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6/21/2013
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6 Cloud, Big Data Startups To Watch

Check out what the Structure 2013 LaunchPad winners can do with cloud, big data problems.

SaltStack is a Salt Lake City startup that beat out five other startups to win the Structure 2013 LaunchPad competition. But two companies, both committed to DevOps types of systems, emerged as winners.

A three-judge panel of venture capitalists -- Luis Robles of Sequoia Capital, Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad and Bipul Sinha of Lightspeed Venture Partners -- selected SaltStack for its comprehensive deployment management system and its early traction and rapid buildup of customers. The Salt open-source project on which it is based is only two years old.

CEO and co-founder Marc Chenn said developer interest in Salt, a Python-based system, has propelled it into the top 10 open-source projects in the world, ranking just behind the big cloud project, OpenStack, according to a GitHub ranking in December. SaltStack itself is "cloud agnostic" and can be used on top of multiple cloud systems.

Most enterprises still manage servers through manual processes carried out by systems administrators, who at most can handle 50 servers, are forced to work 60 hour work weeks and provide "a breeding ground for Murphy's Law," said Chenn. Much of their work could be taken over by SaltStack.

[ Want to learn more about how the first day of Structure turned into a debate over chips? See Intel, AMD Debate Best Chip For Cloud. ]

"This tool has come out of nowhere," said Sinha after Chenn's short presentation at LaunchPad. It's in use at HP Cloud, Linkedin, Hulu and cars.com. It competes with older and highly regarded open-source configuration and deployment management software, such as OpsCode's Chef and Puppet Labs' Puppet. SaltStack, however, covers more of the lifecycle of the deployed code, giving operations the means to provide feedback to developer teams on how to improve the software's performance.

Supported versions of SaltStack with enterprise licensing are now available from Chenn's firm.

"SaltStack is a total package -- cloud deployment, configuration management, remote execution and monitoring in a clean, well-designed package. It has enabled us to achieve things in record time that had stymied us prior to discovering it," said Patrick Crews, software/systems engineer for the HP Cloud, on the SaltStack website.

SaltStack was the judges' winner, but it wasn't the top pick of Structure attendees. About 300 in attendance voted on the candidates after their quick presentations at the conference center of the University of California at San Francisco's new Mission Bay campus.

Their pick was Factor.io, another DevOps-type of system bringing automated workflow to application deployment. In a comment at the end of the competition, Winblad said Factor.io "was extremely interesting to me. I liked it the best." It won 28% of the audience vote.

The accomplished Web companies don't manually build virtual machines, install applications and configure a software stack for operation in a cloud environment. "Amazon Web Services had adopted sophisticated deployment practices that let them deploy a code update every 11.6 seconds," said Maciej Skierkowski, co-founder and CEO of Factor.io. The company establishes a policy-driven workflow for deploying an application into a particular environment, including deploying to Amazon Web Services, Heroku or Microsoft Azure.

"We've automated the deployment process because deployment to the cloud sucks," said Skierkowski.

AppScale won neither the judges' nor the popular vote, but may have been dismissed too quickly, given its future potential.

AppScale co-founder and CEO Woody Rollins based his presentation on AppScale's initial use case, giving Google App Engine developers the means to failover to a cloud setting outside App Engine. It's a capability they need about once a month, as App Engine operations experience an outage, he said in an interview after his presentation.

Rollins said Google had studied third-party developer practices for years before encapsulating what it perceived as best practices into its platform as a service. Developing Python or Java applications on App Engine is a quicker, surer process than in most development environments, he said. But once a developer establishes an account on App Engine, there are few places to go outside the Google infrastructure if he wants a backup and recovery location for his application.

In the long run, however, that's not the only thing AppScale will be able to do. A small team lead by CTO Chandra Krintz, on a leave of absence from teaching computer science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has developed an open-source Python environment that has duplicated the function of App Engine APIs.

"If an application runs on App Engine, it can run on App Scale," said Krintz in an interview after LaunchPad, and many developers have tested that hypothesis without being disappointed.

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