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On cloud nine

Their families struggle to understand what they do at this globally recognised Gurgaon startup: Getting computers to run from a far continent. Coming in August: A desktop for Rs 5,000, reports Anika Gupta.

delhi Updated: Jul 08, 2010 23:39 IST
Anika Gupta

Sachin Dev Duggal’s outfit matches his décor. He’s relaxing in the conference room of his new blue and orange corporate office in Gurgaon when he notices this coincidence for the first time.

“Look at that,” says Duggal (27), when someone points out his orange shirt and blue-striped shoes. “Obviously, I totally planned it this way.”

Did he? These days, Duggal lives and breathes his work, so why shouldn’t he wear it too? Sure, blue and orange are a dicey combination — maybe a little teenage boy-esque — but then again, that’s the fuzzy line that his tech startup, nivio, straddles every day.

Duggal started nivio with a friend, Saurabh P. Dhoot (25), in 2004. Their goal was to harness what was an almost painfully new technology, cloud computing, to allow users to create a private online Windows desktop that they could access from any web browser in the world.

In 2009, nivio’s “online desktop” won the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneer Award, given out every year to startups that have introduced truly revolutionary technology.

Nivio now has 120,000 users across Asia, Europe and North America, all of whom log on to a personalised online desktop where they can store documents, send mails and use applications, for which they pay a monthly fee.

Since its inception, the startup has grown exponentially.

Nivio’s Chief Operating Officer Matt Colebourne expects revenue will quadruple this year, to $20 million, although the company has yet to make a profit. The vast majority of their revenue, nearly 70 per cent, goes into research and development.

But to truly understand how this technology pioneer came to be, it’s best to talk to the engineers in the Noida offices.

High Altitude Engineering

Deobrat Singh (26), a nivio senior technology office, can’t really explain his job to his mother.

He didn’t have this problem when he worked for Microsoft, or even when he worked on gaming software. But nowadays, he’s a cloud engineer.

A cloud is a loose Internet network, anchored by massive supercomputers called servers. Servers provide storage and processing for various tasks, while customers use their personal computers only as a point from which to access the network.

“When it comes to software, everything is moving towards the cloud,” says Singh.

Microsoft just released Azure, and Google plans its own cloud computing products for businesses.

Many companies offer cloud software that allows users to perform a few tasks. The online storage application Dropbox is one popular example.

Nivio’s plans were more ambitious. The original idea was to allow users to “rent” popular software applications on the web, for a monthly fee.

Account holders would log onto the cloud to access their account, and then the cloud would run the applications and store all the data.

To make this possible, nivio’s engineer created a complex cloud, an overlapping network of grids.

Each one of nivio’s grids handles a different aspect. One grid authenticates users when they log into their accounts. Another grid runs applications. Yet a third saves data and information, making it instantly available on any net-connected computer in the world.

These grids not only communicate with each other, they make the cloud smarter. When users log in, the cloud senses where they are and directs their operations through the nearest server.

Designing such a cloud isn’t easy. The company’s engineers hold near-daily meetings to sort out network snarls and seemingly unsolvable problems. Some of nivio’s ‘neatest’ features — for example, a tunnel that allows users to access their online desktop even around office firewalls — came out of these meetings.

“I would never get exposure like this at a traditional company,” says Lokesh Jaiswal (24), team lead for applications, who proposed the tunnel.

Computer in the Sky

Now they are ready for another big move. In August, the company plans to release the CloudPC, a scaled-down version of a desktop computer. The sale price? Rs 5,000.

Duggal hopes to sell it to young students and small business owners, who can’t afford expensive machines but still need to use computers.

The idea for the CloudPC came out of an earlier nivio experiment, one that actually didn’t do too well, called the nivio Companion. The Companion was a white box — the CloudPC is black — that nivio tested in 2009.

The goal was to sell the Companion, a basic computing device, to users who needed just enough computing power to get them onto the Net and in touch with the nivio online desktop.

“We realised that people needed local functionality on their computer, even just the ability to listen to music,” says Indrani Biswas (29), a senior technology officer. “So we made sure the CloudPC had some of those abilities.”

The parts were manufactured by local partners. nivio owns the Operating System and the trademark.

In some ways, nivio is working against a trend. In India, first-time computer buyers prefer laptops and mobile devices to desktops. Notebook computer sales are growing faster than desktop sales, although there are still more desktops sold than laptops.

Around the world, software developers aren’t even thinking about computers. They’re going straight to mobile phones.

“Well, the CloudPC isn’t the end of our thought process,” says Duggal.

The company has registered the rights to the names CloudMobile, CloudPhone and CloudBook with the US Patent and Trademark Office, suggesting perhaps where it might be heading. Other companies have tried to sell low-cost computers before, most notably the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which has struggled to keep prices to its stated low objective.

Duggal won’t comment on OLPC’s fate, but he says, “Other companies had problems because they lost their focus. nivio will always focus on software development first.”

The dropped laptop

The engineers are also working on a special nivio appStore. If that comes into being, nivio might start to remind people of another company that’s had standout successes in both the hardware and software fields.

“We don’t have the structure that Apple has,” muses Duggal, who admits he loves the company and owns multiple Apple products. “Wouldn’t that be great?”

These days, he, Colebourne and Dhoot spend a lot of time lobbying for nivio. The company has offices in three continents. The senior staff are in a constant state of travel, often up in the actual clouds, jostled from location to location.

Duggal says the traveling has shown him firsthand the benefits of his own product. “Recently, I was walking down the street and I dropped my laptop,” he muses. “I was heartbroken. But I took it as a sign. I stopped carrying it and installed a CloudPC at home and at the office. Now I feel liberated.”

Every Friday, this series chronicles technological innovation and India’s rise as a global R&D hub. Read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/innovation