VMware’s R&D Lab: A Little Piece of Palo Alto in the Heart of Kendall Square

When Xconomy set up shop in Kendall Square, Cambridge, last year, we knew it was the innovation hub of New England, but we still didn’t realize just how deep the bench is here. Practically every week we learn about a new startup or an established technology firm with an office near ours. My most recent discovery was VMware (NYSE: VMW)—the virtualization company I usually describe as “a Palo Alto, CA, subsidiary of Hopkinton, MA-based EMC.” Turns out VMware has a 150-strong research and development laboratory right in the Cambridge Center complex, a stone’s throw from the Kendall subway station and just upstairs from Google’s new Cambridge spread.

VMware has been in the spotlight for months, thanks mainly to a spectacular August IPO and the seemingly unstoppable stock climb that followed. (Share prices peaked at almost $125 on Halloween, but have since returned to the much more earthly $40 to $60 range.) But here at Xconomy we’ve also cast a critical eye on the company’s long delay in issuing a patch for a critical software vulnerability affecting three of its workstation virtualization products. A fix was finally released on March 18, more than five months after Boston-based security firm Core Security notified VMware about the problem.

I’d spoken with several company officials for those stories by phone, but recently I got an invitation to meet some of the folks at VMware personally. So I headed over to the Cambridge facility and had breakfast with senior director of R&D Julia Austin, who is the lab’s site director, as well as director of product management Ben Matheson. They gave me the lowdown on the lab’s activities, which focus on advanced product development—“visionary work looking at new architectures and solutions not core to VMware today but where we think there is a business opportunity three to five years out,” in Austin’s words.

VMware, whose software helps companies save money on computer servers by allowing multiple operating systems to run on the same machines, opened a small R&D shop in Kendall Square shortly after EMC (NYSE: EMC) acquired the company in 2003. About three years ago, the operation moved to its current location, a 50,000-square-foot space on the tenth floor at Five Cambridge Center. (Soon the lab will swallow up an additional floor and double its capacity to 300 staff members, Austin says.)

Siting the lab was a no-brainer. “Being right here in Kendall Square has been a phenomenal opportunity for us,” says Austin. “Being across the street from MIT, and just down the street from Harvard and BU and Northeastern, and not too far from Columbia and Carnegie-Mellon, has been very helpful for us, for recruiting and growing our academic programs.” In addition to its core staff, the VMware lab hosts 25 summer interns from local universities, as well as visiting researchers such Richard West from Boston University’s computer science department as Larry Rudolph and Saman Amarasinghe, both from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

While there are at least three advanced development projects underway at the Cambridge lab, Austin and Matheson could only speak publicly about one of them—a system for disaster recovery that’s currently exiting the development stage and becoming a real product.

In a post-9/11, post-Katrina world, “the ability to recover from a disaster—natural or man-made—is one of the biggest problems across businesses of all sizes,” says Matheson. “Say an earthquake hits Boston. [Which isn’t as implausible as it may sound—the city was badly damaged by a 6.0-to-6.5 temblor in 1755.] An IT administrator hits the proverbial big red button, and our site recovery manager is going to start all of the servers at your backup site in the right order, in a very fast, reliable way, so that you can recover really quickly.”

Virtualized systems actually lend themselves to being transplanted from an operations site to a backup site, since virtual machines look pretty much like … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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