VCs Have Their Heads in the Clouds

When was the last time you bought software that came in a box, an actual CD that you put into your disc drive in order to load it onto your computer? It’s probably been a while, since most applications are now downloaded straight from the Internet. Today a growing number of companies are buying their computing capabilities that way, too. Instead of buying a rack of servers from IBM, Dell or HP, or a dedicated box hosted in a data center, businesses are buying compute power in the form of services from companies like Amazon, GoGrid and Mosso.

Such services are generally referred to as cloud computing, and the game-changing potential of those services has venture firms sitting up and taking notice. Indeed, after spending the past few years pouring money into Facebook applications and me-too social networks, venture firms are starting to invest in infrastructure again, with both hardware and software plays tied to the cloud.

“Clearly there is a renewed interest and investment in infrastructure,” says Bernard DallĂ©, a partner with Index Ventures. “Twenty-four months ago it was all about the consumer Internet and still a lot of money is going after that, but it has been rebalanced. Now firms see the value that EqualLogic and virtualization has generated, and it’s time to invest.”

So far this year, companies providing cloud services or building services on top of the cloud have raked in more than $70 million. That’s nothing compared to the $14.9 billion that VCs invested during the same six-month period overall, but interest is picking up.

Just this week, 10gen raised a $1.5 million first round from Union Square Ventures to create a platform for programmers to build products on top of the cloud. Appirio, a company trying to help enterprise customers link their data among clouds offered by Google, Salesforce and Amazon raised $5.6 million from Sequoia. And earlier this month, EngineYard raised $15 million from New Enterprise Associates, Amazon and Benchmark Capital to build out a development platform for programs built using Ruby on Rails.

These companies join a growing ecosystem of startups trying to create utility and business models built on top of thousands of servers. If you peel back the fog surrounding cloud computing there are several layers of services. It all starts with a virtualized server running a hypervisor. Between the hypervisor and the operating system — such as Linux or Windows — sits a class of service providers, among them Elastra and Enomaly. They provide tools and services that help an IT manger build out, monitor and manage the virtual hardware inside the cloud.

On top of those are development platforms that can be tailored to a specific cloud, such as Amazon’s, or tied to a programming language, such as Ruby on Rails. Startups here include Bungee Labs, EngineYard and Coghead. Once developers have their programs built on the cloud, they need to monitor and tweak them using tools from the likes of RightScale and Hyperic. With the exception of Enomaly and Coghead, all of these startups have scored venture funding this year.

Coghead raised $8 million last year, and Reuven Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Enomaly, says he’s fielding about 40 calls a week from venture firms that want to invest in his profitable, boot-strapped company. “I’m not in any desperate need to raise funding to keep the business afloat, but we could grow substantially faster,” Cohen says. “We are open to it and from what I can see, there won’t be a better time for valuations.”

Valuations might be on the rise, but VCs are still focused on capital efficiency. For example Sunil Dhaliwal, a general partner with Battery Ventures, says he’s not interested in investing in any cloud provider that wants to build out thousands of servers as there are plenty of companies — among them Google, Amazon and Rackspace — doing that already. In fact, he’s approaching the entire cloud space with caution.

“We’re so early and there’s still plenty of money to be lost — and I underline lost here — and plenty to be made,” Dhaliwal says. “I think there is going to be a lot of trial and error. People are defining and building solutions without people knowing how they really want to consume them.”

He believes the big opportunities will lie with firms that can help corporate customers connect their existing IT networks to the cloud, as well as with those that provide computing as a service to small and medium businesses that don’t want to manage their own IT networks. One way or another, the move to computing delivered as a service is a huge change in the way businesses and even consumers will consume information technology. As far as venture dollars floating amongst the clouds, this is only the beginning.

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