Archive for January 2013

We’re not likely to see products for another year or so, but once the ball starts rolling, we’ll see rapid uptake as providers of video take advantage of the improved quality.

In what should be considered lightning speed for the historically slow moving International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the group last week approved the H.265 standard, also known as high efficiency video coding (HVEC). The ITU gave first-stage approval while work continues to develop extensions to the standard, which should lead us to 3-D video encoding sometime in the future.

The approval should be viewed as one small step for video and one giant step for video-kind, as the new standard cuts the amount of bandwidth required for a video session by as much as 50%. We first got a glimpse of H.265 at the 2012 version of the Cisco Collaboration Summit in downtown LA. During the demo I had asked the question about whether H.265 was indeed innovation or yet another video island, and Cisco responded by saying they had aggressively pushed it into the standards body for approval in 2013–I just didn’t expect it to be this early in 2013.

The reason that H.265 is so important to the video industry is that it enables video providers to stream video at 1080p, even over lower speed connections. While Cisco, Polycom and the rest of the industry talk about a world of ubiquitous video, this can’t really happen if companies and consumers are always pushing the envelope when it comes to bandwidth consumption for just a couple of simultaneous video streams. This becomes particularly problematic with wireless networks. A few years ago the thought of doing video over a wireless network was way out in the future and seen only on SciFi Network. However, the future is here now. Tablets, smart phones and laptops have great cameras on them and we have a generation of people that, for some reason, love to be on video.

With respect to wireless networks, the rise of 4G cellular networks and WiFi standards such as 802.11n and the upcoming .11ac launch make video over wireless possible today, but the footprint of high speed WiFi and cellular is still very small compared to the overall footprint of wireless networks.

For the rest of the network where LTE or 802.11n isn’t available, the experience with other services is generally poor. There are many times when I struggle to get basic web browsing to work. One video session would absolutely crush the wireless networks in many places.

Now there are a number of issues I’d like to point out that could hamper adoption.

In practicality, the 50% number is a best-case scenario–more realistically, a 35-40% improvement should be expected. This is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but the halving of bandwidth consumption shouldn’t be expected everywhere. Also, knowing how we live in a society of one-upsmanship, it’s more likely that content providers will use the extra bandwidth to push out higher quality, larger video streams rather than save on bandwidth for existing levels of video quality.

Also, the compression algorithm used for H.265 is significantly more complicated than with H.264, meaning it takes more processing power from the CPU of the endpoint. For desktops and room-based systems, this shouldn’t really be an issue. However, for smartphones and tablets, it could be problematic. This is quite the conundrum for the protocol, as one of the motivators for H.265 was to deliver better video to mobile devices over lower-speed wireless networks. There’s some talk of having dedicated hardware on board mobile devices to handle the increased computing requirements, which just drives the costs up in an increasingly competitive market.

As for timing, while the standard has just been approved, all this means is we have an agreed-upon standard. We still need software written, hardware designed and from the people I’ve talked to, it looks like we’ll have software based encoders by year’s end but we won’t see rapid uptake until the codecs are integrated into chips, and that’s more likely to be 2014 at best. However, even though we’re not likely to see products for another year or year and a half, I do think once the ball starts rolling, we’ll see rapid uptake of H.265 as providers of video look to take advantage of the improved quality.

The best thing working for the video industry is competition. We live in a very visual world today. Consumers want more YouTube, Facebook, Facetime, Skype, etc., and that will translate into the business world. One video stream to multiple devices has been and remains the goal for anyone in the video industry, and H.265 will help us get there faster.

The acceptance of H.265 will mean less network strain and more HD-quality video. This won’t solve all of our video challenges, but it is another step along the way to ubiquitous video.

With the hype around software-defined networks (SDNs) having grown as high as it has, almost every vendor is looking for an angle to capitalize on the opportunity. I’ve noticed recently that many of the vendors, particularly the big-box vendors, are focused on the concept of “network programmability.” While I agree that programmability is a component of SDN, it shouldn’t be the sole focus of the technology. As an example, Cisco has been pushing the Python-based ONE (Open Networking Environment), Juniper has JunosV App Engine and HP has its own programming environments. Like I said, I think these are important parts of the overall SDN solution, but it’s not aligned with where buyers are today.

I recently ran a survey with TechTarget and one of the questions asked was “How do you think SDNs can help your company?” The number one response, at 50% of the respondent base, was “simplify network architecture.” The No. 2 response (46.9%) was “reduce network hardware costs.” The third most popular response (45.4%) was to enable network management. Way down on the list, at 7.7%, was to “provide a more programmable network.”

