Lessons learned from the 10 hottest technology start ups of 2008

There are few clearer bellwethers as to the imminent direction of technology than where venture capitalists put their money.

They’re about making money, so they look for industry patterns they think will lead to sure bets. And that means they invest where the tech industry has begun to coalesce its thinking, not on exotic new science fiction. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, VCs have invested a total of $57 billion in startups — mostly tech ones — in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

InfoWorld also tracks tech startups but through a different lens. Our concern isn’t about a financial investment but about real technology innovation — what will drive technology forward in ways that could revolutionize some aspect of business IT? That’s why for the third year, we have selected the hottest technology startups, with the emphasis on “technology.” What did we seek? At least one of three qualities: truly new technologies, innovative approaches within existing technology areas, and technologies applied in new ways to solve different problems.

Here are our winners for 2008, in alphabetical order.

Hot Tech Startup: Aerohive Networks

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: A centrally managed wireless network built around a controllerless architecture that can scale to thousands of access points.

Business problem addressed: As wireless networking becomes more central to the enterprise, wireless LANs need to become much faster, more scalable, and more resilient at a reasonable price point. By incorporating authentication, access control, and other functions into the access point, Aerohive promises greater flexibility and lower deployment costs than controller-based wireless LAN solutions. http://www.itbusiness.ca/it/client/en/ComputerCanada/News.asp?id=42739

What the technology does: There’s long been a gap between so-called fat and thin access points in the world of wireless LANs. The earliest wireless LANs, in which fat (aka intelligent) access points handled every facet of communication between the client and the network, were quickly supplanted by a different configuration — thinner (aka dumb) access points managed by a centralized controller. That’s the architecture in general use today, and most IT staffers would assume that it’s a given. Vendors have beefed up the intelligence of access points over the years, enabling them to carry out an increasingly sophisticated range of marching orders — but those marching orders continue to come from a wireless LAN controller. Enter Aerohive, which has developed a hybrid architecture that features intelligent, linked access points without the use of an expensive controller. Even without that hardware, Aerohive offers centralized management, and the company says its Cooperative Control Wireless LAN Architecture can scale to thousands of access points. Furthermore, the decentralized architecture reduces the number of failure points. Aerohive access points are more expensive than conventional access points, but because there’s no controller to pay for, the total cost of the network is lower, the company says.

How the technology works: The control element of the network, which has lived in the controller for the past few years, goes back into the access point, which Aerohive calls a HiveAP. Simply stated, a hive is a network of access points, generally in the same building. Each access point is aware of the other access points in the network.

Along with distributed control comes fully distributed data, allowing the HiveAP to route data directly to a desired destination without sending it first through a controller. How does this work in practice? When a client logs into the network, the access point builds a quick profile, including its identity, permission rights and so on, using a technology Aerohive calls predictive roaming. Predictive roaming is really an educated guess about which access point a client is likely to access next. When it makes that guess, the access point passes the client’s profile on to a number of nearby access points, which are then ready to accept the client without dropping the signal.

Forward spin: Aerohive expects to ship 802.11n products in July.

Hot tech startup: Cohesive Flexible Technologies

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: Software that builds a base image of a server and reformats it into a chosen virtualization configuration without first building a physical server.

Business problem addressed: How to manage and quickly deploy servers in a complex environment.

What the technology does: Patrick Kerpan, CTO of Cohesive Flexible Technologies, calls it the “more of everything problem.” He notes, “Open source, open standards, virtualization, SOA and clouds are proliferating, needing countless components. An enterprise in the financial sector may have as many as 100 different application stacks.” CohesiveFT’s Elastic Server On Demand assembles virtual machines and deploys them to Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) or creates an implementation of major virtualization formats including EMC VMware, Citrix XenSource, and Parallels. CohesiveFT claims that a deployment can be completed in hours or even minutes. Using CohesiveFT’s management system, IT can then track the deployed component assemblies throughout their lifecycle and log all configuration changes. The server can later be provisioned to another platform.

How the technology works: The company maintains libraries of components, including those from the open source community and software vendors. Customers may add their own proprietary components to the library (for their use only) and construct the image of a virtual application stack. The resulting images are built, encapsulated, given a unique identity and injected with management and integration services. CohesiveFT calls the completed stack an “elastic server.” CohesiveFT uses an add-on to OpenVPN (open source virtual private network) that can connect multiple servers (both physical and virtual) located in various datacenters and hosted at different providers into a single address space.

