Start-ups offer cool tools to ease IT's pain

A peek at five tech start-ups shows the types of tools your IT department might be using soon. (Think 'cloud.')

If you want to know what IT tools and technologies you'll be using in a few years, it pays to keep an eye on enterprise technology start-ups.

Seasoned VCs and entrepreneurs agree that IT start-ups looking for funding should have an offering that makes the CIO's life easier -- and it had better not involve lots of capital investments on software installations and supporting infrastructure. Instead, backers are looking for software-as-a-service, cloud-based and mobile innovations that improve the IT cost proposition.

"There are too many inefficiencies that exist in large enterprise software, such as platforms that have to be upgraded, and that translates into a lot of money for IT," says Will Indest, vice president of venture development at Tech Columbus in Ohio. Indest says that many companies just don't have the budget for large software and hardware buildouts -- especially when there are options like SaaS and cloud storage.

That's a sentiment echoed by Maria Cirino, co-founder of venture capital firm .406 Ventures in Boston, who calls the move to cloud computing the biggest shift since client/server computing took hold in the '90s. "We see small to midsize companies embracing cloud right away, and large enterprises will soon," she says, adding that companies stand to gain too much economic leverage to ignore the trend.

Cirino says she's been culling her stack of prospects to find companies that focus on securing the cloud, because she feels that's the biggest obstacle for larger enterprises. For instance, she's working with a pre-beta start-up called CloudCop that will provide monitoring and analytics for companies that want to move their data to the public cloud. She says that CloudCop aims to provide an audit trail for businesses facing compliance regulations.

Start-ups and more established vendors are offering cloud-based tools that can help IT departments with everything from chargeback to backing up data that users enter on social media sites. Industry experts say the timing for these services is good as IT shops warm to the idea of having their infrastructure and data off-site.

Deborah Magid, director of software strategy for IBM Venture Capital Group in San Mateo, Calif., is closely watching the cloud-based storage arena. She predicts that many large enterprises will adopt a hybrid approach to storing data, where some is on-site and some is in the cloud. However, she notes that vendors still need to work out the speed of search and retrieval, as well as international regulatory issues -- areas ripe for innovation.

Mobile is another key market for successful IT start-ups, says Tech Columbus' Indest. If a start-up looking for funding approaches him without a mobile component that addresses the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and other devices, he says, "it's just not a good prospect."

What are the good prospects? Computerworld has gathered snapshots of five start-ups that are bringing hassle-saving IT products and services to the enterprise. They run the gamut from mobile device management to database virtualization, but all are aimed at alleviating the myriad pain points, including purchasing and managing in-house infrastructure, that IT faces today. And even if you don't end up using these specific products, chances are you'll check out something similar within the next year or so.

Cloud-based IT resource tracking: Apptio

For the past few years, IT departments have been under pressure to move from being a cost center to being a service provider for the enterprise. This means tracking business units' usage of IT resources, including labor, hardware, software, power and cooling.

CIOs and other IT managers often develop bills of services using a combination of spreadsheets, business intelligence software, asset management systems and, in some cases, blind estimates, according to Apptio co-founder, president and CEO Sunny Gupta.

"IT executives are trying to manage IT without any real way to measure costs, quality of service and the actual value of IT products. They have management tools to measure individual aspects of IT -- such as the network, bandwidth and mobile devices -- but not as a holistic view," he says.

Apptio's SaaS Technology Business Management (TBM) Solution Suite promises to give IT teams and corporate executives a consolidated look at all IT investments and their associated costs, showing the financial impact of client, infrastructure and application services, says Gupta. Authorized users can input data, run reports, view data via customized dashboards, or dispatch alerts based on predefined thresholds, such as a business unit's storage usage.

IT also can create a "bill of IT" for each business unit to show its exact service consumption. Gupta says this is critical for forecasting, aligning budgets and developing an accurate chargeback program.

For instance, using the TBM, a company might realize that employees are using 10 applications that perform similar functions. By standardizing on one, it could gain significant cost efficiencies in terms of volume pricing and streamlined support. Also, the TBM offers what-if scenarios so organizations can weigh the pros and cons of granular business decisions, such as moving storage from the data center to the cloud or increasing the use of telepresence.

At a glance

Company: Apptio

Enterprise product: TBM Solution Suite

Pricing: Starts at $100,000 per year, depending on the number of users and modules deployed.

Funded by: Andreesen Horowitz, Cisco Systems, Greylock Partners, Madrona Venture Group and Shasta Ventures.

Gupta says that the Starbucks coffee chain started using the TBM and discovered that the laptops it had deployed to cut desktop expenses were actually costing more because of battery replacements and support issues. Armed with this information, the company was able to change its warranties and help desk strategies to extract the savings it had initially anticipated.

Mark Gibbs, CEO of Gibbs Universal Industries (GUI), a consultancy in Ventura, Calif., and a Network World columnist, says that as the data center becomes more complex, "IT resource tracking is as important as ever." Using SaaS offers benefits such as easily deployed add-ons and instant feature updates based on requests and what-ifs that other companies use, he says.

