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Virtual Apps Drift into the Cloud

Software developed by rPath makes it easier to port applications to the cloud.

Cloud computing lets companies move data and applications from their own servers to those managed by someone else. The dream is to forget all about managing infrastructure, but in reality, applications are still deeply tied to surrounding software, such as a specific operating system or database, so it’s not so easy to move them.

A company based in Raleigh, NC, called rPath is winning admirers among IT experts by selling technology that addresses this problem. The company won top honors last week in the “cloud and infrastructure” category at a competition held at the 2009 Venture Summit East conference in Boston.

Technology developed by the company takes an application, automatically determines what other software it relies on, and creates a self-contained virtual environment for it. Within this environment, the application gets access to only those software components that it needs. For example, the environment typically contains an extremely pared-down version of the operating system that the application runs on. After this, the application can be installed anywhere–in a cloud-computing environment or on traditional infrastructure. Maintenance of the different components bundled with the virtual application is also simplified.

Jake Sorofman, vice president of marketing and business development for rPath, says that most businesses struggle to deploy applications on their infrastructure, never mind moving them over to a cloud-computing platform. “It’s invention for the first time every time,” he says, alluding to the fact that nowadays applications are built using a wide variety of languages, libraries, and other components that can interact unpredictably. Subsequent changes, such as security updates to an operating system, can have a cascade of unintended consequences that break applications, Sorofman says. The rPath technology fits between the application and the infrastructure, easing the pain of configuration and maintenance, he says.

The company’s technology represents a different approach to deploying applications, adds Brett Adam, vice president of engineering for rPath. Traditionally, he says, companies try to keep applications working and up to date by creating and managing several layers of infrastructure. Adam says that it’s easier to have stable systems by treating each application separately.

The rPath technology first takes an application and analyzes its code to determine how it interacts with other pieces of software, Adam says. The result is a “complete bill of materials” that shows what components are essential, and how the application will be affected by changes to the surrounding software. This way, Adam says, each application can be separate and self-contained without introducing confusion.

Adam notes that this increases efficiency by reducing maintenance needs. For example, he says, in the past two years, there have been 200 security patches for the basic Linux system that rPath itself uses. But because rPath applications are self-contained and each application is only tied to certain parts of this operating system, only 6 of those 200 patches, or 3 percent, had to be installed.

“Reducing the application’s footprint reduces the number of things that can break, and the number of things that can be broken into,” Sorofman says.

If an application does break after a change, Adam says that the rPath platform makes it easy to restore the application to a previous version. A similar ability is offered by the automated debugging tools commonly used by programmers. “Every professional software developer on the planet takes this capability for granted, but it hasn’t been available for IT operations staff before,” Adam says.

The rPath technology serves as “a bridge between the old and the new,” says Reuven Cohen, the founder of the Cloud Computing Interoperability Forum, a group that works to facilitate standards for cloud computing. Cohen, who is also the founder of a Toronto-based cloud-computing company called Enomaly, says that rPath is one of the first companies to attempt to simplify application deployment in this way. However, he says that the company may have some marketing battles ahead: “It’s an application that you don’t realize you need until after you need it.”

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