Forward spin: At the moment, Amazon’s EC2 is the only cloud with a direct connection to CohesiveFT, but expect to see more clouds supported fairly soon, Kerpan says. The company also plans to add management tools as well as support for virtual Linux.

Hot tech startup: Earthmine

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: By using eight cameras that are calibrated in pairs, and processing the images with an algorithm developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Earthmine produces a dataset with many times the information contained in images produced by competitors.

Business problem addressed: How to create street-level, photographic maps containing information that is rich enough to accurately convey the actual spatial relationships between objects on the image.

What the technology does: Earthmine builds photographic images of urban environments. But these aren’t ordinary images. Because they contain so much data, the images can be used to accurately locate any point in the image in relation to any other point in the image.

A microwave network provider, for example, used Earthmine to determine exact lines of sight between towers. “Every square inch of the city is designed, built, maintained, and destroyed every 50 years on average. And for every step of this process, people need information to help guide them when making expensive decisions — such as why should I build a residential unit here, or turn this hotel into a parking lot there,” says Anthony Fassero, founder and co-CEO of the startup.

How the technology works: Like Google Earth, Earthmine mounts cameras on cars and takes pictures of every street and alley in an urban environment. But the Earthmine cars sport eight cameras, synched in pairs, to Google’s one, snapping pictures every 10 meters. Earthmine collects a base layer of 3D panoramic images and builds libraries of the area. Behind each pixel is data that precisely describes latitude, longitude, and elevation. Because the dataset contains information in three dimensions, everything within an image can be accurately located, measured, or modeled using points, lines, or polygons. This data mine can be accessed by users through a Web-based interface that lets them identify, view, and extract geospatial data. The data can be integrated into other applications, such as a GIS (geospatial information system) program, or combined with objects such as an architectural drawing or a map of pipelines in a refinery.

Forward Spin: Earthmine hasn’t mapped much of the world yet, but it hopes to venture further from home. The more cars it uses, the faster the images are captured and processed. One car can map about 90 miles of streets in one day. The company expects to license data and share APIs with customers who will then write their own applications.

Hot tech startup: Montego Networks

Founded: 2007

Tech breakthrough: Montego’s hyperswitch (software plus firewall) uses policy-based switching to route traffic to third-party security applications within the virtual network.

Business problem addressed: Provide security within a virtual network.

What the technology does: Montego regulates traffic among virtual machines, and between the virtual environment and the physical environment. Policies determine which virtual machines may communicate with one another. The product features virtual network partitioning, a firewall, and virtual network discovery capabilities.

How the technology works: Virtual servers are connected to each other via a switch (called a v-switch in VMware environments), which in turn is connected to Montego’s hyperswitch. The switch intercepts traffic from the v-switch and matches the traffic against its security policies. If the traffic is acceptable, it is then routed back to the v-switch and delivered to its final destination. Using proprietary algorithms, the hyperswitch defines policy controls and also routes traffic to third-party security applications. Because each third-party application must only scan selected traffic, instead of all traffic, the application uses fewer resources to do its job, and that improves performance. Identity-based controls can allow or deny a user access to a specific virtual server or allow access to a virtual machine but not to certain content on that machine. Supported security apps include those from Blue Lane, Catbird, Reflex and StillSecure.

Forward spin: Montego says it will add support for Citrix, Microsoft and Virtual Iron virtualization technologies in the third quarter of this year.

Hot tech startup: Perceptive Pixel

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: Light injected into acrylic forms the basis for a breakthrough in touch-screen technology.

Business problem addressed: Improving touch screens to enhance collaboration and improve data display.

What the technology does: If you follow politics on cable news, chances are good that you’ve seen the handiwork of Jeff Han, the founder of Perceptive Pixel. The giant touch screens, walls really, that allow analysts to display massive bytes of graphically rendered data, and then drill down with the touch of a hand, have changed the way politics is reported on television. But that’s only the best known use of the technology. Perceptive Pixel’s biggest customers work in national defense. Details of those deployments are secret, but it’s not hard to imagine a group of combat officers viewing a display of battlefield data. A tap of the finger and the view of a division zooms down to the company level. On the peacetime front, Perceptive Pixel is teaming with a CAD vendor to develop interactive displays of engineering or architectural data on a big screen.