However, he warns that IT teams must test how data gets into and out of these hosted systems to ensure that they interoperate smoothly with the tools that will feed data into them, and that the information used is accurate in real time.

Cloud storage and backup for Web apps: Backupify

Under strict scrutiny to make data recoverable and secure, IT is faced with an ever-growing challenge: controlling all the data that users generate in Web applications such as e-mail, social media sites, and document-sharing and collaboration tools.

Enterprise Strategy Group senior analyst Lauren Whitehouse calls this issue the "Achilles' heel" for most organizations in this era of third-party hosted applications and cloud storage. "When IT owns and operates applications, they are responsible to make sure that the application and data are available, which includes employing backup/recovery processes and other high-availability technology. Now that more organizations are outsourcing applications, the issue of downtime and data loss is getting exposed," she says.

At a glance

Company: Backupify

Enterprise product:Backupify Pro 500

Pricing: Starts at $19.99 per month for 10 users; additional users are $3 per month each. Includes both a social media account backup module and Google Apps domain backup.

Funded by: Avalon Ventures, First Round Capital, General Catalyst, Lowercase Capital, Betaworks and several individual investors.

This is particularly a concern, she says, because many online service providers don't have well-defined service-level agreements. Whitehouse calls services like Backupify "an insurance policy."

Backupify is SaaS that backs up data from Basecamp, Facebook, Gmail, Google Docs, Twitter and other online applications to Amazon's S3 storage cloud network. "IT struggles because users are creating data in all these silos around the Web, and that data is exposed to hacking and viruses. It's also prone to loss from human error," says Backupify CEO Rob May. By centralizing user data on Amazon's environment, IT managers can apply security and deduplication policies for compliance without building out their own storage infrastructure, he says.

With Google Apps backup, IT registers the accounts to store in Backupify and receives e-mails confirming each completed backup, as well as access to archives and downloads. The social media backup module works similarly; IT can register each service and user it wants backed up.

Backupify is appealing to companies beholden to data-retention standards, such as those in financial services and healthcare, because it enables them to have the benefits of social media and Web-based applications without increased risk, May says.

Mobile device management: Klomptek

One of the most immediate needs IT managers have today is controlling mobile devices in the enterprise. Tracking and securing lost and stolen mobile devices has been difficult for IT, but with many of these smartphones and tablets having access to corporate data, the ability to locate them, lock them down and erase them if they go missing is critical.

"Getting a handle on mobile device management is becoming an increasing priority for many organizations, particularly if they have access to sensitive data or functionality," says Scott Crawford, managing director of security and risk management for Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), a consultancy in Boulder, Colo.

At a glance

Company: Klomptek

Enterprise product: Track and Protect

Pricing: Free to download the application. Prepaid packages are available -- for instance, 10 commands cost $5.99, and 45 commands cost $19.99, depending on geographic region.

Funded by: Privately funded by founders.

Klomptek developed Track and Protect to secure IT's investment in mobile devices and the data stored on them, says founder and CEO Robert Harmsen. An online service, Track and Protect can be managed centrally by IT or individually by users.

Once a device is registered with Track and Protect, IT or a user can go to a personal, secure Web page to take steps to control and locate it if it has been lost or stolen. From that page, which can also be accessed via mobile phone browsers, a user can send SMS-based commands to lock their phone, silence it so it doesn't attract attention, use GPS (if available) to locate it, or have the phone call another number and amplify the microphone so the user can hear the surroundings. For instance, the user might recognize a train station or children playing in a park.

Other options include remotely activating the phone's camera so the user can see the phone's location or take a picture of the thief, sending an SMS message to the phone announcing a reward for its safe return, and accessing the phone's history, including numbers dialed and data sent.

Track and Protect enables remote lockdown of the device based on personal preferences, such as three failed password attempts. IT or a user can remotely wipe a compromised phone, and the service can automatically grab and back up stored data from the phone before it is wiped.

Harmsen says Track and Protect is different from its competitors in that it uses an encrypted SMS transport layer to carry out all these functions. Regardless of the device's platform, Track and Protect can interact with the phone, even if it's been turned off, the SIM card has been removed or the battery is low.

Track and Protect is available in 190 countries, including the U.S. The company is targeting countries where phone theft is prevalent, such as Russia, Brazil, China and Indonesia. "Say you were traveling abroad and lost your phone. You could go to an Internet cafe, log into your Track and Protect Web page, and locate it or secure the data," Harmsen says.

"Hosted mobile device management may offer an advantage when the hosted service can be accessed from the same public networks as these mobile devices," says EMA's Crawford. "This potentially improves the ability to reach and manage these devices wherever found."

Database virtualization: Delphix

One task that can consume a lot of IT's time, not to mention data center infrastructure, is database cloning. Test and development, data warehouse, and support teams, among others, request copies of production databases on a regular basis. Each time, IT must provision server and storage resources to house all these database copies.

At a glance

Company: Delphix

Enterprise product: Delphix Server

Pricing: Starts at $2,000 a month for an annual subscription.

