There is something odd about the computer Jonathan Hefter keeps at his desk in the Dogpatch Labs tech incubator just off of Union Square. The space is filled with employees from some of New York’s most promising startups, most of whom are coding away on top-of-the-line-machines or fiddling with their cherished iPads. But Hefter sits me down at his workstation in front of a Dell GX150, considered state of the art in 2000, now available for $70 from a second-hand dealer online.
Hefter boots up the computer and in a flash I’m logged into Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows 7. I open up a document and type a few paragraphs, then pop into MS Paint and create a quick image. I log on to the internet, check my email and stream a video. Microsoft recommends a machine with at least 1 gigahertz processor and 1 gigabyte of RAM in order to work in Windows 7, but this computer seems to handle it just fine.
“Most people are surprised when I show them how well an old machine can handle a new operating system,” says Hefter, cracking a grin. “Especially when I tell them I also took out the hard drive.”
Heftner has transformed this old Dell into a what’s known as a virtual desktop. The processing power, the memory, even the operating system itself are being delivered from a small unit the size of a pizza box tucked into a closet down the hall. That single piece of equipment, dubbed the “juicebox” by Hefter, can power hundreds of terminals on a cloud based network.
“Most schools and city governments and non-profits in America are stuck on an expensive treadmill,” Hefter explains. Every four to five years they have to upgrade their computer systems, a process known as the hardware refresh cycle. “If you could break that pattern of planned obsolescence, you would generate huge savings, not just on the economic level, but from an environmental standpoint as well.”
It’s an idea that excites cash strapped institutions looking for a new model, and terrifies the big PC manufacturers accustomed to annual paydays. Hefter has named his company Neverware, “Because with us, they will never have to buy a new computer again.”
The Neverware project began in May of 2009, after Hefter, now 25, had graduated from Wharton with a degree in economics. He had several job offers on the table, but decided to move back in with his parents in Long Island and set up shop in the garage. “I noticed a lot of old computer s we had out there started to disappear,” said his father, Harold Hefter. “Which was good, because I wasn’t sure how to throw them out anyway.”
At first Hefter’s parents were concerned about his startup ambitions. “I wanted him to go get his PhD,” said his mother, Eva. “But he just kept telling me he wanted to change the world. He can be quite the mensch.”
Despite his lack of formal training, Hefter, a self-taught computer whiz, created a working prototype of the Neverware technology in under a year and in May of 2010 was invited to join Dogpatch Labs in New York. There he caught the eye of Diana Rhoten, co-founder of Startl, an organization that looks to identify and accelerate interesting projects in the realm of education technology. “Jonathan fit the profile of entrepreneurs we’re looking for,” says Rhoten. “Young, passionate and committed to a truly disruptive idea.”
Before founding Startl, Rhoten was the program director at the National Science Foundation’s Office of Cyberinfrastructure. “It was me and a bunch of supercomputing folks, and we spent a lot of time thinking about virtual desktops and cloud computing and how to make that work for schools,” says Rhoten. “When I saw what Jonathan had done, I realized that this was the solution I kept picturing in my head but didn’t know how to create myself.”
The key difference between what was on the market and what Neverware was offering, says Rhoten, is that Hefter’s project was built from the ground up to be lean and light. “The virtual desktop solutions that most of the big corporations offer are too expensive and complex for schools to deploy,” says Rhoten. Hefter’s technology, by comparison, was cheap, worked with whatever computer the school already had and reduced the amount of oversight needed on a daily basis.
Take this case study offered by HP about how they helped St. Peter’s Anglican Primary School. In it they replaced 160 traditional PCs with 80 blade PCs and 90 thin clients. That costs approximately $100,000 and generates 2 tons of e-waste. Hefter solves the same problem with two “juiceboxes” powering the original 160 PCs. Cost = $20,000. E-waste = 0.
It seemed too good to be true, so Rhoten spent the next few months trying to poke holes in Hefter’s project. “I brought in infrastructure guys to look at it, computing folks, people from school districts at both the local and federal level.” The response was always the same: this looks very promising, but there are a lot of people trying to do virtual computing with more experience and resources than this kid.
Rhoten eventually showed Neverware to an ex-Google engineer, who like everyone else, dismissed it at first. “I’ll never forget, about a week later this engineer emailed me up, it was on Thanksgiving day,” says Rhoten. “He said,I might have been wrong. I can’t stop thinking about Neverware. This might actually work.”
The changes powering Hefter’s vision are all around us. “The history of personal computers until recently was bigger and faster,” says the technology writer Nicholas Carr “But now, with more and more computing done out of the cloud the size of your hard drive doesn’t matter anymore. From Facebook to mobile apps, cloud computing has become the dominant model for individual consumers, whether they know it or not.”
The big PC companies, however, aren’t going down without a fight. Early on in Neverware’s history, Hefter contacted Dell and Intel, eager to share with them his approach. It was the equivalent of calling the major oil companies to show them a design for a solar powered car. “I also don’t know that we’d be interested in “radically extending the life…of desktop PCs,” was the reply Hefter got from a higher up at Intel.
“Sometimes I just feel like screaming,” Hefter told me one afternoon, as we walked briskly down University towards Union Square. “It’s like I’m Russel Crowe from The Insider, and I have this truth that I just want to get out there, but nobody wants to listen.”
Slowly but surely, however, people are starting to listen. Hefter took a recent trip to Silicon Valley, where he met with several of the major players in the cloud computing and virtual desktop space. This week he will be speaking at the Aspen Institutes forum on innovation in education in D.C..
“There is a perfect storm brewing for adoption,” said Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York State conference of mayors. “We see folks are becoming more comfortable with the cloud and, at the same time, budget concerns are forcing them to take a hard look at how they spend.”
In fact, according to a city hall source, New York City is considering a pilot program that would deploy Neverware in local schools. “I think at a time like this, when cities are trying to squeeze every last drop from their budgets,” says the source, “Neverware has the potential to be a real game changer.”
The way Hefter sees it, schools are a beachhead from which to remake the whole PC market, and soon, the market for mobile computing devices. “Perhaps it was a little naive of me to think that these companies would want to hear about ideas that could hurt their businesses,” says Hefter. “But to me, if you’re just protecting the status quo, if you are no longer concerned about innovation, then you don’t deserve to be setting tech policy for the rest of us.”
bpopper at observer dot com – @benpopper