Intelligent security platform Confer launches with $8M to tackle the enterprise BYOD nightmare

By Michael Carney , written on January 15, 2014

From The News Desk

With the bring your own device (BYOD) movement in full effect and employees accessing enterprise systems from non-corporate networks, legacy antivirus and security systems are proving woefully inadequate. Confer is a self-described advanced cyberthreat prevention startup based in Waltham, Mass. that’s launching out of stealth today. In addition to pulling the curtain back on the technology that has been in development for nearly two years, the company announced $8 million in Series A funding via a round co-led by Matrix Partners and North Bridge Venture Partners, where Confer co-founder and CEO Mark Quinlivan incubated the business.

“There’s this new type of exposure that the enterprise has to deal with and the current solutions do a really poor job – they’re 25 percent effective at best,” Quinlivan says.

Convfr company aims to provide a first-of-its-kind intelligence-driven solution capable of securing servers, PCs, and mobile. Users of these devices download and instal app-based “sensors,” in company parlance, which monitor and report back to Confer’s servers activity on the device. The always on sensor is a bit of a revelation, Quinlivan says, as corporate chief security officers (CSOs) have reluctantly accepted being blind and vulnerable when their users are on non-corporate networks.

Confer uses a combination of known threat signatures and ongoing behavioral analysis to identify and respond to atypical behavior on a user’s device. This can mean anything from a rogue app downloaded to a user’s smartphone, to an outside agency seeking access to a company server. More importantly, Confer automates the processing of this data, eliminating the need for users of the to possess deep security expertise.

Companies using the Confer platform have the option to share threat intelligence with other companies across the Confer network, thus enabling better protection and increased visibility into new and novel attack vectors. The idea is to understand attackers across the entire Confer community, rather than individual attack instances. In certain industries, like financial services, this type of threat data sharing is already taking place, albeit largely through manual an inefficient methods like CSO conference calls and threat intelligence email blasts. Confer aims to automate the process.

This system was the result of more than 12 months worth of market research in which Quinlivan and his co-founders, CTO Jeff Kraemer and VP of Products Paul Morville, talked to dozens of enterprise Chief Security Officers (CSOs) and Chief Information Officers (CIOs).

“We spent all this time knitting together common themes, and the one thing we heard from nearly everyone is that the security vendors have ignored the shift away from servers and endpoints,” Quinlivan says. “CSOs would tell us, ‘All my employees are behaving in different ways and I have no answers.’ Existing security vendors want to throw out their pile of threat data, these blacklists, but that’s literally yesterday’s news.”

Confer is wrapping up a months-long beta test involving the likes of small companies and large multinational corporations. The product is expected enter general availability in roughly 30 days and will launch with partnerships with in the finance, insurance, pharmaceutical, and defense sectors, Quinlivan says. The initial release will support Windows (XP onward), Mac, Android, and Linux systems, with an iOS version coming this summer. Quinlivan justifies the omission by saying that Apple’s mobile platform is currently “the most locked down” of the bunch, although it is still vulnerable to threats. Confer will offer three pricing tiers (the exact costs have yet to be disclosed), ranging from its basic sensor grid and threat sharing, to the addition of an analytics platform, to finally the option to access Confer’s managed services division which offers advanced customer support and threat analysis.

Despite the positive response from early users, and the extensive rolodex of leading companies already interested in testing the product, Confer is in for a long and tough rollout according to its CEO.

“What we’re doing is a very different way of looking at security,” he says. “Getting companies to understand that they need to be able to accept threats and the existence of grey area [between blacklists and whitelists] is a new thinking of thinking about security. When you hand your people devices, or they bring their own, you’re accepting risk. The question is how much and how can you dial in protection to appropriate levels. We’re operationalizing threat intelligence, rather than the old way of putting up 18-foot-high wall called a blacklist and hoping bad guys stay out.”

Beyond education, Confer will have to overcome the switching costs associated with enterprises replacing existing security infrastructure. The good news is, Confer is less expensive that legacy systems and claims to be far more effective. Proving that, however, will be a tall order.

“We’re not worried about the big AV guys – the Symantecs, McAfees, and Kasperskys,” North Bridge General Partner and Confer board member Jim Moran says. “And we work in combination with other security startups like FireEye. We’re like BASF – we don’t make the thing, we make the thing better.”

Better solutions are exactly what’s needed, Moran argues, reiterating that BYOD proliferation and the need to control what has become a borderless network presents an enormous problem for security and IT departments. “We know we’re being probed and hacked constantly,” he says. “The problem exists today and is going to get worse. That’s the reality and that’s the way we’ve look at the opportunity since deciding to build Confer.”

Security is one of those nebulous services that are near-impossible to quantify and which always seem to work, until the time they don’t. There are new threats emerging seemingly daily, and nearly the same number of new solutions introduced by industry with the promise of game-changing effectiveness. Confer will require both time and money to prove that it’s go the bonafides to compete in this market.

The good news is, with today’s funding round, it will have plenty of both, and a healthy dose of expectations as well.