On May 17th, Meraki “put a quarter up” with their brand new Meraki Communications platform and its hardware star, the MC74 IP phone.

mc74

The Meraki Communications launch device: the MC74 IP phone.

To date, most people know Meraki best for their MR-series wireless access points and “Dashboard,” their industry-leading cloud-based network management system.  Over time, Meraki added more capabilities and hardware to their portfolio, including routing, switching and security, but the focus historically lay with networking and related technologies.  Meraki Communications (MC) represents both a shift and a new frontier for the company.  Similar to Meraki’s launch of a mobility management platform in 2014, MC grows the company’s offerings from “the network” to “applications on top of the network,” a move up the value food chain for Meraki and customers alike.

They’ve done it in style, as well.  The Meraki MC74 IP phone, their flagship device, sets a new standard for quality collaboration hardware (see our unboxing video below).  Despite the crowding of the collaboration market, especially with cloud-based “Unified Communications as a Service” (UCaaS) providers, Meraki picked a good time to hit the “start” button, and comes to the game with plenty of “special moves” other challengers will be hard-pressed to match.
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It takes passion and attention to detail to develop truly great hardware, and Meraki have risen to Apple-like heights with the beautiful MC74 IP phone, their flagship device for MC. I’ve produced the following “unboxing” video for your viewing pleasure:

For those that didn’t watch the video, a few highlights:

  • Robust packaging with nice “presentation” when you open the box
  • Sleek phone design, with a “foot-stand” to keep cords from getting wrapped around the phone
  • 7” display panel using 1280×800 resolution for a retina-esque ~215ppi
  • Decent “heft” to the handset, with a long cord in the box
  • Wall mount hardware, including screw/anchor kit, in the box

The phone offers the usual call control features:

  • Handset and speakerphone operation (but no off-hook dial-tone!)
  • Call
  • Volume and Mute
  • Hold
  • Transfer
  • Ad-hoc conferencing
  • Directory
  • Visual voicemail (including greetings)
  • Extension and PSTN dialing (with PSTN contract)

Though the phone feature set may be a bit short at release (just the call control minimum basics), I personally think this can be explained by a somewhat different mindset at Meraki compared to other legacy vendors.

As I see it, Meraki seems to have come at this product from a much more new-school “startup” product development attitude/point-of-view – they’ve created a “minimum viable product” (if you will) that seems to follow the Pareto principle (20 percent of telephony features drive 80 percent of the use cases).  In this mindset, there follows a process of continuous iteration, testing and feedback to grow the features of the product to meet the needs of customers.  This is something Meraki have done before with other products, and it makes sense, though the “minimum viable” threshold can be up for debate.  And you can see this in action already: since launch, Meraki have added new features such as voicemail-to-email forwarding.

If you believe in the process, however (and I do), Meraki have set themselves up for success by sticking with an almost entirely “software defined” device – there are just three “hard keys” on the device: volume up, volume down and mute.  This makes the MC74 very similar to an iPhone or Android phone – the device offers the minimum hard keys and retains a lot of flexibility for adding additional features in software.  Compared to other vendor’s IP phones with their many, many hard keys and resultant inflexibility, the MC74 represents something new.

Various clues can be found to the underlying phone operating system: if one carefully watches the device during boot, you can see a moment where the screen rotates as if it were a cell phone being turned sideways.  Of course, holding the “mute” key during boot gives the game away: you’ll get an Android “red triangle” boot failure screen.

boot-fail

Android bootloader failure strikes the MC74, intentionally.

Lastly, despite the fact that the MC74 data sheet does not list wireless support, it does list wireless frequencies, strongly implying the hardware carries an as-yet unimplemented wireless capability.  This only makes sense considering Meraki’s strong tradition of wireless networking.

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One great move doesn’t win the game; to back up their flagship phone, Meraki built a communications architecture worthy of the cloud.

Many competitors, new and old, stand guilty of conducting a “lift-and-shift” to create cloud services.  They’ll take software designed to operate in an on-premises environment and put it “in the cloud” with a multi-tenant management layer.  Sometimes the management layer is managing a “single instance” of the formerly “on-premises” software that is shared amongst many customers.  Other times each customer gets their own full deployment (“tenant”) of formerly “on-premises” software and the management layer manages them all.  Both models suffer from drawbacks related to scalability, flexibility and service reliability, not to mention potential for future feature development.  And they smack of a “me too” laziness, rather than a “build for the future” attitude.