Programmability could be used to improve network management, but it really doesn’t have any impact on the first two options: simplification of architecture and reduction of hardware costs. Those problems are solved through the use of low-cost, standards-based switching hardware that is simple to deploy and manage. I’m not saying that the big box vendors are trying to slow innovation or aren’t taking SDNs seriously. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The mainstream vendors do want to offer a credible SDN story, but they do need some level of vertical integration to keep the “end-to-end” value proposition intact.

For most mainstream companies, the limitations of a vertically integrated solution will probably be fine, at least in the near term. In fact, I’m not sure most mainstream companies would even know where to procure low-cost, non-brand-name network hardware. However, for those organizations with hyper-scale data centers where the network is the business, being able to cut the cost of switching through the use of low-cost, simplified network infrastructure can be significant. In a sense, it’s the same market where SeaMicro thrived by offering simpler, lower-cost rack servers.

While much of the industry will focus on the programmability of the network, the companies that want to leverage the cost benefit of SDNs now should think “open” first, and then look to leverage programmability once the architecture has been simplified and the overall network has become more manageable.

This completes the consumer chapter in Cisco’s history. Many looked at Linksys as a distraction to Cisco. It served its purpose and now it’s time to move on.

Remember back to 2003? The Iraqi war had started, the movie “Chicago” won an Oscar for best picture, the Buccaneers beat the Raiders in one of the worst Super Bowls I remember, and we were all listening to Norah Jones and Michelle Branch. In tech though, March of 2003 was when Cisco stepped into the consumer market with the $500 million acquisition of Linksys.

For the record, VMWare was acquired a few months later by EMC for just a couple of hundred million more. What could have been? I remember thinking Linksys was a bit of an odd acquisition at the time, in fact I was quoted as saying so in this article.

While I was initially skeptical, there’s no question that Linksys thrived under Cisco, and as home networking grew, so too did the Linksys share. I think it’s fair to say that Linksys has been the most successful home networking company in history under Cisco’s ownership; but like they say, all good things must come to an end.

Late Thursday, Cisco announced it was divesting of Linksys by selling the business unit to Belkin for an undisclosed amount of cash–although considering how the size of the home networking market has grown, Cisco should have fetched substantially more than the $500 million it paid for Linksys 10 years ago.

The decision to sell off the Linksys business unit makes sense for Cisco. In fact, I’m a little surprised they didn’t do this a bit earlier. After Cisco shut down Flip, CEO John Chambers had made a commitment to focus on core areas and shed parts of the business that didn’t fit into the company’s architectural approach. Soon after, the Umi telepresence product went, and that made Linksys stick out like a sore thumb. Many people thought Scientific Atlanta would be on the chopping block first, but the set top box actually is part of the cable operator’s network more so than the home network.

I’m not saying the acquisition of Linksys was a mistake. Far from it. When Cisco bought the company there was a lot of debate in the industry about what the future of home technology would look like and what would be the centerpiece of the networked home. If you remember back, Microsoft was pushing its media center PC and others were vying for that position. There’s no reason to think that when content and applications were resident in the home, the Linksys device wouldn’t have played a key role.

Also, Linksys filled a gap for years for Cisco in the SMB space. Selling traditional Cisco equipment into SMBs is like trying to recruit Sidney Crosby to come play hockey on my men’s league team. It could be done, but it would be far too expensive and overkill for my needs. So too with Cisco; and Linksys filled the gap for a time. Eventually Cisco did release a line of Cisco-branded infrastructure specifically for that level of the business market and Linksys became a consumer-only product.

So Linksys did make sense for a while, but times change. Content is moving to the cloud faster than Bill Belichick ran off the field after losing the AFC championship game. This means the home networking infrastructure plays a more limited role–connectivity and adding a few functions that most people don’t use, like time of day access, rate limiting and guest access. Of all the extended features, a small percentage will enable guest networks but that’s still the minority of the deployments.

Additionally, the proliferation of Apple devices has made functionality like Bonjour support in the home a must, so many buyers have just turned to the Apple products. Sets up easy, extends easy and Apple tells you to buy it, so why not? This means the rest of the home networking market is facing commoditization, since the role is now limited; and Cisco doesn’t really like commodity markets, so selling the business is well timed.

For Belkin, the combined share gives them about 30% of the overall home market, and Belkin plans to maintain the Linksys brand, at least in the near term. This fits nicely into the large portfolio of consumer products Belkin already has, and the company should be able to leverage the Linksys products better than what Cisco would have been able to.

