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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

April 10, 2008 at 6:00 AM

Skytap surfaces with UW-spawned cloud computing technology

One Seattle’s hottest new startups may be a Pioneer Square company started by a group of UW professors and a graduate student with an especially promising thesis project.

The project was the basis of a secretive company called Illumita that they started in mid 2006.

Today the company’s revealing its core product, a new name and a chief executive recruited by investors who funded the company last August.

Now called Skytap, the company is offering an online service called Virtual Lab.

It basically rents out virtual test labs in all sorts of configurations, so software developers won’t have to set up labs themselves. Skytap hosts the labs at its own datacenter, and users access them via browsers.

When testers find bugs in a particular configuration, they can use the service to save a snapshot, share it with software developers and collaborate on fixes.

Likely customers include small to midsize software development companies, software integrators and departments within larger tech companies, according to Scott Roza, who left Hewlett-Packard to become the company’s chief executive on March 1.

The company is licensing its “infrastructure over the web” on a monthly basis, with discounts for companies that sign up for six-month or one-year blocks. It will also sell hourly usage of its virtual machines and charge for storage.

Other possible uses of Skytap’s platform include hosting product demonstrations and product training sessions, or even disaster recovery services.

What’s exciting about the company, though, is that it’s pointing toward the next phase of cloud computing, beyond the horsepower and storage rental services offered today by companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and, as of Monday, Google.

As companies do more of their software development on hosted machines, demand is likely to grow for specialized online applications like Skytap’s.

What I’m wondering is how long Skytap will remain independent, before it’s snapped up by one of the tech giants building their cloud computing application stack.

Amazon is one obvious buyer, although that could be complicated because Jeff Bezos is one of Skytap’s initial investors, along with Madrona Venture Group, Ignition Partners and Washington Research Foundation. They provided $6 million in August.

Roza has seen the consolidation cycle before at iConclude, a Bellevue enterprise software management startup where he ran marketing and business development. It was sold to OpsWare, which in turn was acquired by HP.

But it may take a few years before the cloud computing acquisition wave begins, Roza said: “It’s a very, very new, very immature market.”

Speaking of maturity, Skytap had a few growing pains as it moved from a university project to full blown business and underwent a reorganization over the last few months.

David Richardson, the graduate student who developed the initial technology and served as Illumita’s chief scientist, left and returned to academia but remains a “significant shareholder,” Roza said.

Still on the board are co-founders Hank Levy, chair of the UW Computer Science department, and Brian Bershad, a former UW computer science professor who took a sabbatical to get the company started. Bershad ended up going to work for Google and now manages its Fremont engineering office.



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