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Startup Locks Down Apps

Firewall pioneer Pensak is behind another venture intent on hardening applications where they live

The father of the firewall is back with a new venture: David Pensak, who designed the first commercial firewall and founded Raptor Systems, now part of Symantec, today is lifting the veil on a new startup with its own approach to securing applications.

Pensak's latest venture is Waltham, Mass.-based V.i. Laboratories, which has developed an as-yet unannounced product that hardens applications so they can't be pirated or hacked. "Tampering, reverse-engineering, and piracy are the biggest threats to applications today," says Pensak, who is also credited with developing the first digital rights management software. V.i. Laboratories will release its new software later this summer.

V.i. Laboratories' software protects applications or intellectual property (think researchers' code, for instance) by encrypting at the application-function level so malware or software pirates can't tamper with the app. "We take an existing program and run it through our post-processor that decompiles the program and looks at every executable and encrypts portions of it," Pensak says. It also decrypts it as needed but does not modify source code or change the application's processes or appearance.

"An application provider would run their software through this before deploying it," for example, he says.

It's a different approach from antivirus software or other security tools that scan for known vulnerabilities or anomalies. "It had dawned on me that what was really important was protecting the program itself, not the data going in and out of it," Pensak says. "No one writes perfect [application] code."

So if any malware or hackers get inside, the app is protected from any modification, or theft, he says. "We go after vulnerabilities in the OS that might bite you," Pensak says. "And we detect what we didn't know how to protect and repair it."

The tradeoff is applications do take a two- to five percent performance hit with the security software, he says.

V.i. Laboratories has already made a few sales of the software, but the company can't yet name any customers. The security software is aimed at application developers that would OEM it as well as enterprises such as banks running large, global CPU farms of their key applications that are at risk, Pensak says. It currently runs on Windows NT and XP, and V.i. is working on Solaris and Linux versions of the product as well.

Although industry analysts say the software may initially be a niche product for highly sensitive applications, it does break new ground. "Nobody has really looked at putting a shell around the application like this so an attacker can't do anything with it," says Michael Gavin, senior analyst for Forrester Research. "Any [organization] that has an application they don't want reverse-engineered is a prime candidate for this."

Eric Ogren, security analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, says it appears V.i. Laboratories has taken Pensak's DRM know-how from his days at previous startup Authentica (now part of EMC), and applied it to application code. "I like the idea of encrypting some of the entry points and decrypting them on the fly," he says.

Having Pensak's name behind the new company and its application security software should help, too, given his credentials and previous work in commercializing the firewall and DRM. Rockford Capital is the lead investor in V.i. Laboratories' first-round funding, and pricing for its upcoming software product will start at $18,000 for enterprises.

So why the name V.i.? Pensak says it originally stood for "virgin image," a photography term that means an image hasn't been changed. But the company decided not to spell out "V.i." so its Website wouldn't be confused with a porn site, Pensak says.

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

Companies mentioned in this article:

  • Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC)
  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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