Innovation Economy

Boston becoming hub of VDI activity

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / June 21, 2010

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Highlights from Scott Kirsner’s Innovation Economy blog.

Boston start-ups seek to make PC management cheaper. If you don’t work in IT, you may not be up to speed on VDI yet.

VDI is “virtual desktop infrastructure,’’ and information technology executives have been hearing a lot about it over the past year. It enables them to manage the hundreds or thousands of PCs used by their employees more cost-effectively. Rather than running around to each desk to install a new piece of software or an update, the IT crew can deliver the operating system and applications to each user over the network from a central data center. They gain more control and, ideally, the user can access the same customized desktop setup whether they are in their cubicle, on a netbook in a hotel room, or even using a smartphone.

Boston is becoming a hub of VDI activity (also sometimes called “desktop virtualization.’’) Companies like Desktone Inc. in Chelmsford, Viewfinity Inc. in Waltham, and Virtual Computer Inc. in Westford are taking different approaches to helping IT organizations lower the cost of managing PC users. Scott Davis, the chief technology officer of VMWare Inc.’s desktop virtualization business unit, is based in Cambridge. And today, Marlborough-based Unidesk Corp. formally launches its VDI product.

Unidesk has been working on “the ultimate virtual desktop’’ for more than two years, says founder and chief technology officer Chris Midgley. “Desktop virtualization is really all about people,’’ he says. “You can’t give everyone the exact same terminal. They want to make the desktop theirs. But IT wants to be able to treat thousands of desktops like they’re one desktop.’’

Unidesk has raised $20 million in venture capital funding from Matrix Partners and North Bridge Venture Partners, both in Waltham, and the company has 34 employees. Early customers include architecture firms, universities, and the Glasgow Housing Authority in Scotland. Customers pay Unidesk on a per-user basis, starting at about $150.

It was a coup for Unidesk when Don Bulens joined in June 2009 as chief executive; Bulens had previously run New Hampshire-based EqualLogic Inc., bought by Dell Inc. in 2007 for $1.4 billion — Dell’s biggest acquisition ever.

Bulens said he found that he “very much missed being part of a team on a day-to-day basis.’’

Number-crunching and naan. About 700 folks will descend on the Westin Boston Waterfront this week for the fourth annual Enzee Universe conference, put on by Netezza Corp. The publicly traded Marlborough company sells hardware and software to help big companies run their data warehouses. Netezza’s customers buy the technology (average order size is $1.2 million) to crunch large volumes of data in real time, like figuring out what coupons to give you at CVS based on your purchase or to calculate the best routes for 18-wheelers delivering goods around the country.

Jim Baum, Netezza chief executive, said the main theme of the conference “is that you have all these intelligent devices collecting data, and you have social networking and e-commerce, and our customers are looking to get a competitive advantage from analyzing all of that.’’ Netezza’s newest product, TwinFin, is five times faster than its older systems, Baum says, and relies on IBM’s blade servers, instead of the proprietary blades Netezza sold previously. (Blade servers supply processing power and storage, and like razor blades, they can easily be installed and removed in a large rack containing other blades.) Netezza still makes a special database accelerator card that enables the blade servers to work speedily with large volumes of data.

Speakers at Enzee Universe will include Stephen Baker, author of “The Numerati,’’ which looks at how data are changing the way we live and work; analysts from Forrester Research and Gartner; Gareth Sundem, author of “The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination’’; and executives from Major League Baseball and Conway Freight. (The executive from Major League Baseball oversees a team of analysts looking at things like “umpire performance reporting’’ and “salary arbitration analysis.’’)

The big party tonight is an Indian banquet prepared by chef Kuldeep Makhni, who has cooked for Queen Elizabeth, the late Princess Diana, the late Mother Teresa, Sylvester Stallone, and David Copperfield. That alone should be worth the conference’s $475 ticket price.

RelayRides starts rolling. Shelby Clark tells me that his new peer-to-peer car-sharing service, RelayRides, (I’ve described it as Zipcar without the fleet) logged the first rental of its summer beta test in Cambridge last week. The company is looking for potential drivers as well as car owners willing to assign their car’s unused hours to the service and earn money in return. Clark tells me the vehicles available include a Toyota Prius and, amazingly, a Porsche Cayenne. (Vehicles start at $6 an hour for older models, and the Cayenne rents for $14 an hour.) The company is based at the Polaris-run DogPatch Lab space in East Cambridge.

For the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily, visit