VMware’s R&D Lab: A Little Piece of Palo Alto in the Heart of Kendall Square
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any other file—the software running on them can be picked up and moved from one server to another with little or no downtime (assuming, of course, that the data the machines need to operate upon is also being regularly copied to the backup site; data replication is a separate technology that most big companies already pay for).
But orchestrating all of that in advance and making sure it happens seamlessly when the need hits is the tricky part, and that’s where the skills of VMware’s Cambridge engineers came in. “It’s easy to make things complex, but it’s often hard to make them simple,” says Matheson. VMware’s site recovery software—which is being beta-tested right now, and should be commercially available in the second half of this year—lets IT administrators specify in advance which applications are most critical and should be restarted first, so they don’t have to worry about prioritization during a crisis. “To be able to push one button and restart your entire data center in a remote location—that’s elegant and requires a lot of work behind the scenes,” says Matheson.
One of Austin’s responsibilities is to manage her engineering teams as efforts like the site recovery manager evolve from development projects into full-scale products; some engineers want to stay with the products, she says, while others want to transition back to R&D. But another big part of her job to make sure that everyone who comes to work in VMware’s Cambridge facility recognizes it as part of the larger company.
“When people come here or visit from the West Coast, we want them to feel like they are at VMware, in terms of the culture, the look and feel,” Austin says. That includes replicating traditions from the company’s Palo Alto headquarters, including a Wednesday company lunch, weekly socials and tech talks, video game tournaments, and free snacks and drinks (along with an on-site gym where employees can burn off the snacks and drinks). Frequent video conferences keep the Cambridge staff connected with their counterparts in California and Europe. “My job is to make sure that [the lab] works, that it’s effective, that people don’t feel like they’re stuck on an island,” Austin says.
But that hasn’t been a problem, given the number of IT-related seminars, lectures, club meetings, and collaboration opportunities available around Kendall Square. Because they’re all working with the same university computer-science departments, VMware employees frequently cross paths with peers from Google, Akamai, IBM, Microsoft, and other big software companies with Kendall Square offices, Austin says. And the lab’s urban location has been a big plus, she says. “Our employees really feel like they’re in a technology hub. And Kendall Square has evolved quite a bit in the last three to five years; it’s created a technology presence right in the center of the city as opposed to out in the suburbs. Our younger employees, especially, are thrilled to be able to live in the city and stay local and have us be at their back door.”
Speaking of back doors—I couldn’t leave VMware without asking Austin about VMware’s procedures for patching software vulnerabilities. Those aren’t the Cambridge lab’s bailiwick, so Austin couldn’t speak about the specific workstation software flaw I covered. She did acknowledge, though, that “we weren’t as fast as we could have been” in issuing a fix for the workstation vulnerability.
“We take security very seriously, and priority number one is sending out patches as soon as possible,” Austin says. She adds that VMware is investing in a new update management system that allows the company to simultaneously patch both the “hypervisor” software at the core of its virtualization technology and the guest operating systems, such as Windows Server 2003, that run inside virtualized machines. “It’s something we’re definitely focused on doing better.”