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Reductive Labs Snaps Up Cash, Pumps Up Puppet

By Jack M. Germain
Jul 7, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Before he helped start Reductive Labs, CEO Luke Kanies was determined to improve IT systems management options to eliminate the repetitive tasks required to manage policies across networks, cloud computing systems, and virtual machine banks.

Reductive Labs Snaps Up Cash, Pumps Up Puppet

In 2002, that direction led to the Puppet project, a system for automating admin tasks. The launch of his company followed in 2003.

Now, a US$2 million windfall in Series A funding that Reductive Labs received last month from True Ventures could go a long way toward helping the company's three founders enhance the capabilities of its IT automation tool.

Puppet Master

You could say that Kanies talked his way into business. He spent inordinate hours with the Puppet project, writing and speaking at IT conferences about systems automation around the world.

"He evangelized the ideas. He blogged about the tools he was using and how he wanted to modernize IT administration. The idea was built from there. The company was a grass-roots activity," Andrew Shafer, the second of three cofounders and the company's chief strategy officer, told LinuxInsider.

The fact that Puppet software was adopted by enterprises looking for a low-cost open source task automation solution presented an opportunity: Enough IT departments used Puppet that a need existed for commercial support beyond its out-of-the-box functionality. Reductive Lab's 20 commercial customers have helped to make the company profitable since 2006.

Listed among its most notable customers are the New York Stock Exchange, Barclays, Google, Twitter, Digg, Sun, Oracle, the Harvard Law School and Stanford University.

"Lots of people use and like Puppet quite a bit, so it is definitely appealing to users. They obviously have enough revenue to support themselves," Michael Cote, analyst for RedMonk, told TechNewsWorld.

Managing the Machines

Research firm IDC estimates that worldwide computer sales grew tenfold between 1990 and 2005, from 105 million to more than 1 billion. That growth could be described as bloat for some organizations -- many IT shops have sprawling configurations across hundreds of servers.

That is the vast customer niche that Reductive Labs hopes to capture. The company's Puppet software lets IT departments scale their staff as they scale their machines. That reduces the glut of IT workers that can lead to more inconsistencies, confusion and mistakes.

Instead, Puppet introduces a different philosophy for IT management. It automates the process to standardize services, not servers.

"Puppet is a slightly different way of doing the programming. It uses what the programming world calls 'declarative programming,' where you declare a model of what you want the server or other apps to do and hand it off to Puppet to configure the policies," Cote explained.

This declarative, policy-driven approach allows users to make the policy decisions and leave the cumbersome, repetitive and mundane work to Puppet. This frees IT to focus on higher value initiatives and projects, added Shafer.

Puppet Particulars

So instead of specifying a number of steps to configure the server, Puppet has a different way of specifying the policies. This can be tedious for some functions. The three founders developed the program, but there is a community effort behind it.

"As a company, Reductive Labs has going for it the benefit of Puppet being widely used and very successful with both big- and small-name customers. So they don't have to spend a lot of time convincing people to use the program," Cote noted.

With the open source community handling the lion's share of support for typical enterprise users, the company's task is to build proprietary products on top of Puppet. Selling products beyond the project and selling service and support for Puppet is the usual open source model, according to Cote.

"Rather than go proprietary, for something like Puppet it is an advantage to go open source. For the data center use that Puppet gets, there is always going to be some wacky box needing special configurations, so it is always helpful to have a pool of community experts to write these things," Cote said.

Puppet Power

Reductive Labs is not the sole proprietor of IT automation real estate. However, it is distinctly different from the field of competitors, noted Cote.

A handful of open source and commercial projects do similar things, but the approach is considerably different, according to Shafer. Open source competitors include Opscode, with a product called Chef.

"On the extremely high end, there are people like HP's Opsware and BladeLogic. Those are older versions of provisioning software but are very good at solving those same kinds of problems in a slightly different way," Cote explained.

For Puppet, one of the main things to distinguish it from the commercial competition is it is free and open source. The drawback is it is really just command line interface, so this could limit its usefulness in smaller shops, he added.

That's Next

Updating the command line interface (CLI) is one of the priorities on Reductive Labs' to-do list, acknowledged Shafer. The interface to write Puppet policies is a custom layer.

Three pieces comprise the Puppet framework. The central descriptor creates the policies. A vehicle component propagates those polices to the network or machines it controls. The resource abstraction logs do the work of actually applying the policies.

"All those pieces have to fit together for Puppet to work," Shafer said.

More Growth

Having pocket its $2 million in venture capital, the company sees the rest of this year especially as a time for growth.

Presently, the company's full-time staff amounts to Shafer, Kanies and Teyo Tyree, another cofounder. A flexible contingent of a dozen other workers rounds out the work load. That will change by the end of this year as the full-time staff grows to 10 to handle development issues.

Those issues involve expanding Puppet's efficiency and tool kits. Shafer has targeted solutions to fairly obvious tasks Puppet can solve. He also wants to build reporting tools to go beyond the captured log files.

"One of the things Puppet does very well is put machines into a certain state. You get to the point where you have a collection of machines with inter-dependencies and temporal dependencies," he explained.

Another growth factor for Puppet is to port it over to Windows-based IT environments.

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