Harjot Gill: Listening in on the Cloud
In recent years, in conjunction with the rise of social media and the internet of things (IoT), there has been tremendous growth in cloud computing. A powerful technology for hosting and delivering services over the internet, cloud computing reduces hardware maintenance expenses and overall operating costs for businesses. With this transformation comes a new set of problems: Few tools are available to adequately address the issues that accompany data processing in the cloud.
Every digital business is now powered by hundreds of services and thousands of service interactions in the cloud. Yet due to the distributed nature of the cloud, development and operations (DevOps) teams, which are responsible for uptime and performance of applications, cannot see these services and cannot see the service dependencies. This critical blindness incurs a huge financial cost from prolonged outages, bad deployments, and ineffective planning.
To overcome this problem, Harjot Gill (MSE’13) co-founded a company called Netsil, which delivers a cutting-edge monitoring solution for distributed cloud applications. The company offers a unique product that tracks and analyzes data in complex distributed systems, improving cloud application performance and allowing businesses to optimize their resources. Netsil’s software provides insights into service delivery and user experience of cloud applications and helps troubleshoot performance bottlenecks.
“When you consider the chaos in the application space with new programming languages, abstractions and frameworks, the network itself emerges as a natural, stable vantage point to observe and monitor modern cloud applications,” Gill says. “Netsil’s network-centric approach is future-proof across generations of applications.”
“Listen” spelled backwards, Netsil is based on a unique technology that provides real-time, non-intrusive monitoring of communications in cloud applications, similar to neuroimaging techniques such as positron emission tomography. “We use the data that we collect from the communication patterns we observe to build a map of cloud apps and find areas of congestion,” Gill says. “It’s a groundbreaking technology that allows us to understand the performance of cloud apps better than any other technique on the market.”
Unveiled in September, Netsil’s new Application Operations Center (AOC) is a universal observability and monitoring platform for modern cloud applications. With the AOC, Netsil now enables DevOps teams to gain complete visibility into all of their services and dependencies using real-time maps, with absolutely no code changes required. As a result, the teams are able to reduce downtime, ensure safer deployments and meet their service level objectives.
This technology is invaluable for e-commerce. Businesses that sell goods online suffer revenue losses when their websites hang up and potential buyers abandon their shopping carts. Netsil overcomes this obstacle by discovering problems affecting the performance of cloud applications before they even occur. “Netsil presents human operators with an interface that can be thought of as a kind of ‘Google Maps for Cloud Applications,’ which helps speed up their job by orders of magnitude,” Gill says. “In industry, almost every enterprise is moving its workflow to the cloud, and the rise of the internet of things will only expand that workload in the next few years.”
SEEDS FOR SUCCESS
Netsil has its roots in the NetDB@Penn research group led by Professor Boon Thau Loo of the Department of Computer and Information Science (CIS). As a graduate student in the lab, whose long-term objective is to create useful distributed computing systems, Gill was working with his brother, Tanveer Gill (MSE’14), and undergraduate student Cam Nguyen (BSE’12) when the idea for Netsil began to emerge.
“We had a solution looking for a problem. It took a while to find a large enough problem in the market to address with our technology,” Gill says. “You can apply it in 10 different ways to solve 1,000 different problems, and it’s hard to pick one problem in the enterprise software space. The greatest challenge was to decide what type of company we wanted to build from all of these options.”
Even at this early stage of development, their solution was promising enough to attract the attention of the National Science Foundation. With this funding, the Gill brothers and Nguyen rented out two tiny rooms a block away from the Penn campus and worked day and night to further develop their product.
Capitalizing on their hard work, the trio garnered a worldwide exclusive license from Penn and co-founded Netsil in 2012, along with Shariq Rizvi, who was a software engineer at Google and director of the performance ads team at Twitter. Thanks to the combined experience of the co-founders, Netsil got off to a great start. Some of their first customers were Fortune 500 companies, and they have since acquired a strong client base on the West Coast.
According to Gill, the success of Netsil is due in large part to its roots in Penn Engineering. “Being at Penn really opened a lot of doors for us,” he says. To further boost the company’s success, Gill has since recruited Penn Engineering alumni who were top-notch students in courses that he taught as a graduate student in CIS. “I’m very proud of this team. They were all undergrads with little experience who later went out to tackle big problems in industry and are stepping up to grow into larger roles.”
The learning curve for Gill and his team was steep, and over the years, they have gained a lot of appreciation for what business people do. “It’s a very tough job,” Gill says. “Research in the lab is not as hard as building something in the real world. But if the product is good, everything else will follow.”