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Reductive Labs Snaps Up Cash, Pumps Up Puppet

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

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

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

Puppet Master

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

“He evangelized the ideas. He blogged about the tools he was using andhow he wanted to modernize IT administration. The idea was built fromthere. The company was a grass-roots activity,” Andrew Shafer, thesecond of three cofounders and the company’s chief strategy officer, toldLinuxInsider.

The fact that Puppet software was adopted by enterprises looking for alow-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-boxfunctionality. Reductive Lab’s 20commercial customers have helped to make the company profitable since2006.

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

“Lots of people use and like Puppet quite a bit, so it is definitelyappealing to users. They obviously have enough revenue to supportthemselves,” Michael Cote, analyst for RedMonk, told TechNewsWorld.

Managing the Machines

Research firm IDC estimates that worldwide computer sales grewtenfold 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 havesprawling 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 asthey scale their machines. That reduces the glut of IT workers thatcan lead to more inconsistencies, confusion and mistakes.

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

“Puppet is a slightly different way of doing the programming. It useswhat the programming world calls ‘declarative programming,’ where youdeclare a model of what you want the server or other apps to do andhand it off to Puppet to configure the policies,” Cote explained.

This declarative, policy-driven approach allows users to make thepolicy decisions and leave the cumbersome, repetitive and mundane workto Puppet. This frees IT to focus on higher value initiatives andprojects, 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 betedious 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 Puppetbeing widely used and very successful with both big- and small-namecustomers. So they don’t have to spend a lot of time convincingpeople to use the program,” Cote noted.

With the open source community handling the lion’s share of supportfor typical enterprise users, the company’s task is to buildproprietary products on top of Puppet. Selling products beyond theproject and selling service and support for Puppet is the usual opensource model, according to Cote.

“Rather than go proprietary, for something like Puppet it is anadvantage to go open source. For the data center use that Puppet gets, there is always going to be some wacky box needing specialconfigurations, so it is always helpful to have a pool of communityexperts to write these things,” Cote said.

Puppet Power

Reductive Labs is not the sole proprietor of IT automation realestate. 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. Opensource competitors include Opscode, with a product called Chef.

“On the extremely high end, there are people like HP’s Opsware andBladeLogic. Those are older versions of provisioning software but arevery good at solving those same kinds of problems in a slightlydifferent way,” Cote explained.

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

That’s Next

Updating the command line interface (CLI) is one of the priorities onReductive Labs’ to-do list, acknowledged Shafer. The interface to writePuppet policies is a custom layer.

Three pieces comprise the Puppet framework. The central descriptorcreates the policies. A vehicle component propagates those polices tothe network or machines it controls. The resource abstraction logs dothe 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, Kaniesand Teyo Tyree, another cofounder. A flexible contingent of a dozen otherworkers rounds out the work load. That will change by the end of thisyear as the full-time staff grows to 10 to handle developmentissues.

Those issues involve expanding Puppet’s efficiency and tool kits.Shafer has targeted solutions to fairly obvious tasks Puppet cansolve. He also wants to build reporting tools to go beyond thecaptured log files.

“One of the things Puppet does very well is put machines into acertain state. You get to the point where you have a collection ofmachines with inter-dependencies and temporal dependencies,” heexplained.

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

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