The companies did state they would maintain a strategic relationship between the two on a number of initiatives, the most obvious one being products that are sold through service providers into the home.

So this completes the consumer chapter in Cisco’s history. This should be well received by investors and customers, as many looked at Linksys as a distraction to Cisco. It served its purpose and now it’s time to move on.

Remember a decade ago when the softphone was supposed to be one of the killer applications for VoIP? Why use the big clunky desk phone that takes up space on your desktop when you can use a softphone that’s fully integrated into the PC that you sit at every day? Makes perfect sense, right?

However, the market didn’t exactly play out that way. Despite the wide availability of the software and the ease of deployment, my research shows that less than 10% of workers who have the choice actually prefer the softphone. There are some situations that make sense, like for road warriors. They’re rarely in a place where a wired phone could be used on a regular basis. For the rest of us, though, despite the promise, the softphone has never caught on.

The answer to the question “why hasn’t the softphone become more popular” is based on usability. The vendors have done everything they can to make the softphone more usable, to the point where it actually looks like a picture of the phone so users know where to click and what functions are available.

Despite all of that, the usability is still awkward. It’s not that it’s hard, it’s just cumbersome. For example, with a regular desk phone, putting someone on mute requires hitting a button that says “mute.” Putting someone on mute with a softphone requires moving the mouse over the mute button and clicking the mouse, but it could be as much as finding the app, bringing it up, going to the menu bar, finding the settings tab and then putting the microphone on mute. It’s this inconsistency that makes people not want to use it since the phone is the same all the time.

This week, Logitech released a keyboard called the “UC Solution for Cisco 725-C,” which is USB keyboard that includes nine keys specifically for controlling softphones and video. These functions are:

  • Voicemail retrieval
  • Call answer/ hang up
  • Volume up/down
  • Audio mute
  • Video mute
  • Speakerphone on
  • Headset on
  • Handset on

In addition to the function keys, there’s an LCD display that shows incoming caller ID making it easier to see who is calling.

I certainly don’t believe we’ll see one of these on every desk in the near future, but there are some strong uses cases for this type of device. Call centers, hot desking/hoteling environments or anywhere you see shared workspaces such as nurses stations, banking, and trader turrets.

This specific device works with Cisco solutions today, which makes sense based on Cisco’s overwhelming share, but I would expect to see a Lync and Avaya solution down the road. The keyboard is bundled with a camera and mouse for a reasonable price of $269.

Is this a game changer? Not really, but it does make the game different. The “dead simple” ease of use, as Logitech describes it, is something we’ve all grown accustomed to in the world of traditional telephony, and now we can have that with desktop-based communications as well.

Touch screens may eventually obviate the need for something like this, but it will likely be a while before we see the touch screen widely deployed and the softphones designed with touch in mind. Until then, companies looking to be more aggressive with VoIP and softphones can definitely benefit from this innovatively designed keyboard.

As most people who follow the networking industry know, Juniper outlined its vision for software-defined networks (SDN) at last week’s Global Partner Conference in Las Vegas. I’ve had a bit of time to digest the information, answered a number of questions about it, and I thought it was time to share my thoughts on what they announced and the impact to the industry.

First, summarizing what Juniper announced, they began the presentation with a number of myths regarding software-defined networks and then articulated Juniper’s principals of SDNs. I’m not going to repeat these, but if you missed the webcast, Jim Duffy’s article does a good job of highlighting them.

If you’re an NFL fan, this weekend featured a rematch of an earlier game where the Patriots crushed the almighty Houston Texans. The result was much the same, with the Pats having their way with the inferior team from Texas. The Texans looked good on paper, but in the end, the better team won.

Similarly, last week, a San Jose-based federal judge confirmed a $60-million award in Brocade’s favor, which had been delivered on August 6, 2012. The judge also issued a permanent injunction barring the defendant, A10 Networks, from infringing on Brocade’s Global Server Load Balancing and High Availability patents. This means A10 is now forbidden from making, using, selling or offering to sell any of the products that use those patents in the U.S.

We should see a much more service provider-friendly Polycom over the next 12-24 months–a big change that’s needed if they’re to remain a leader in video.

Historically, Polycom and service providers have gone together about as well as Peyton Manning and big games. Once in a while there was something to talk about, but most of the time, they were mutually exclusive.

However, one of the main initiatives for Polycom during the Andy Miller era has been to make service providers a significant channel for the company. There have been a few baby steps indicating that Polycom’s strategy was working, but on Monday Polycom landed the big one–AT&T–as a strategic partner for personal, mobile and virtual video meetings.

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