tiers if there are no trade-in credits, or a minimum two-year contract if the customer is taking advantage of the perpetual license migration program.
Initially, the Cisco Spark Flex Plan will be a “company-wide” subscription, but in the future, Cisco expects to add buying models that are priced per individual user or based on the number of concurrent meetings. The new pricing plan for Cisco Spark Meetings (or WebEx or Cisco Meeting Server) is initially available in 37 countries. The cloud-based Cisco Spark Call service is available in the U.S. for now, while the on-premises option is available in all 37 countries.
Two other Spark-related offers became generally available as of November 1, 2016, namely the Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service that can deliver the cloud-based Spark Meeting service as a local instance on the customer’s premises and the Cisco Spark Depot that pulls together an online catalog of Cisco and non-Cisco business applications and “bots.”
Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service
Cisco aims to simplify conferencing and collaboration with the new Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service that takes away the need for an IT manager to decide between a cloud- or premises-based conferencing deployment. A subscription to Cisco Spark Meeting now includes Spark Hybrid Media Node software which is available as a free download (as an OVA file) to an on-site customer-provided server and which delivers the cloud-based Cisco Spark Meeting service as a local instance on the customer’s premises. Intelligence in the software determines the “best” way to deliver the conference experience – that is, as a cloud-based Cisco Spark Meeting experience when internal and external (remote) participants will be attending, or as an on-site meeting run locally when only local participants are attending which eliminates or minimizes the delay experienced by having to “hairpin” the voice and data transmission out to a cloud data center and back again. Local meetings can span multiple locations, anywhere in the world, that are connected via a corporate WAN.
In this first phase, each Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Node can handle up to 55 meeting participants, and Nodes can be added to accommodate as many on-premises attendees as required. If local capacity (Hybrid Media Nodes) is full, the software automatically overflows additional attendees to the cloud, ensuring everyone can join the meeting (there are no overage fees for this attendee overflow). In essence, the Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service enables one meeting experience whether participants enter the meeting locally or via the cloud.
The Cisco Spark Hybrid Media Service is a new category of “hybrid” that adds to other Spark hybrid capabilities announced earlier in 2016 in which Cisco Spark Messaging and Meeting services can complement and enhance the functionality available with a premises-based Cisco Unified Communications Manager system deployment (Business Edition 6000 or 7000 or Cisco UCM). Read more here on the four Cisco Spark Hybrid Services that became generally available last March.
Cisco Spark Depot
Cisco has developed a new website to host its growing catalog of Spark-related applications. At the new Cisco Spark Depot, business organizations will be able to easily access and integrate a variety of applications and “bots” to improve their business processes. As an example, Cisco points to an HR team using the Spark collaboration tool to track the “onboarding” of new employees. This team also utilizes the third party application Redbooth for project management. Bot software integrates the Redbooth workspace with the Spark Room so team members do not have to toggle between the two applications. Updates made in one tool will be seen by the rest of the team. In other words, when a member of the HR team updates a task using a Redbooth template, an automated message is displayed in the HR team’s Spark room; others on the team will see this notification and can collaborate as needed. Per Cisco, such integrations will likely create a “stickiness” that will make Cisco Spark a central and (hopefully) irreplaceable part of an organization’s day-to-day business processes.
At launch, Spark Depot enables access to 70 applications, including 40 native Cisco applications and 30 third party applications. New integrations are anticipated on a weekly basis and can be published for all Cisco Spark users, or made available only to users on an organization’s own domain.