Cheriton Sees Opportunity in Infrastructure

When I wrote my first post on this blog, way back in 2006, I assumed that technology infrastructure largely was a spent force. I expected incremental enhancements, gradual advances, but I didn’t anticipate another major boom or a significant disruption of the established order in what once had been a vibrant technology space.

While the technology industry as a whole can suffer from blinkered, willful optimism, perhaps I was afflicted by a different condition entirely. I might have been too pessimistic, too gloomy, dispirited by the technology downturn of the early 2000s and the lack of a meaningful, sustained recovery in the years that immediately followed.

By the way, when I refer to technology, I’m not talking about social networking such as Facebook. I understand that there’s a lot of technology behind the scenes at Facebook, but the customer-facing “social” phenomenon leaves me cold. I never did see the point of Facebook from a user’s perspective, though I understood how it could serve as an unprecedented data-mining machine for advertisers.

Opportunity Renewed

Fortunately, though, I was wrong about the decline and fall of infrastructure. It took a while, but a new era of infrastructure has arisen, based on virtualization, orchestration, and automation. Technological possibilities that we could only dream about more than a decade ago are now possible. In the networking realm, software-defined networking (SDN) is enabling comparatively outmoded network infrastructure to catch up with compute and, to a lesser degree, storage infrastructure as the promise of an application-driven, programmable data center comes into clearer view.

Suddenly, at long last, there’s new opportunity in infrastructure.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either. There are people who’ve designed and developed industry-leading technologies who espouse the same opinion. Some of these people are billionaires, and they’re backed their convictions with substantial sums of money, investing in technologies and companies with clear mandates to remake IT infrastructure.

Outrageously Wealthy Canuck

One of those people is David Cheriton, a billionaire who wears many hats. He is Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, where he researches networking and distributed systems, and he also serves as a co-founder and chief scientist at Arista Networks. He’s also an investor in startup companies. Back in 1998, one early-stage company in which he invested, along with Arista co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, was Google.  The duo made a similar early investment in VMware, so they’ve done okay.

Born in Vancouver, raised in Edmonton, Alberta, and ranked 37th on a Wikipedia list of “richest Canadians”** — Forbes ranks him 21st among outrageously wealthy Canucks  — Cheriton recently spoke about innovation and entrepreneurship at a Churchill Club event in Silicon Valley. The event was co-hosted and organized by the Hua Yuan Science and Technology Association and also featured Ken Xie, who founded NetScreen (acquired by Juniper Networks in 2004) and is now president and CEO of unified-threat-management/firewall vendor Fortinet, a company he also founded.

In addition to his apparent knack as an investor, Cheriton has considerable firsthand experience as an entrepreneur and an innovator. Before he and Bechtolsheim combined forces at Arista Networks,  they founded Granite Systems, a Gigabit-Ethernet switching concern that was acquired by Cisco in 1996 for about $220 million in stock, back when shares of Cisco were continuously on the rise.  Subsequently, after the Google investment, Bechtolsheim and Cheriton combined forces again to found Kealia, which specialized in server technology based on AMD’s Opteron microprocessor.  That company was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2004, providing technology included in the Sun Fire X4500 storage product.

Room for Improvement

In 2005, Cheriton and Bechtolsheiim followed up with Arista, then called Arastra, and its 10-GbE switching technology, which brings us to the approximate present and back to something Cheriton said at the Churchill Club event late last month. Noting that people tend to become preoccupied with the latest developments in social networking and mobility, Cheriton expressed his enthusiasm for infrastructure, as an investment vehicle as well as an area in which he has an abiding technical interest. As quoted in a BusinessWeek article, Cheriton said: “I think there is an opportunity to go back and say, ‘Gee, I think there’s lot of room for improvement in the infrastructure.’ ”

Reinforcing that point, he noted that technology infrastructure today is predicated on ideas that are about 30 years old. The network was the place to start the infrastructure refurbishment, Cheriton believed, and Arista Networks grew from that conviction.

But Cheriton hasn’t stopped there. He also founded a company called Optumsoft, about which not much is known. On its website, Optumsoft is described as an early-stage startup company “taking distributed computing and distributed software development mainstream.” Quoting from the website:

Recent advancements in multi-core computing systems, coupled with the ever increasing functional and performance requirements of software has created an exciting market opportunity for addressing the programmatic and architectural issues involved in modern software development. Optumsoft is addressing this growing market with a novel technology approach that is transparent, scalable, and portable, resulting in significant improvement to the development and maintenance of distributed/parallel structured software systems. Early production usage by commercial clients has validated the technology and value proposition.

Last fall, an anonymous source suggested on Quora that what Optumsoft was building related to “how to structure object-oriented RPC in a way that makes it easy to build robust systems.  The technology behind Arista’s EOS is based on some of these ideas, as was software structure at a previous startup, Kealia.  The technology includes an IDL and a C++ runtime, similar to what you’d get using CORBA.”

Nebula and Tintri

On the investment side, Cheriton and Bechtolsheim have put money into Nebula, which has venture-capital backing from Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers and Highland Capital Partners. Built on OpenStack, the Nebula Enterprise Cloud Appliance is designed to provision and configure flexible, scalable cloud-computing infrastructure. Although it doesn’t say so on the Nebula website, previous reports indicated that Arista’s networking technology is included in the Nebula appliance.

According to the BusinessWeek article,  Cheriton also has a stake in Tintri, co-founded by Kieran Harty and Mark Gritter. Harty was EVP of R&D at VMware for seven years, and Gritter was one of the first of Cheriton’s employees at Kealia. They’ve assembled a PhD-laden engineering team that has developed a virtual-machine-aware storage appliance designed for virtualized environments, which the company says have been underserved by older storage technology that apparently contributes to “VM stall.”

Another early-stage investment that Cheriton made was in Aster Data Systems, a purveyor of a massively parallel DBMS that runs on clustered commodity servers. Already a minority owner of Aster, Teradata bought the 89% of the company it didn’t own for $263 million last year.

Cheriton has made bets on infrastructure, and he’ll likely make others. It’s an encouraging sign for those of us who gravitate to that part of the industry.

(**No, I am not on the list, but thanks for asking.)

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