How the technology works: The touch screen on most devices is an ingenuous but relatively simple bit of technology. A transparent material sits over a set of circuits; when touched a circuit closes, sending a signal to the logic. The limitation: The standard touch screen can determine only one point at a time, greatly limiting the amount of information that can be manipulated with each tap. Han, a researcher at New York University, took a very different approach: Light is injected and trapped in an acrylic sheet. When touched, the screen leaks light, which is picked up and measured by an image sensor that then sends data to the logic. Processing, of course, happens off the screen on standard hardware.

Forward spin: How scalable is the technology? After all, very few of us can afford a $100,000 display. Han says we can expect to see smaller versions of his touch walls sold as monitors in the not-too-distant future. Theoretically, the technology could scale down to the size of a handheld, but in addition to the obvious problems of engineering, there is also the problem of input, Han says. Large screens allow for broader motions with each tap; the touch of a palm, for example, can convey much more information then the tip of a finger.

Hot tech startup: Ribbit

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: A multiprotocol, Class 5, soft telephony switch with a development environment for business app integration.

Business problem addressed: Integrating voice and data into business workflow.

What the technology does: Ribbit’s founders like to call their two-year-old startup “Silicon Valley’s first phone company.” But that label hardly tells the story. Ribbit is a software platform that lets developers create voice and telephony applications in a familiar Web application development environment. Once built, those applications can be linked to other Web apps, including SaaS-based CRM from Salesforce.com and other companies.

“Our premise is that cheap dial tone such as VoIP has a place, but it doesn’t solve the business needs of companies to put voice-based data into the workflow,” says co-founder and CEO Ted Griggs. A Salesforce.com developer, for example, used Ribbit’s API to build a mashup that converts voice messages to text and then drops the data into Salesforce CRM. Users can also call into the application remotely to add information or view data. An application engine running on top of Ribbit’s core APIs provides tools to enable features such as single sign-on, billing, or ordering.

How the technology works: Underlying the development environment is a soft telephony switch that allows calls to be initiated and answered on multiple devices — including landlines, mobile phones, VOIP, or a Flash widget on a user’s desktop — and run across standard communication protocols such as SIP, Skype, Google’s XMPP, and the Salesforce Connector. Ribbit’s APIs are open; the switch was tested and certified by Lucent.

The Ribbit API currently delivers more than 40 methods for connecting to the Ribbit service. Developers can use scripts prepared by the company that allow quick development of functions including making calls, receiving calls, listening to, reading, recording, and sending voice messages.

Forward spin: Expect to see Ribbit go beyond sales force automation; integration with vertical applications in finance, real estate, medical, and others is on the way. The company claims that more than 4,000 developers have downloaded the APIs. It will make money through revenue-sharing deals with developers who create viable commercial applications.

Hot tech startup: StackSafe

Founded: 2005 (as Revive Systems)

Tech breakthrough: The first virtualized staging and testing solution that allows meaningful testing of infrastructure changes in a safe environment.

Business problem addressed: Helping determine how changes to infrastructure software affect production.

What the technology does: It tests changes to infrastructure and operations such as patching, infrastructure software upgrades, and changes to settings — but not applications. In effect, it is a virtual sandbox.

How the technology works: StackSafe imports x86-production systems into virtual partitions by performing a full-disk copy during a planned downtime period. It uses the Xen hypervisor to create the virtual partition. Physical and virtual systems are imported and test scenarios composed of open source and proprietary offerings are run. The scenarios test readiness, connectivity, configuration security, and performance. StakeSafe Test Center includes predefined tests and templates. “Test and reporting scenarios, as well as the focus on [infrastructure and operations] groups, are the main differentiators between StackSafe and virtual lab management solutions,” says Gartner analyst Donna Scott.

Forward spin: StackSafe recently added support for Windows Server 2003 environments; at launch only Linux was supported. More environments will be added in the future, says the company.

