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Start-up pitches high-end Web apps on the cheap

ActiveGrid lands multimillion-dollar funding for plan to use open-source tools, low-cost servers for Web applications.

A San Francisco start-up wants to make it easier to build large-scale Web applications using cheap servers and popular open-source software.

The company, ActiveGrid, is working on server software and a development tool for building business applications that would run on a network of connected Linux servers. On Tuesday, it announced that it has landed $3 million in initial funding for its products from Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and Allegis Capital.

Mitchell Kertzman, a partner at Hummer Winblad and former CEO of Liberate Technologies, and Jean-Louis Gassee, general partner at Allegis and former CEO of Be, will sit on ActiveGrid's board.

To build large-scale applications, such as high-volume Web sites, corporations typically purchase high-end infrastructure software from companies such as IBM or BEA Systems to run on large servers. ActiveGrid is trying to provide the equivalent processing muscle more cheaply by letting companies run Web applications over several low-cost hardware servers.

ActiveGrid's products are meant to be a simpler and cheaper alternative to Java application server software and tools, company executives said.

The ActiveGrid software is built on the so-called LAMP open-source stack, which includes the Linux operating system, Apache Web server software, MySQL database software and PHP development tools.

With the company's tool, developers familiar with scripting languages such as PHP, Perl or Python can build Web applications using XML to process data. Scripting languages in general are easier to learn than Java and are well-suited to processing data formatted in XML, ActiveGrid CEO Peter Yared said. Developers can also use XML-based protocols called Web services to automate business processes, he said.

The ActiveGrid server software is designed to enable companies to string together several commodity Linux servers to handle large processing loads. The method is used by companies such as search engine Google to run large-scale Web applications. ActiveGrid's software can balance the computing load across several machines in a so-called grid configuration by caching data and Web pages, Yared said.

Anne Thomas Manes, an analyst at research company Burton Group, said ActiveGrid's approach of trying to scale up Web applications written with LAMP could pose a viable alternative to Java tools and application servers.

"The big issue is always whether you can make PHP scale," Manes said. "I'm not convinced that this will seriously rock the boat for IBM, but it's certainly an interesting alternative."

The company's business model--one used by a growing number of software start-ups--is to make its server software and tools freely available to programmers and to charge large corporate customers for a more functional product.

ActiveGrid's first product for building and running Web applications on a Linux server grid will be available for free in January, the company said. It will be offered with an open-source license fashioned on that of the Apache Foundation. A more advanced product with the ability to distribute transactions across several servers to gain performance is set for release later next year.

The company intends to offer a grid server on a hosted basis through partners.