InfoWorld's top 10 tech start-ups for 2008

Here are the hottest companies with new and innovative technology

There are few clearer bellwethers as to the imminent direction of technology than where venture capitalists put their money. They're about making money, so they look for industry patterns they think will lead to sure bets. And that means they invest where the tech industry has begun to coalesce its thinking, not on exotic new science fiction. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, VCs have invested a total of $57 billion in start-ups -- mostly tech ones -- in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

InfoWorld also tracks tech start-ups but through a different lens. Our concern isn't about a financial investment but about real technology innovation -- what will drive technology forward in ways that could revolutionize some aspect of business IT? That's why for the third year, we have selected the hottest technology start-ups, with emphasis on "technology." What did we seek? At least one of three qualities: truly new technologies, innovative approaches within existing technology areas and technologies applied in new ways to solve different problems.

Here are our winners for 2008, in alphabetical order.

Hot tech start-up: Aerohive Networks Inc.

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: A centrally managed wireless network built around a controllerless architecture that can scale to thousands of access points.

Business problem addressed: As wireless networking becomes more central to the enterprise, wireless LANs (WLANs) need to become much faster, more scalable and more resilient at a reasonable price point. By incorporating authentication, access control and other functions into the access point, Aerohive promises greater flexibility and lower deployment costs than controller-based WLAN applications.

What the technology does: There's long been a gap between so-called fat and thin access points in the world of WLANs. The earliest WLANs, in which fat (a.k.a. intelligent) access points handled every facet of communication between the client and the network, were quickly supplanted by a different configuration -- thinner (a.k.a. dumb) access points managed by a centralized controller. That's the architecture in general use today, and most IT staffers would assume that it's a given. Vendors have beefed up the intelligence of access points over the years, enabling them to carry out an increasingly sophisticated range of marching orders -- but those marching orders continue to come from a WLAN controller. Enter Aerohive, which has developed a hybrid architecture that features intelligent, linked access points without the use of an expensive controller. Even without that hardware, Aerohive offers centralized management, and the company says its Cooperative Control Wireless LAN Architecture can scale to thousands of access points. Furthermore, the decentralized architecture reduces the number of failure points. Aerohive access points are more expensive than conventional access points, but because there's no controller to pay for, the total cost of the network is lower, the company says.

How the technology works: The control element of the network, which has lived in the controller for the past few years, goes back into the access point, which Aerohive calls a HiveAP. Simply stated, a hive is a network of access points, generally in the same building. Each access point is aware of the other access points in the network.

Along with distributed control comes fully distributed data, allowing the HiveAP to route data directly to a desired destination without sending it first through a controller. How does this work in practice? When a client logs into the network, the access point builds a quick profile, including its identity, permission rights and so on, using a technology Aerohive calls predictive roaming. Predictive roaming is really an educated guess about which access point a client is likely to access next. When it makes that guess, the access point passes the client's profile on to a number of nearby access points, which are then ready to accept the client without dropping the signal.

Forward spin: Aerohive expects to ship 802.11n products in July.

Hot tech start-up: Cohesive Flexible Technologies LLC

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: Software that builds a base image of a server and reformats it into a chosen virtualization configuration without first building a physical server.

Business problem addressed: How to manage and quickly deploy servers in a complex environment.

What the technology does: Patrick Kerpan, chief technology officer at Cohesive Flexible Technologies, calls it the "more of everything problem." He notes, "Open source, open standards, virtualization, SOA and clouds are proliferating, needing countless components. An enterprise in the financial sector may have as many as 100 different application stacks." CohesiveFT's Elastic Server On Demand assembles virtual machines and deploys them to Inc.'s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) or creates an implementation of major virtualization formats, including EMC VMware, Citrix XenSource and Parallels. CohesiveFT claims that a deployment can be completed in hours or even minutes. Using CohesiveFT's management system, IT can then track the deployed component assemblies throughout their life cycle and log all configuration changes. The server can later be provisioned to another platform.

How the technology works: The company maintains libraries of components, including those from the open-source community and software vendors. Customers may add their own proprietary components to the library (for their use only) and construct the image of a virtual application stack. The resulting images are built, encapsulated, given a unique identity and injected with management and integration services. CohesiveFT calls the completed stack an "elastic server." CohesiveFT uses an add-on to OpenVPN (open-source virtual private network) that can connect multiple servers (both physical and virtual) located in various data centers and hosted at different providers into a single address space.

Forward spin: At the moment, Amazon's EC2 is the only cloud with a direct connection to CohesiveFT, but expect to see more clouds supported fairly soon, Kerpan says. The company also plans to add management tools and support for virtual Linux.

Hot tech start-up: Earthmine Inc.

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: By using eight cameras that are calibrated in pairs, and processing the images with an algorithm developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Earthmine produces a data set with many times the information contained in images produced by competitors.

Business problem addressed: How to create street-level, photographic maps containing information that is rich enough to accurately convey the actual spatial relationships between objects on the image.

