June 4, 2009

rPath Makes Applications Portable

rPath is a startup with a bold idea: portable applications that can be deployed and maintained anywhere on any platform or any target: physical servers, hypervisors, or the cloud. Automatically, with no manual configuration or certification required.

The four-year-old Raleigh, NC-based company, which recently brought onboard a new CEO, got its first foothold among ISVs, who use its technology to create and deploy customized applications. Although ISVs (including some big names like IBM, SAP and EMC) remain the bulk of rPath’s existing customer base, rPath’s major growth is coming now from large corporations that are using rPath internally make IT more efficient and stretch internal resources, according to Jake Sorofman, rPath’s vice president of marketing.

“Enterprises are under great cost pressure and are looking for ways to automate application deployment and maintenance,” Sorofman explained. “And we are an application factory. We automate ready-to-run systems for the three environments.”

rPath’s app-centric approach not only cuts IT costs and simplifies deployments to multiple platforms, but it bridges the gap between application development, whose increasing complexity and sophistication increases the maintenance and tracking headaches for IT operations when applications have to be moved, scaled, or provisioned, Sorofman said.

rPath was hatched after ex-Red Hatter Erik Troan started mulling over the problems he saw first-hand in large-scale deployments, problems like applications breaking, hitting the scalability wall, or sprawling out of control. The solution began to emerge.

“We thought about how version control and source code management could solve large scale deployment problems... and thought application deployments as a unit made sense,” especially in large data centers, Troan said.

The only challenge was that Troan’s concept completely upended the existing, all-purpose horizontal infrastructure stack (OS, database, libraries, application server, etc.) that must support applications with widely varying requirements. In its place, Troan proposed a sleeker, vertical, customized, app-centric layer with just the application and the specific runtime elements or dependencies (JeOS or Just Enough operating system, middleware and other components) that it needed to function.

With the aid of venture funding, Troan and former Red Hat colleague Billy Marshall officially launched the company in 2005 and, a year later, released its two complementary products: rBuilder for creating and deploying application packages and the Lifecycle Management Platform for provisioning, updates and backups.

To date, the company has received $25 million in venture funding and won some 60 paying customers. Two million others have downloaded the free, Internet version of rBuilder, which has created “a lot of noise in the marketplace” and been a “demand generation tool” for the full product, which is needed behind a firewall, Troan said. As of six months ago, rBuilder had been used to build 42 percent of the Amazon Machine Images for Amazon EC2, representing thousands of instances, he said.

The advantages of the rPath approach are many, Sorofman said. For starters, the application packages require no manual configuration or tuning, a very time-intensive IT task. In addition, updates to one layer of the stack won’t cause breakage in the others, a problem that causes a continuous, non-productive cycle of application maintenance. Finally, the application packages can be assembled on the fly, controlled, and copied in a repeatable manner. And a customized application package only needs to include the specific OS components, middleware and other elements required to run that individual application, he said.

In addition, unlike a static “golden image,” rPath’s dynamic golden image reflects the current state of the application, including updates or patches, which makes it easier for IT to perform less disruptive, incremental changes instead of waiting for major updates that might start a cascade of additional problems throughout the stack, Sorofman said. And because rPath’s application packages only include the elements that it actually requires, IT staffs don’t waste time patching flaws in code that is extraneous to their particular applications, added Troan.

The bottom line: big efficiencies and a measurable ROI.

“rPath doubles the efficiency of internal IT,” he said. “It’s a pretty impressive number.”

rPath’s closest competitor, which uses an alternative approach to achieve similar objectives, is BMC Software’s BladeLogic, he said.

Declining to be specific about rPath’s financial balance sheet, Troan said the company remains financially “on plan,” with enough money in the bank to operate for two years. rPath did reduce its employees from 40 to 28 during last fall’s economic plunge but has continued hiring, with its headcount now back up to 30. In addition, rPath recently replaced Marshall, who resigned voluntarily earlier this year to pursue more cloud-focused opportunities. The new CEO is Michael Torto, the former head of Centive, a Massachusetts software company recently acquired by Xactly Corp.

Torto topped the field of candidates because of his background in the deployment of embedded kiosk applications, his experience taking a company public and his knowledge of key markets, Troan said. Torto also was a good cultural fit, shared the same perspective on partnerships and showed he wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions, Troan said.

Over the next year, Torto’s priorities will be forging business partnerships with companies with complementary tools and growing rPath’s customer base, building, in particular, on the company’s recent traction with large enterprises, he said.

rPath currently uses its own rPath Linux for customer projects and also runs on Centos, Ubuntu and Novell SUSE Linux but not Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the most popular Linux distro, nor, of course, Windows. To date, Red Hat has not allowed rPath access to its binaries to create a stripped JeOS (Just Enough Operating System) for its application packages; which, of course, Microsoft would not allow, either. There might be an alternative way to run on RHEL or Windows without reconstructing the binaries but, first, rPath would have to determine if there is sufficient customer interest, Troan said.

“There’s a massive Linux market in large data centers that, disproportionately, don’t like to pay for software,” Troan said. “We are investigating Windows and talking to Red Hat but, so far, we have enough opportunity out there.”

Ultimately, rPath’s goal is to run on any platform, but the company must prioritize expansions based on customer demand, Sorofman added.

Troan foresees big changes ahead in how companies manage and deploy applications that will lower cost and increase reliability. However, unless companies change their current practices, they simply will be exchanging lower hardware costs for higher management costs, he warned.

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