Cisco IME: changing communications pathways?

I noticed this products several monts ago, but with the release of v8.5 I decided to investigate in more detail. I’m not going to into the new features and details, just what it does and how it can impact on the Telecommunications market.

What really is Cisco® Intercompany Media Engine (IME)?
Imagine that you have a network device that can find you the best and cheapest route to establish a phone call, from your company to the other side of the world using your internet link but in a secure way? IME does that and not only for VoIP, it can also route presence, video and collaboration features: an UC open  federation enabler, bridging individual company UC private networks.
The fact is that companies are generally interconnected by PSTN networks of Telecom providers, even if have a full VoIP solutions connecting their regional offices (usually with WAN connectivity. Some already take advantage of Voice and Video over IP, by configuring SIP trunks between their offices, clients or partners in diferent locations. IME established SIP trunks in a dynamic, self-learning way.

Technically this communications requires a CUCM 8.x (early versions require an SME8), IME 8.x, and ASA 6.3. You configure CUCM to the PSTN, IME and ASA (connected to a WAN and/or Internet link).
Doug Mohney has a very good description how IME works:
“Configured, the IME is turned on and ‘publishes’ its list of phone number to a virtual distributed hash table (DHT) run on a peer-to-peer basis  among all the IMEs around the world. Cisco says that the DHT should be able to handle up to 10 billion phone numbers.
The fun begins when IME-using company A and company B make a phone call between the two of them. The first phone call is routed through the PSTN and after the call is completed, a call agent looks at the number at some point and does a lookup to see if the called number can be routed over IP, referencing the number against the DHT. If it can, then the calling IME looks up the ID of the called IME and the two then go through a ‘shared secret’ validation process using the details of the call (call length, start time, stop time, and caller ID).
If validation works out, then the two boxes share information, including a cryptographic ‘ticket,’ to set up a virtual SIP trunk to route future calls directly over the internet, rather than defaulting to the PSTN; the crypto ticket is supplied to prevent spam and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks.”
So now the PSTN becomes a secondary route in case of the IME connectivity is unavailable.

This intercompany UC networks are now possible using only Cisco hardware. You cannot interoperate with other manufacturers, but Cisco doesn’t want to limit that and developped a protocol ViPR (Verification Involving PSTN Reachability) that submitted as a draft standard for IETF, so if adopted by the UC community we might be seeing the evolution communication networks.

None of this ideas are new: we can use the open federation to connect Microsoft OCS/Lync Edge servers, there are several videoconference gateways providers that allow companies to communicate, Skype and some P2P commercial based networks already try to give companies voice and video access using internet links… 
The breakthrough is that we have an engagement of a market leader and that will make things noticiable and will give companies some confidence about implementing communications without having expenses for PSTN calls.

For Cisco it is a natural and smart evolution, but what impact will have with his relation to the Telecom operators allies? Maybe, but:

  • It is not an immediate disruption and there will be time for everyone to adjust;
  • Telecom operators already converging their networks to IP, so the next step is to become IMS providers which IME or other solutions will integrate;
  • Voice carriers are already competing with IP networks if not adopting.

If you want to know more detail about IME you can visit the Cisco product page, watch the Techwise TV show (free subscription) or see this demo video.

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