The company has been talking about this plan, called Medianet, for more than a year, but a flurry of new products this week make it possible to implement some of what had been more of reference architecture, Cisco says.
But the company's announcement is a more detailed vision statement than it is a clearly defined set of products that are available to deploy today, says Andrew Davis, a senior partner with Wainhouse Research.
"It's an impressive statement," Davis says. "I think it's going to take them a good five years. They've skirted over some of the ugly details of what's available now."
Calling it informally Medianet 2.0, Cisco says the implications of the technology it's talking about are that anyone connecting to a network via virtually any type of video device can connect to any other and use any video features the network supports.
This goes beyond enabling, say, someone with a laptop video camera to join a high-definition, immersive telepresence conference, with maximum quality for both the image the telepresence participants see and the images displayed on the laptop.
It also includes, for example, the possibility of integrating Cisco digital signage -- high-definition video screens that display messages in public places -- with conferencing so the same screen can be used for signs and also for video calls.
Medianet could also support integration of Cisco's physical security gear with unified communications, so if a Cisco door-badge system detects a possible intrusion, that event could trigger boosting the quality of the video being recorded at that doorway and fire off a notification to security personnel to check it out in person, Cisco says.
This any-to-any architecture is based on Cisco hardware, at least for now, including the fixed-configuration Media Experience Engine (MXE) 3500 -- announced nearly two years ago -- and the new, larger, modular MXE 5600 that has eight slots.
The network-based devices work out details of how to translate signals from varying endpoints that may use different protocols and codecs so they can all talk to each other at the best possible quality.
"The MXE is like a ferry boat that connects different islands of video," says Davis, with the all-Cisco island supporting all Medianet features. "Most people will play on a different island called media standards."
That can pose a problem for companies with large investments already in other video vendors' gear. "The answer is the MXE," Davis says. "It gets you -- or a service based on the MXE -- that's how Cisco has claimed interoperability." Cisco says Medianet is already compatible with some other vendors' equipment including LifeSize and Polycom. It says it is working with smartphone vendors -- "the usual suspects" -- to make their handsets compatible for video chat over Medianet.
An analogy put forward for understanding Medianet is that of a computer operating system that receives service calls and responds with the service. In the analogy, Medianet software distributed in the network, services and endpoint layers acts as the operating system. As devices make service calls -- like a high-definition video device seeking resources to send 1080p, 30 frames-per-second video -- the network responds with that service, much as an operating system might.
Medianet is also intelligent, so if network can't supply the resources the video device needs, the network and device will negotiate the best possible quality that is available at that time, upgrading to the requested quality as more resources become available, Cisco says.
Most of this is done in software, which may require upgrades to the version of Cisco's IOS in network devices. In cases where switches and routers are more than 3 or 5 years old, the hardware may have to be replaced as well, Cisco says.Davis says this stands to benefit the company because it will sell more routers, switches and IOS upgrades to businesses that buy into Medianet, and they'll sell a lot of video devices.
Endpoints Cisco says will be compatible can vary from laptops and video phones to business-class telepresence rooms and consumer video such as Cisco's recently announced umi. They can also draw together unified communications networks, WebEx, digital signs and physical security devices.
The company also intends to address the complexity of deploying devices by making them automatically link to a Medianet network when they are plugged into a switch port. The devices would describe their needs and the ports are configured appropriately for quality of service and the like, Cisco says.
Cisco says it has a standards-based interoperability interface it will license free to partners so their gear can support Medianet features.
In addition, new MXE capabilities include the addition of Cisco Pulse, software that can search stored video for specific content and jumping to that part of the session rather than watching all of it or skipping through hoping to find the relevant part, Cisco says.
The company says it expects this new infrastructure to be picked up by businesses for deployment within their networks but also by service providers who will use it to support media-exchange services.
Davis says businesses should pay attention to the Cisco vision and consider whether its benefits will help meet business goals. But they should also look to other vendors to consider their alternatives. "Tread very carefully for vendor selection," he says.The good news is that there is probably plenty of time. "IP telephony took nine years and video is harder," Davis says.
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