Meraki did the hard thing that pays off from the word “go” – they built a “cloud-native” communications platform able to take full advantage of everything “being cloud” can offer.  Scalability, flexibility and service reliability all increase in “cloud-native” designs, benefiting both Meraki and their customers.  Such a design also gives Meraki a lot of flexibility to add innovative new features quickly and easily, rather than trapping their platform (and customers) with the poor design decisions of yesteryear.  One would expect nothing less of a pioneer in cloud-based networking.

mc-architectureThe MC architecture, as if drawn on a paper napkin, by your humble author.

Meraki also put their well-honed network knowledge to good use to implement advanced technical features in the MC architecture.

For example, Quality of Service (QoS) is essential for any Voice over IP deployment.  QoS ensures the network properly prioritizes real-time communications (such as voice calls) to prevent call quality issues.  Without QoS, even something as simple as watching streaming video or syncing a folder of pictures to a cloud service could negatively impact call quality, especially on lower-bandwidth connections.  Implementing QoS is fortunately a snap on Meraki-based networks – you manage your network and your communications from the same place after all (more on Meraki Dashboard in a bit).  This is a strength few other UCaaS providers can claim.  (Meraki also, of course, provides documentation for QoS for non-Meraki networks.)

Meraki also implemented Interactive Connectivity Establishment (ICE) in their platform, a key technology for overcoming Network Address Translation (NAT) issues encountered by cloud-based real-time communications that traverse the Internet.  ICE-enabled devices (such as the MC74) can discover and signal to the remote call party their pre-NAT IP address (known as the “host” address) as well as their post-NAT “public” IP address (known as the “reflexive” address), making it possible to setup media sessions for calls in the most direct, efficient manner possible.  This leads to lower bandwidth costs and reduced potential for packet loss over the open Internet.  Put another way, a call between two MC74 phones in the same office need not “trombone” media packets out to the Internet, through the cloud, and back again.

ice-diagram Interactive Connectivity Establishment (ICE) in action, as if drawn on the back of an envelope, by your humble author.

Lastly, Meraki’s iWAN technology for Meraki MX security appliances can further optimize the quality of calls based on real-time network conditions.  With iWan, the Meraki MX security appliances support dual uplinks in an active-active mode and perform dynamic path selection based on latency/loss network metrics.  When combined with Meraki Communications, the MX iWAN technology can select the optimal path for real-time communications in real-time, ensuring the best possible quality for MC74 calls that traverse the Internet.  Few other players in the UCaaS space can match this capability.

iwan-diagramIntelligent WAN (iWAN) in action, as if diagrammed on a whiteboard, by your humble author.

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Meraki come to the game with many advantages relative to both the old-school aces and the new challengers that will allow them to climb “the board” quickly.  The finishing move: one cannot overstate Meraki’s long experience with cloud-delivered, cloud-scale and “cloud-simplified” services, all rooted in the Meraki Dashboard. Dashboard and all that it represents gives Meraki an advantage not easily matched by competitors.  Communications fits naturally into the Dashboard model with MC74 devices assigned to “Networks” representing physical and logical segmentation of the Enterprise network, while behind the scenes Meraki’s cloud management enables services and devices to interact effortlessly.  The existing Meraki customer base can take advantage of these features immediately, while new customers can get a feel for “what could be” in a simple network and communications environment managed from a single pane of glass – a very appealing proposition.

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It’s worth stressing again that Meraki Communications arrives in a crowded and competitive market.  Now that they’ve brought their “minimum viable product” to market, they’ll need to iterate quickly to capitalize on their initial and potential future advantages.  But out of the gate, all the basics are there and, if your needs fall squarely into or nearly into these Pareto-principle-derived features, it’s ready to go.  I’m looking forward to see what the new challenger, Meraki Communications, can do with their “startup-mindset” in a field that needs can use some disruption.

If Meraki Communications interests you, contact your CDW account manager for additional information. If you don’t have an account manager, use this form to get connected.

Lastly, for the latest in collaboration trends, check out BizTech Magazine to stay on the cutting edge.

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