What the technology does: Earthmine builds photographic images of urban environments. But these aren't ordinary images. Because they contain so much data, the images can be used to accurately locate any point in the image in relation to any other point in the image.

A microwave network provider, for example, used Earthmine to determine exact lines of sight between towers. "Every square inch of the city is designed, built, maintained and destroyed every 50 years on average. And for every step of this process, people need information to help guide them when making expensive decisions -- such as why should I build a residential unit here, or turn this hotel into a parking lot there," says Anthony Fassero, the start-up's founder and co-CEO.

How the technology works: Like Google Earth, Earthmine mounts cameras on cars and takes pictures of every street and alley in an urban environment. But the Earthmine cars sport eight cameras, synced in pairs, to Google's one, snapping pictures every 10 meters. Earthmine collects a base layer of 3-D panoramic images and builds libraries of the area. Behind each pixel is data that precisely describes latitude, longitude and elevation. Because the data set contains information in three dimensions, everything within an image can be accurately located, measured or modeled using points, lines or polygons. This data mine can be accessed by users through a Web-based interface that lets them identify, view and extract geospatial data. The data can be integrated into other applications, such as a GIS (geospatial information system) program, or combined with objects such as an architectural drawing or a map of pipelines in a refinery.

Forward Spin: Earthmine hasn't mapped much of the world yet, but it hopes to venture farther from home. The more cars it uses, the faster the images are captured and processed. One car can map about 90 miles of streets in one day. The company expects to license data and share APIs with customers who will then write their own applications.

Hot tech start-up: Montego Networks Inc.

Founded: 2007

Tech breakthrough: Montego's hyperswitch (software plus firewall) uses policy-based switching to route traffic to third-party security applications within the virtual network.

Business problem addressed: Provide security within a virtual network.

What the technology does: Montego regulates traffic among virtual machines, and between the virtual environment and the physical environment. Policies determine which virtual machines may communicate with one another. The product features virtual network partitioning, a firewall and virtual network discovery capabilities.

How the technology works: Virtual servers are connected to each other via a switch (called a v-switch in VMware environments), which in turn is connected to Montego's hyperswitch. The switch intercepts traffic from the v-switch and matches the traffic against its security policies. If the traffic is acceptable, it is then routed back to the v-switch and delivered to its final destination. Using proprietary algorithms, the hyperswitch defines policy controls and also routes traffic to third-party security applications. Because each third-party application must only scan selected traffic, instead of all traffic, the application uses fewer resources to do its job, and that improves performance. Identity-based controls can allow or deny a user access to a specific virtual server or allow access to a virtual machine but not to certain content on that machine. Supported security apps include those from Blue Lane, Catbird, Reflex and StillSecure.

Forward spin: Montego says it will add support for Citrix, Microsoft and Virtual Iron virtualization technologies in the third quarter of this year.

Hot tech start-up: Perceptive Pixel Inc.

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: Light injected into acrylic forms the basis for a breakthrough in touch-screen technology.

Business problem addressed: Improving touch screens to enhance collaboration and improve data display.

What the technology does: If you follow politics on cable news, chances are good that you've seen the handiwork of Jeff Han, founder of Perceptive Pixel. The giant touch screens, walls really, that allow analysts to display massive bytes of graphically rendered data, and then drill down with the touch of a hand, have changed the way politics is reported on television. But that's only the best-known use of the technology. Perceptive Pixel's biggest customers work in national defense. Details of those deployments are secret, but it's not hard to imagine a group of combat officers viewing a display of battlefield data. A tap of the finger and the view of a division zooms down to the company level. On the peacetime front, Perceptive Pixel is teaming with a CAD vendor to develop interactive displays of engineering or architectural data on a big screen.

How the technology works: The touch screen on most devices is an ingenuous but relatively simple bit of technology. A transparent material sits over a set of circuits; when touched a circuit closes, sending a signal to the logic. The limitation: The standard touch screen can determine only one point at a time, greatly limiting the amount of information that can be manipulated with each tap. Han, a researcher at New York University, took a very different approach: Light is injected and trapped in an acrylic sheet. When touched, the screen leaks light, which is picked up and measured by an image sensor that then sends data to the logic. Processing, of course, happens off the screen on standard hardware.

Forward spin: How scalable is the technology? After all, very few of us can afford a $100,000 display. Han says we can expect to see smaller versions of his touch walls sold as monitors in the not-too-distant future. Theoretically, the technology could scale down to the size of a handheld, but in addition to the obvious problems of engineering, there is also the problem of input, Han says. Large screens allow for broader motions with each tap; the touch of a palm, for example, can convey much more information then the tip of a finger.

Hot tech start-up: Ribbit Corp.

Founded: 2006

Tech breakthrough: A multiprotocol, Class 5, soft telephony switch with a development environment for business app integration.

Business problem addressed: Integrating voice and data into business workflow.

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