Date: 10 January 2017

Author: Matt Bynum

SPARKING OUR COLLABORATION

Bedroc Spark Collaboration

On December 29, 2016, Bedroc lit up (brace yourself, the puns will be many) Cisco’s latest collaboration solution, called Spark.  As an experienced Cisco voice engineer, I was shocked to have the smoothest voice cutover of my career while using such a relatively new product...and one that lives entirely in “the cloud”.

When we began evaluating our internal collaboration strategy, we solicited feedback from all of our Bedroc colleagues to capture their perspectives on how our current collaboration tools affected their day-to-day lives. The results were fairly consistent in that the chief complaint was a lack of availability for our communication tools while outside of the office. As a growing company with limited office real estate, our field engineers are almost always either telecommuting from home or working at a client’s site.  After looking at the configuration of our current Unified Communications (UC) environment, it was clear that more than half of our entire employee count never used the tools we had.

From the Ashes of Old Technology

Let’s talk about those smoldering legacy UC tools.  Bedroc was using a Cisco Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS) from a partner of ours for voice.  We had an Instant Messaging and Presence (IM&P) server deployed, but only a few people were using it for chat.  I also discovered a WebEx Messenger (read: Cisco hosted IM&P) service that had a few accounts tied to it.  As an Office 365 customer, we also had access to Skype for Business, and there were a few internal folks using it relatively often.  For Telepresence, a few years ago a couple of Cisco Quick Set SX10s had been purchased to connect to our conference room TVs.  To make that function, Bedroc was in the process of deploying Cisco’s Expressway servers to allow for inbound and outbound video calling through our internet pipe at the office...though we had run into problems getting Expressway to work through a 3rd party firewall, so the work had stalled.  Oh, and everyone had access to a fully functioning WebEx account.

That’s a lot of dirty laundry I just aired for you, but it serves a purpose, I promise.  The second most common bit of feedback that I got from the users was that the available tools were too much of a hodge-podge of things.  Some folks used Jabber, some folks used Skype for Business.  Some folks had access to softphones when not in the office, but then they had to connect to VPN to use it, making it impractical in some situations.  Some folks even used SMS text messaging almost exclusively to communicate between their peers.  Others were dependent on the tried and true e-mail message for everything.  Nobody had access to a video conferencing solution, save WebEx.

The only consistency was that nothing was consistent!

This melting pot of communication tools scenario is a common one that I’ve come across in my years as a UC engineer.  Often, the cause is that vendors try to keep up with technology trends through acquisitions or home-grown solutions...but those don’t always cleanly plug into the vendor’s legacy solutions that the customer might already own and operate.  The end result is that the full collaboration landscape looks like a jigsaw puzzle consisting of pieces from different pictures...with the individual pieces just not quite fitting together like they should.  The more time in between collaboration initiatives, the more different those jigsaw pieces are to one another.

The ideal solution to our collaboration problem was to have a single client that would function as a softphone, a chat client, and a video endpoint...and that would work without the need for a VPN back to our office.  Bonus points for anything that didn’t require us to manage on-premises equipment.  We want to be consultants, not administrators.

Enter the new fire in our collaborative hearts: Cisco Spark.

Lighting Spark Up

Spark has three distinct feature categories all wrapped into a single client experience: messaging, meeting, and calling.  The messaging feature of Spark is definitely core to the functionality of the application, and is available for free to anyone that signs up. The meeting options start out with a very basic feature set, allowing video conference calls native to the Spark application.  To ramp up functionality, you can move to the “advanced” option, which includes a WebEx license for each Spark user (pretty neat, eh?).  Then from there, you can add the calling functionality, which is either entirely cloud based with Spark acting as hosted call control, or you can integrate with an existing call control that’s either on-premises (Cisco Unified Communications Manager) or hosted (Cisco Hosted Collaboration Solution).  Bedroc opted for the Spark hosted call control, and we went all in with the advanced meeting option.

As the person deploying this, I have to say, it was ridiculously simple to get this configured and deployed.  The hardest part really was crafting the messaging to the end users so that they would know what to do in order to sign in and start using the client.  

Cisco partners with a couple of different telcos for providing the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) access, so early on in our journey, I initiated the process of porting phone numbers from our current carrier to one of the Cisco approved carriers.  All of this was done through the Spark Admin interface, and then completed with EchoSign for the contracts and whatnot.  Once we had the contracts fully executed, we received notice of our number porting date.  Not once did I have to worry about the SIP trunk settings from the provider….all of that was abstracted for me in the Spark Admin interface.  I could even go ahead and assign everyone’s ported phone number in advance.

Phone registration was (mostly) a breeze, because Cisco Spark generates QR codes that a Cisco device can recognize...as long as that device has a camera (you get a long string of digits as well, in case the device lacks a camera).  The QR code tells the phone how it should register, and then magically the phone signs into the Spark cloud with the correct user’s extension number.  When the phone initially registers, the software on the phone is inevitably “behind the times”, so the phone automatically gets updates from Spark and then reboots.  The phones STAY updated too, no need to worry about upgrading anything in your Spark environment....it’s always on the latest and greatest software.

Those Telepresence devices that Bedroc had purchased a few years earlier registered right away to the Spark cloud, and did the same firmware update that the phones did.  I was immediately able to take control of the room with the Spark client on my mobile phone as well, so that was pretty magical.

When the day of the cutover came, we got an email from the new telco that said we’d be notified when the port was complete.  Sure enough, about 45 minutes later I got the email and then tested our inbound calls...and everything worked!  Easiest. Cutover. EVER.

Look at all the Happy Users

The user feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive.  I think everyone enjoys having access to a single platform that works across all of their devices and across all of their networks (work, home, airport, Starbucks, etc).  Already, I am collaborating with my coworkers more than I did before...and I think it’s safe to say others are having a similar experience.  We’re beginning to play around with how to best integrate Spark into more of our processes, and I’m sure by this time next year, our usage of the solution will be much more evolved.

If you’re looking for a collaboration solution that will light up your employees collaborative capabilities, give us a shout!  We can even set you up with a Spark trial so you can see yourself just how on fire this thing is. :)

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