Where, in the wake of the dot-com collapse, are tomorrow’s high-tech start-ups to find their first footing? In the case of the new company D-Fusion, founded by Jacob Green ’99, ’00 MSE and John Schultz ’99, ’01 MSE, look no further than the Whiting School’s Department of Computer Science—and the lab of Dr. Yair Amir, their former professor.
Amir, an associate professor of computer science, is one of the initiators and principal investigators at the Center for Networking and Distributed Systems Laboratory (CNDS) at the Whiting School. While its researchers receive grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Security Agency, the central focus of the lab’s work involves the development of new theoretical models for distributed systems and networks, as well as actual designs and applications. Simply put, a distributed system or network is a series of individual computers that equally share a common computing task—for example, managing the many features of a large, commercial web site. Amir’s research, he notes, is concerned “with anything that is a high-performance and high-availability distributed system, as well as anything that makes this system highly available and highperforming, such as software tools that prevent a web site from crashing, even with a heavy volume of visitors.”
Millions of Free Downloads
Although a respected scholar and well-known innovator, Amir describes himself as a “strange bird in the academic environment.” He points out that, “In one sense, we do traditional research that is published in academic circles, but on the other hand, some of the solutions we’ve developed are widely used ‘out there’ ” (that is, on the web, where several CNDS creations have been released freely as open-source software). Adds Green, some of this technology has “been downloaded millions of times and is widely used by tens of thousands of web sites out there, including large ‘name’ sites. Amazingly, they started out as lab class projects that just went further.”
Two of the most popular open-source applications (or “modules”) released by CNDS are mod’backhand and Wackamole. Mod’backhand allows a distributed-system web site to evenly distribute and process high volumes of customer requests across all connected servers in the system. Wackamole monitors distributed systems to ensure the seamless flow of traffic, even if one of the connected machines “goes down.”
It was this heady context of innovative R&D that first attracted Green and Schultz, who became friends as undergraduates (both double majored— Green in computer science and physics, and Schultz in electrical engineering and computer science). “Dr. Amir is a very engaging person,” Green says. “He very much has the ability to inspire students, while encouraging them to make an impact. You’re not really restricted on how you make that impact at his lab, but that was your goal. John and I were very intrigued by that idea and liked that atmosphere. The lab had a very strong academic bent, but with the option to take the entrepreneurial route if you so chose.”
Amir was similarly impressed with both students. “I was Jacob Green’s undergraduate academic advisor, and he seemed like a very special guy who really knew where he was going,” Amir recalls. “At the same time, John Schultz was honestly the best undergrad I’ve seen in my years at Hopkins. They teamed up together early on, and were the first undergraduate entrepreneurs I’ve worked with. I convinced them to stay for a master’s” (in computer science).
Solutions for Organizing the Internet
Green and Schultz, while working on their master’s degrees in 1999-2000, centered on a technology called metacomputing. It involves the design and development of applications that allow large numbers of remote computers to work in concert on a common problem or task. “It was good fit,” Green recalls. In pursuing these studies with Amir, the two grad students came upon a seemingly obvious discovery that opened the door to a new direction, a new solution—and a new company, D-Fusion.
“The Internet is a very dynamic and unorganized thing,” Amir notes, “so when new information, even one page, changes on a web site, how would you know? If you need to know within the hour, no search engine is going to help you with that. The question is—how can you develop an application to scan much faster for the updated information you need?”
Adds Green, “When you publish something on the Internet, weeks can pass before that information becomes available to a search engine. For many people, a search engine is a critical means of finding information, so this can be a problem. We realized that certain aspects of distributed computing technology could solve this problem. So that was what my master’s thesis was all about. As a spin-off of that technology, we started to investigate how to go about commercializing it.”
Through the support of Amir and the University’s Office of Technology Transfer, Green and Schultz filed their first patents and incorporated their new company in 2000. They were put in contact with the Emerging Technology Center, a University-affiliated business incubator in Baltimore that is co-funded by NASA. In 2001, D-Fusion moved from its temporary quarters provided by the CNDS lab to the downtown incubator.
For the two young entrepreneurs, the past year has proven challenging. D-Fusion, launched right when the dot-com bubble burst, was forced to revise its business plan—but as it turned out, for the best. “We’ve moved from trying to be a venture-backed company to being a bootstrapped, revenue-driven company,” says Green. “Our initial funding was through Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development. And, we’ve just closed another round of funding with the Maryland Technology Development Corporation.” D-Fusion already is consulting with customers, and completing a project for NASA.
D-Fusion is also readying the debut of its first commercial product, based upon its core proprietary technology. AlertWorks is a desktop-based software solution that, in real time, monitors a user’s pre-set list of web pages for any content changes, and then immediately notifies the user. AlertWorks will initially be marketed to the financial community and the “content industry”—newspaper staffs, major broadcasters, and other editorial enterprises. “There are analysts and editors who are tasked each day with going through hundreds of web pages on a given topic to check for updates,” says Green. “It’s an extremely manual and inefficient process—and web-based search engines can’t help. Our solution automates this process. We have clients who used to take two days to go through their lists who can now do it in two hours.”
Green adds, “The alerting industry in general is a very young industry just starting to take off. We think we have a unique business model in terms of giving the customer the flexibility to choose which information and sources are important to them.”
Amir is justifiably pleased with his former students. “When they graduated, either of them could have gotten jobs with big salaries,” he says. “I was so proud of them that they didn’t do that. They showed a lot of maturity in what they had to go through in starting a business in this tough climate. But they’re doing it, and are successful.”
Likewise, Green is grateful for the support from Amir and the Whiting School. “Although he played somewhat of a hands-off role to avoid any conflict of interest, Dr. Amir was one of our greatest champions in terms of getting us started,” says Green. “By extension, the University environment provided a perfect world for us in helping to incubate the entrepreneurial spirit. As Dr. Amir often said, you need breathing room, what he called ‘air supply.’ You need an opportunity to conduct some trial-and-error work in a safe environment, before you get an idea of what will work. It’s through this process of learning that you find out what works—so that you have a greater opportunity to succeed.”
For more information on the new company, visit www.d-fusion.net . To learn more about the Center for Networking and Distributed Systems Laboratory (including how to download the free software), visit cnds.jhu.edu