Hot tech startup: Vertica

Founded: 2005

Tech breakthrough: Vertica combines a column-oriented data structure with a shared-nothing architecture plus aggressive compression to speed queries.

Business problem addressed: Pulling analytic information out of large databases takes too long.

What the technology does: Vertica’s database is structured for analytics and data warehousing in environments with large amounts of non-transactional data. It generally runs with, not instead of, major OLTP databases such as Oracle. Queries run many times faster than in a traditional database.

How the technology works: Traditional databases organize information by row. Vertica organizes data into columns. Organization by column means that when a query needs to access just a few columns of a particular table, only those columns need to be read from disk. By contrast, in a traditional row-oriented database, all values in a table are typically read from disk, which wastes I/O bandwidth, says founder and CTO Michael Stonebraker, the main architect of Postgres and other database innovations. Because Vertica and, say, Oracle structure data differently, a company that oriented its data in a row-oriented database must first use an ETL (extraction, transformation and loading) application to match its data to the Vertica schema. After the old data is copied to Vertica, subsequent changes to the original database are trickled to the Vertica database.

Forward spin: Vertica has just launched a cloud-based offering of its database. Customers can now access, create, and run a Vertica database through Amazon’s EC2 computation service. Data may be stored in Amazon’s S3 storage cloud.

Hot tech startup: V-Kernel

Founded: 2007

Tech breakthrough: Algorithms that analyze data collected on virtual machines and predict future problems based on performance trends.

Business problem addressed: Managing and balancing virtual servers and billing users appropriately for consumption of specific resources.

What the technology does: V-Kernel offers a suite of Java- and AJAX-based appliances to manage virtual servers in EMC VMware ESX environments. Virtual machines, by definition, share hardware resources such as CPU, memory, storage, and network controllers. Resources have to be allocated and often billed. V-Kernel’s software produces a chargeback report that measures the amount of hardware resources consumed by each virtual machine and allocates those costs to users based on cost metrics chosen by administrators. V-Kernel’s Capacity Bottleneck Analyzer predicts shortages of resources on hosts, resource pools, and clusters, and it produces maps showing where virtual machines can be safely added to physical servers.

How the technology works: V-Kernel integrates with VMware’s Virtual Center, pulling data on virtual machines from it, and updating itself as changes are made. (If necessary, the data can be pulled directly from the virtual machine, though that process is more difficult.) It can group services to resources by using VM IDs, and it uses an algorithm to proportionally allocate resources when multiple applications or services share multiple machines. As historical data accumulates, V-Kernel’s algorithms spot and monitor performance and usage trends, and produce reports. Reports can be extended with custom fields.

Forward spin: V-Kernel currently supports only VMware, but other hypervisors, including those from Microsoft and Citrix, will be supported in the future. V-Kernel plans to release five to 10 new virtual appliances this year.

Hot tech startup: Xangati

Founded: 2005

Tech breakthrough: Rapid problem identification technology gathers information on all IP end points and applications by tapping into flow information from Cisco’s NetFlow, or similar protocols, to create behavioral profiles.

Business problem addressed: Reducing the amount of time for IT support to diagnose network problems.

What the technology does: Typical network management packages offer a bottom-up view, from the network to the user. Xangati has turned that paradigm on its head, offering a top-down view, from the user to the network. That’s significant because a slowdown affecting only one or a few users often goes unnoticed by IT, which is instead getting a broad view of network performance. Xangati can be used alongside Hewlett-Packard’s OpenView or IBM’s Tivoli to provide a more granular view in a dashboard.

How the technology works: Effectively, Xangati is an appliance with its own IP address. Rather than gather network information through probes or software agents, Xangati taps into data produced by routers and switches using the Netflow (or similar) protocol. The appliance discovers all IP end points and applications running on them and profiles the end point, including desktops, servers, storage devices, and networked handhelds such as the BlackBerry. The information is put into a database, which then creates a profile of baseline performance over time. Xangati compares the baseline to real-time performance and notifies administrators of problems. The software creates fixed identities, including dynamic ones, for clients.

Forward spin: “Emerging technologies, such as VoIP and video in various forms, are creating new challenges for network management,” says Xangati CEO Alan Robin. His company is working to add problems related to those new technologies to its diagnostic arsenal.

For a list of tech geniuses that altered our world, click here.

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