Cisco’s new offerings recognize that the IT environment has grown exponentially in complexity while budgets have grown linearly.
After a three-year hiatus, Cisco Live returns to an in-person format. While the show has evolved over the years to appeal to line of business and corporate executives, its core audience is still the engineer that makes their living deploying and operating Cisco equipment. While much of the innovation at the show is in networking, over the years, Webex has become a more prominent part of the show.
This year, Cisco delivered several new capabilities to make the life of the IT professional easier. Going into the pandemic, Cisco was behind many of its competitors in core capabilities, and it has spent the better part of the past two years playing catch up. Today, from the perspective of user experience, Webex can compete with anyone and is ahead in many areas such as endpoints, AI features, integrations, and security. Now that Webex is in the pole position for user features, it is focused on making the life of the engineer easier.
There has been a significant amount of media attention on how hybrid work has changed workers’ lives. But what about the IT pro who supports those workers? There has been very little focus on this employee group. Hybrid work means workers are scattered everywhere, and collaboration tools, like Webex, go from being a “nice to have” technology to mission-critical. Also, the Internet, which is highly unpredictable, has become part of the corporate network, and more apps have moved to the cloud. The IT environment has grown exponentially in complexity while budgets have grown linearly, if at all.
The new features in Webex Control Hub brings some new capabilities that look to close the gap between technical complexity and IT budgets. The most interesting new capability is the new Control Hub – ThousandEyes integration. You’re all familiar with the former as the nerve center for Cisco’s Webex services. For those unfamiliar with ThousandEyes, the product came to Cisco via acquisition in 2020 and brings Internet-level visibility to network professionals. I had been familiar with ThousandEyes since its inception, and felt it was a valuable and unique company. Network management tools have historically focused on traffic that runs on the company network, which was fine prior to the rise of cloud. Traffic moving off-net posed a problem for the technical staff as the Internet was essentially a black box. If there was a problem? Too bad, so sad—just accept it and live with it. By contrast, ThousandEyes watches the entire Internet and often knows of SaaS outages due to network problems before the cloud provider.
With this Control Hub-ThousandEyes integration, IT pros can quickly diagnose and solve problems that are creating quality issues with latency-sensitive apps like video, calling, and events. The integration lets administrators see Webex sessions and then drill down into them to understand things that can impact an experience like network path, the Internet route the traffic is taking, and response times between the user and app. Once a problem is identified, Control Hub provides diagnostic information to help understand the root cause. This lets admins see the end-to-end path, including the Internet but then have the insights to fix problems quickly.
Another new feature meant to ease the burden on IT pros is the introduction of configuration templates in Control Hub. In any business, there is obviously more than one type of worker, but there are certain job functions or departments where professional job requirements affect how to communicate and share data. For example, some users can only use Webex for internal meetings, while others may be prohibited from sharing files. In regulated industries, certain policies must be applied, such as disabling external document sharing . For example, in healthcare, physicians are prohibited from showing health records on workstations in public areas. The new Control Hub templates make configuring Webex for these groups of users easier. A template can be created once and then applied to a group of users would common requirements. As employees are synced with Active Directory (AD) or onboarded to Webex, the appropriate licensing and configuration settings are automatically applied.
Cisco also introduced provisioning users, groups and domains from Azure AD into Webex within Control Hub. This new integration eliminates the multiple steps admins had to take as they continually flipped between Azure AD and Control Hub to complete the necessary configurations. On a pre-call with analysts, Webex claimed this was a minimum of 11 steps to complete. While I haven’t done the test myself, given the complexity of Azure, that seems reasonable. In a large enterprise with hundreds of Azure AD domains, this could literally save hundreds of hours of heavy lifting.
Cisco also added a feature that bridges the business-IT gap. More and more, IT leaders are being called on to understand how technology drives the business. The new “Control Hub as a Coach” feature translates Webex data into business metrics and provides guidance on how to achieve better business outcomes. The data in Control Hub shows information such as video utilization, number of meetings, device utilization, and application usage. This helps the business understand if users are collaborating the way the business had intended, where the gaps are, and then shows insights on how to improve usage.
One last feature that has been added to Control Hub is the “ethical walls” feature, which lets companies silo specific groups of users via Control Hub. In regulated industries, there are mandated around internal communications. For example, in financial services, prior to an IPO, some brokers cannot interact with corporate finance. This helps businesses enforce policies and comply. This could be done with the use of VLANs or network segmentation, but that is much more complex than clicking the mouse a few times in Control Hub . This feature, combined with templates, give IT pros much more granular control without creating a huge time sink.
The innovation inside Control Hub brought some badly needed capabilities to the IT pro. This should not be interpreted that Cisco is taking its foot off the gas on delivering user-facing features; we should expect to see Cisco accelerate Webex innovation though the end of year and going into 2023. However, it’s also important to keep a focus on what the people who need to run the systems require. If deploying and managing any tech solution is too difficult, IT pros will find another option, even if the user-facing features are best in class.