Funded by: Greylock Partners and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

Adding to the problem, the data becomes stale almost as soon as it is duplicated, and it can be difficult for IT to track the different versions in existence to delete them and re-absorb the underlying resources.

Start-up Delphix has developed Delphix Server to virtualize databases. Essentially, the software creates full read/write clones of Oracle 10 and 11 production databases. These clones are automatically generated from abstracted snapshots and log files, and they require a tenth of the storage space compared to physical databases, according to Karthik Rau, vice president of products and marketing.

The virtual database regularly syncs with the production database; only changed data is sent to the virtual database, reducing the infrastructure workload.

Overall, Delphix aims to consolidate data center resources and speed application testing, development, deployment, management and upgrade cycles.

In addition, Delphix's secure self-service portal lets IT set policies and allot storage so users can fulfill their own requests. For instance, if a developer needs a copy of the company's ERP database, he can provision it himself. This guarantees fast access to the freshest data, and when his project is complete, the virtual database can be deleted and the resources re-absorbed.

Rau says perhaps most importantly, Delphix Server ensures data accuracy and reduces production environment risk as users can create and recover the virtual databases from any point in time. Using "true" replicas of the databases increases the overall quality and stability of the application in production.

"Since creating virtual databases requires no additional storage capacity and is fully automated through Delphix Server, developers can spin up virtual databases on the fly and create significantly more database environments with little to no additional infrastructure investment," he says.

GUI's Gibbs says the ability to virtualize databases is valuable for IT organizations. "For a large database like Oracle, being able to just click and spin up another version reduces the drag on IT and would let developers get on with their jobs quickly," he says.

Cloud-based enterprise testing environments: CloudShare

A major frustration that IT teams face is submitting requests for proposals and clearing their schedules as vendor after vendor comes on-site to engineer a proof of concept. CloudShare aims to eliminate that hassle.

Instead of building on-premises proofs of concept, technology vendors using SaaS-based CloudShare Enterprise, such as Cisco, can provide IT teams with a URL where they can collaborate to build proofs of concept in the cloud. Using detailed specs from IT teams about their environment, vendors can create a working model of their product.

"CloudShare enables on-premise systems to become SaaS," says co-founder and Vice President of Products Ophir Kra-Oz. "We replicate and clone hands-on copies of the environment and take it to the cloud."

Then, IT and vendors can test-drive and tweak the product together without having to disrupt the corporate network. CloudShare supports heterogenous and complex networked environments, and the user companies' own data and local on-premises systems can be integrated with the cloud environment, Kra-Oz says. "Customers can do everything they could using [CloudShare] as if the software were on-premises."

Conceivably, IT teams could demo multiple vendors' wares simultaneously, speeding the decision-making and ultimately the deployment process.

Julie Craig, research director at EMA, says cloud-based proofs of concept are highly beneficial for IT. "Companies that can do proof of concept in the cloud can save the consuming companies millions of dollars in hardware investments. They also can provide the complex technology engineering and related staff, which can be difficult to find," she says. And once the IT team at the customer company provisions its cloud-based environment, these resources are available to them anywhere, anytime, she adds.

At a glance

Company: CloudShare

Enterprise product: CloudShare Enterprise

Pricing: Starts at $500 per month and is based on price per 1GB RAM per month.

Funded by: Charles River Ventures, Gemini Capital and Sequoia Capital.

Kra-Oz says this is not only a benefit for IT departments, but also for the vendors themselves, since they don't have to commit their best engineers to travel from site to site. Instead, they can work with several sales prospects from any location, which alleviates the wear and tear that comes with travel. "Rather than having to set up each site visit, the engineer can reuse parts of the network configurations," Kra-Oz says.

Proofs of concept are not the only use Kra-Oz sees for CloudShare. He says the environment is also suitable for interactive training among distributed IT teams. For instance, if a company is installing a new ERP system, IT staff can use the cloud-based model to familiarize themselves with the software's features. This saves companies from having to fly in employees and carve out a part of the network for testing. CloudShare lets IT get to know the environment, get feedback from users, and identify potential problems before products and their supporting infrastructures are purchased and brought on-site, Kra-Oz says.

Planning ahead

As IT departments head deeper into 2011, many no doubt will be looking for new technologies that speed deployment cycles, help protect their current investments in mobile technology, and avoid costly hardware and software investments. And that means cloud. Enterprise Strategy Group's 2011 IT Spending Intentions Survey, for instance, found that organizations in cost reduction/containment mode indicated a significant increase in their willingness to consider cloud computing services or SaaS as a way to control IT costs in 2011.

However, experts warn IT to proceed with caution. EMA's Crawford says companies should take the time to examine the risks involved with handing data over to a third-party cloud or SaaS provider, and to learn as much as possible about how they protect data and where the provider's responsibility for security ends and the customer's begins.

GUI's Gibbs agrees, saying that while new technologies that make full use of the cloud may seem like fabulous opportunities, that is only the case if the organization has confidence that the provider can adequately protect its crown jewels.

Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology writer in the Boston area. Contact her at sgittlen@verizon.net.

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Computerworld (US)

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