Cisco Gets the XMPP Message, Buys Jabber

By Kurt Cagle
September 22, 2008 | Comments: 1

Up until 1998, the world of instant messaging was a closed one in which each vendor - AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and so forth, each had specialized, proprietary instant messaging formats that worked within their respective communities but didn't extend beyond them. If you were on MSN and you wanted to chat with someone on Yahoo, you were out of luck - you had to agree (via email, how embarassing) to use one or other IM client.

That year, a group of open source developers led by Jeremy Miller created a new instant messaging application called Jabber, releasing the specification on the web and creating a new organization, the Jabber Software Foundation, in order to administer these standards under the aegis of the IETF. The core of these specification was the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (or XMPP), an XML based communication standard that was seen as the HTTP of the IM world - indeed, XMPP can piggyback on HTTP as necessary, making it easier to send XMPP messages across the HTTP port 80 rather than trying to negotiate other ports in a firewall.

The XMPP protocol very quickly found its way into other open source IM systems (such as GAIM) and in August, 2005, Google adopted the XMPP protocol as the foundation for GoogleTalk, including support for server-to-server communication in late 2006. The protocol, seen as a neutral, vendor-independent standard, was then picked up by the other IM vendors as calls for them to find some way of communicating between IM systems rose to a thunder-pitch.

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The Jabber organization spun off a corporation in 2000, Jabber.com, in order to handle business and monetization aspects of Jabber, while the open source foundation itself became the XMPP Standards Foundation. As such Jabber.com has become one of the key players in the XMPP space, with a number of products such as the Jabber Extensible Communications Platform (Jabber XCP) and the JabberNow appliance.

On September 19, 2008, Cisco Systems, Inc announced that they were buying Jabber.com. The move serves to highlight the fact that Cisco itself, long known for the sale of routers, network adapters and related infrastructure products, has also quietly been pushing its way into the messaging infrastructure space. Indeed, the company has itself been one of the more consistent funders of the XMPP Standards Foundation and has been building its expertise up in the XMPP space, starting around 2005.

Cisco's purchase of Jabber.com has some immediate effects - it adds products such Jabber XCP and JabberNow into the their product line, and it adds a considerable core of top XMPP developers and project managers into the Cisco fold, among other things. However, the acquisition of Jabber may also have a number of longer term ramifications for Cisco ... and for the Jabber/XMMP community.

First, XMPP has rapidly become the default protocol for not only instant messaging, but for a host of other messaging formats that are potentially far afield from social networking. XMPP messaging systems, unlike those of HTTP, provide for transactional integrity and confirmation and are well optimized for high bandwidth communications. XMPP is becoming one of the preferred vehicles for handling the VOIP metadata back-channel, and as such is the backbone for applications such as Skype. Moreover XMPP is appearing in places such as processing of syndication messages used by Yahoo for Flickr; because of the protocol's messaging architecture, XMPP based transport of Atom messages can be handled at thousands of times the speed of corresponding HTTP/REST based transport, with the consequent scaling factor.

With the acquisition of Jabber, Cisco is now well positioned to start pushing XMPP into firmware, not just for dedicated messaging routers but also for more generalized routers and systems ... including mobile chipsets and network adapters. Firmware routing of XMPP in turn could proved a radical boost to the idea of using XMPP as a key protocol for just-in-time communication systems, such as emergency first-responder networks (police, EMTs and rescue services). Moreover, since XMPP can gateway into most existing IM networks, such a system provides an interesting bridge between IM, SMS and similar messaging services (such as twitters).

It's also intriguing to look at the effect that XMPP integrated in firmware will have an ancillary technologies, such as XML parsers and XSLT transformers or, perhaps more intriguing, XQuery engines. Indeed, one possibility that comes to mind is a (perhaps scaled down) XQuery engine that can be used to write filters for XMPP messages that can in turn direct XMPP traffic, possibly in conjunction with XQuery router modules. Such a system could also potentially be used to build bridge scripts that would convert XMPP messages into SMTP mail messages or SMS formatted content.

Ultimately, however, it is likely that Cisco sees this acquisition as a way of building appliances that could be incorporated into enterprise level systems to provide a messaging infrastructure that can work both at the human level and at the machine level. There is some evidence to suggest that the SOAP/WSDL based infrastructure, while generally successful in the financial sector, have not penetrated other enterprise areas to the same degree, in part because of the relatively poor performance of SOAP-based messaging and in part because of the complexity involved in trying to build SOAP systems that can also integrate well with existing web interfaces.

I'd contend that XMPP may in fact be emerging to fill this void, and as such may end up acting as a transport protocol for SOAP or may even replace SOAP-centric messaging altogether. Indeed, the positioning of Cisco as the holder to the XMPP keys may work well in pushing Cisco originated technology into the enterprise in support of this.

Either way, it's obvious that Cisco gets the message about the importance of XMPP to the future of the infrastructure of the web, and is placing its bets on the future of Jabber.

Kurt Cagle is Online Editor for O'Reilly Media. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.


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1 Comment

Nice article Kurt, a view beyond XMPP IM is always a fascinating read.

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