Security in the cloud is a hot topic. But when we interviewed Peter Bell, General Partner at Highland Capital Partners, he went out of his way to emphasize the need for security on the PC. He was "sticking to the script," as Highland has a number of investments in this area, which we'll review. Nevertheless, his basic point is valid. There is little point for the data centers that serve your SaaS applications to have excellent security if your PC leaks like a sieve. To all Mac-heads, good choice, but most people still use PCs!
Not just Anti-Virus
Security on the PC has tended to mean anti-virus, whose market is very mature and dominated by a few big vendors. It is an arms race against hackers, which means that one smart hacker and one mistake by vendors is all it takes to create a big mess. Studies also show that a far bigger problem than malicious viruses are the "brown-outs" caused when legitimate programs chew up too much resource and gradually take the PC from agonizingly slow to kaput.
Three Vendors, Three Approaches
Three companies in Highland Capital's portfolio are taking new approaches to the old problem of security on the PC:
Approach: Application whitelisting. This is like a whitelist for email. Only emails from known contacts get through, and only pre-approved software gets access to your PC. PCs are "locked down"; only IT-approved software can be downloaded.
Potential bumps in the road:
a) This approach is geared to large enterprises with a centralized IT department that can manage the approval and lock-down process. Peter suggested that hosting vendors could provide this service to smaller companies, but the feasibility of this is as yet unproven.
b) There is a productivity vs. risk trade-off. If an executive who makes a lot of money for a company wants to download something that makes them more productive, why stop them because of the risk to their PC, a problem that could be fixed relatively easily anyway. The reality is that people work around these policies one way or another.
Approach: Virtualization that allows thousands of PCs to be managed remotely. According to Virtual Computer, "NxTop isolates the PC's critical components -- hardware, operating system, applications, and user data -- allowing each to be managed independently in a highly scalable fashion without a persistent network connection."
The technology is sometimes referred to as "client hypervisor technology." Virtual Computer is aligned with the XenSource software acquired by Citrix for $500 million in August 2007, putting it in competition with the leader in virtualization, VMWare.
Virtual Computer is a more recent venture, founded in 2007 and launched in September 2008. It recently closed a Series B round for $15 million (Highland provided the Series A funding and participated in the Series B round as a strategic investor alongside Citrix). This will be an interesting one to watch.
Approach: Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS). Desktone is a great name, but introducing yet another (X)aaS moniker is getting a bit tired. The idea is to move the desktop itself to the cloud, so that the data remains in the enterprise and not on the PC. This article explains the technology quite well. The technology is based on the premise that, while cloud-hosted SaaS applications have tremendous momentum, desktop apps will be around for a long time. Using the PC for local processing is good, but centralizing data management is better.
Desktone secured $17 million in Series A funding in June 2007, co-led by Highland and Softbank.
(Photo by Mess of Pottage.)