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Delivering desktops virtually: A cluster emerges in Boston

Posted by Scott Kirsner  June 21, 2010 08:33 AM

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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 get more control, and ideally the user can access the same customized desktop set-up whether they are at home, on a netbook, a laptop, or even a smartphone. Whenever she logs in, the same desktop picture is there, with all the applications she uses and the proper security privileges.

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

Unidesk has been working on "the ultimate virtual desktop" for more than two years, says founder and CTO 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, and the company has 34 employees. Midgley says they're currently hiring in the sales and support departments. 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 per user.

It was a coup for Unidesk when Don Bulens joined last June as chief executive; Bulens had previously run New Hampshire-based EqualLogic, acquired by Dell in 2007 for $1.4 billion in cash — 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."

I asked Midgley about his fund-raising experience with Unidesk; he'd earlier sold LiveVault, an online back-up and recovery service, to Boston-based Iron Mountain. (That company raised about $25 million in venture funding, and was acquired for $50 million.) He said he pitched only two firms, Matrix and North Bridge (Matrix was among LiveVault's backers), and both decided to do the deal after about two weeks of due diligence. As for not making the rounds to talk to more firms, Midgley explains, "You want to keep ideas in this world extraordinarily confidential." Some founders seek to shop around their ideas to get the best possible valuation for their company, he says, "at the cost of too much exposure."

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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