Surgient has updated its virtual lab automation software to relieve some of the burden on IT department. The compaany said that the software would allow business units to set up their own virtual computing environments for projects like application development and testing.

The product is tapping into an emerging class of product that uses self-service, policy-based tools to let employees configure their own virtual computing infrastructure, then take the environment down when the work is finished. Other vendors in the area include Skytap, VMLogix and virtualisation leader VMware, which acquired Surgient rival Akimbi two years ago.

Surgient, of Austin, Texas, said Wednesday it has renamed its product the Virtual Automation Platform 6.0 and added support for Microsoft's new Hyper-V hypervisor and tighter integration with its Active Directory software. It has also given its product a new user interface and the ability to provision physical servers alongside virtual environments using Symantec's Altiris deployment tool.

Virtual lab automation is "the best-kept secret everyone needs to know about," according to Theresa Lanowitz, founder of the analyst company Voke, which specialises in application lifecycle management. It can reduce the workload for IT departments and allow them to focus on their production systems, and it can also "stop the operations guys from being a bottleneck to setting up test environments," Lanowitz said.

Besides testing applications, Surgient's product is used by software vendor sales teams to prepare demonstrations, and by human resources and training teams for software training, said CEO Tim Lucas. The company has 50 to 60 customers including SAP, Lloyds TSB and Kraft.

The product assigns servers and their associated storage to a pool of computing resources. End-users can then manage the reservation, configuration and deployment of those resources from a web-based console. IT departments retain control by establishing policies about who can access which resources or perform which tasks, according to Surgient CTO Dave Malcolm.

IT staff set up the product by populating a library with information about the infrastructure and software image required for the applications users might request. "So if it's a three-server application you might need a Web server, database server and application server, then you define how it's networked together and what images are associated with it," Malcolm said. When a user requests the application, Surgient's product sets it up automatically with the required infrastructure.

Surgient is a small, privately held company with about 80 employees. Revenue has been growing by about 50 percent a year, but this year it is on track to double to approximately US$25 million, and the company becomes profitable this year, Lucas said.

Despite its small size, Surgient has an advantage over VMware in that it supports all the main virtual machines, while VMware is focused only on its ESX hypervisor, Lanowitz said. Surgient also integrates with HP's Quality Center testing software, so users can access Surgient from inside HP's product, and it will integrate with IBM's Rational Quality Manager software when it is released later this year, Malcolm said.

Surgient began by offering the product as a hosted service but now gets about 45 percent of its business from on-site installations. The licence for the software starts at $25,000, (£13,700) and the average deal size is about $250,000, Lucas said.