Once upon a time, communicating for the purposes of conducting business had just three options – meet in person, write a letter / telegram, or pick up the telephone.
Eventually, as technology developed through first the facsimile machines, then pagers, mobiles, email, VoIP and on into the age of IM and video conferencing, the silos between modes of communication began to be removed. You could now, for example, hold virtual meeting from your computer, or share a text document via a phone.
In business circles, the term Unified Communications took hold.
But we are already at a point when it could be argued that UC has been supplanted. Beyond communication, all the talk in the industry, from programme developers to resellers, is about collaboration – the merging of communication platforms with workflow and productivity tools.
As one of the world’s biggest telecoms and networking technology companies, you would expect Cisco to be right at the forefront of this drive. Early to embrace the transition from purchased software solutions to cloud-based application services, Cisco helped to pioneer the UCaaS model with its virtualised Unified Computing System (UCS), which made many of its communication software products available as hosted solutions.
Spark is Cisco’s flagship hosted cloud collaboration service built on its UCS infrastructure. The company claims that Spark is the industry’s most advanced collaboration suite, providing all the tools needed for teams to create, share, discuss and coordinate work any time, any place and on any device.
In this review, we will assess what Cisco Spark has to back up those claims, taking a close look at its functions and features. As always, please remember that the views contained in this article are those of the reviewer only, and that UC Today is an independent service which does not promote or endorse any specific products or brands.
What can it do?
Cisco Spark is a cloud-based application suite offering a range of communication and collaboration tools as a hosted service.
In broad terms, it combines applications which service three different areas of business communications:
- Meetings. Powered by Cisco’s WebEx platform, Spark’s meeting tools are as much about managing and supporting workflow as enabling virtual meetings themselves. From scheduling, planning and inviting colleagues through to collating and sharing documents, Spark apps are aimed at streamlining the coordination of meetings regardless of where the participants are
- Messaging. Spark’s IM includes unlimited one-to-one and team messaging, with the option to create team message boards and virtual work spaces. It also supports file sharing so teams can view, discuss and amend work documents as they talk
- Calls. Spark integrates with Cisco’s industry leading VoIP and UC solutions, including Unified Communications Manager Business Editions 6000 and 7000, and the Cisco Hosted Collaboration service. This means you get the full power of Cisco’s business class HD voice and video solutions built right into your messaging and meeting platforms
The key to this cross-pollination of communication and collaboration functions is flexibility. As a cloud-based service, Spark apps can be accessed on any device – PC, smartphone, tablet, desktop VoIP endpoint or conference room equipment. Voice and video calls can quickly and easily be transferred from device to device, and you can escalate a one-to-one chat into a multi-party conference call simply by clicking on new participants. There is no limit to how many people you can interact with at once, and the multi-device support means colleagues and contacts are available any time, any place.
This vertical flexibility in devices and participants is matched horizontally by the range of features you can use to interact with people. The point of a collaboration suite as opposed to a UC suite is that it allows you to do more than just communicate. So, for example, Spark includes a whiteboard app that can be launched at any time, however your are communicating with people, whatever device you are using. You might want to sketch out a quick idea during an IM or use it as a presentation tool during virtual meetings. Cisco also sells the Spark Board, a piece of meeting room IWB hardware designed to making presentations in person from the Spark app.
Similarly, the freedom to switch at will between different platforms helps to support an open and efficient workflow even over distance. If you’ve ever been to a meeting and left an important document in the office, you will know how frustrating it can be not to have everything you need at hand. Not only can you access and share any files stored on your device (or in the cloud) however you are communicating, you can also quickly bring up old message threads and meeting minutes to check and cross-reference what was agreed previously.
What do we like?
One of the keys to Cisco Spark is ease of use. The main interface remains consistent whatever hardware you run the Spark app on, be it a PC, mobile, desktop or meeting room device. The layout of the different options is extremely intuitive, giving you one-click access to a very broad range of communication and collaboration features. Even if you already run a Cisco product such as one of its Unified Communications Manager suites, Spark sits on top of that and lets you control everything you need from one place.
Who is it for?
Cisco Spark is a very flexible platform which would offer benefits to most businesses looking to streamline how teams communicate and work together. There is a hint that Spark is mainly aimed at existing customers who run Cisco phone systems, phones and video devices. For these businesses, Spark offers an ideal stepping stone from on-premises systems into the cloud.
What is it compatible with?
Spark is designed with an open architecture, with easy-to-use APIs allowing end users to fashion their own integrations with the business platforms they use. This includes the ability to build and customise Spark bots and plug-ins for the likes of Salesforce, Microsoft Office 365, Google G Suite, Dropbox, Zendesk and many more.
UC Today Opinion
Collaboration is a natural evolution in the direction telecoms has taken. If you really get under the skin of what the business benefits of flexible, cross-platform, multi-modal communication are, it is all about making business processes easier, more efficient and more streamlined. It therefore makes perfect sense that telecoms should start to embrace workflow and productivity solutions.
Cisco Spark does everything you want to support better teamwork. Simple, flexible and accessible on any device, it nonetheless provides single-pane-of-glass access to a range of powerful tools, including HD audio and video, conferencing, IM, file sharing, shared calendars, directories and whiteboards. By putting all of these at your fingertips, Spark acts as a virtual office space, a platform where work is just as important as talk.
Are you a Cisco Spark customer? What are your thoughts? Does it offer the flexibility you need from a communications platform, and does it improve how your teams work together? What about the hosted cloud model in general, are you a fan or do you prefer to run software on premises? We always value your thoughts and contributions, so if you have any thoughts to share, please feel free to post a comment below. And why not share this article with friends and colleagues and invite them to join in, too.
This article is part of the July Series of the Technology Track on Cloud Communications, follow the link to see all published and planned articles.
Look & Feel
A powerful and flexible range of communication and collaboration tools at your finger tips, wherever you are.