This VR Tool Lets a Company Police Its Networks Like Neo

Virtual-reality software from ProtectWise sees—and displays—the massive blur of data for what it is: a matrix.
Illustrator: Steph Davidson

Pity security analysts. The complexity of the corporate networks they guard makes it difficult to spot a crime as it’s taking place. More often than not they’re stuck digging through digital logs trying to piece together what happened. It’s often tedious work, though the pay isn’t bad.

Imagine if cybersentinels could take to the skies to spot signs of trouble, like characters in a video game. Over in that neighborhood to the east, which is home to the accounting department, one of the buildings has suddenly changed from its customary yellow to an alarming shade of red. It’s time to investigate.

ProtectWise Inc., a Denver-based security startup, is preparing to roll out virtual-reality software that maps a computer network as a city. Each business unit or department can be assigned its own block, or neighborhood, and the individual network components become buildings within it. Hexagonal structures stand in for mobile devices, while round towers identify databases. The software also visualizes the data traffic among different parts of the network.

The software uses shapes and colors to denote functions and levels of risk.

Courtesy ProtectWise

“Without looking at numbers or ports or anything, you can say, ‘Why are all of those connections going to this one host?’ ” says Jay Leek, managing director of venture fund ClearSky Security who joined the ProtectWise board in January. “You can immediately see that there’s really something funky with the traffic going on over there. You have no idea what it is, but you can go focus on that first, because you know that’s different from what you would expect to see.”

Creating a more exciting, intuitive, and even beautiful user interface has been part of the company’s mission since its inception in 2013. The ProtectWise Grid, the company’s original product, now used by 50 clients including Netflix Inc., has a two-dimensional interface designed by Jake Sargeant, who had a hand in creating the special effects for the film Tron: Legacy. A control panel displays the network information collected by ProtectWise sensors as a series of point-and-click interactive screens, with threats color-coded by severity and mapped in various ways. The VR version of the user interface, dubbed Immersive Grid, should be ready for testing by customers sometime between July and September.

Many security products are designed to filter the information that an analyst needs to respond to. ProtectWise has turned that idea on its head. “Instead of hiding 10 million data points and looking at the top 10, why don’t I show you all 10 million in a way we can reason with?” says Gene Stevens, co-founder and chief technology officer of ProtectWise, which has raised $67 million in venture capital so far.

The video game view of a company’s network taps into the skills and aesthetics of the Xbox generation. That’s crucial to solving a looming shortage of security analysts, says Scott Chasin, co-founder and chief executive officer of ProtectWise. The Center for Cyber Safety and Education estimates the shortfall will grow to 1.8 million by 2022, based on a recent survey of more than 19,000 cybersecurity professionals.

In the same way that you don’t need to be a pilot to fly a drone, you won’t necessarily need years of technical experience to recognize something is amiss with a company’s security. Analysts can patrol a network the way beat cops do, with an eye for what’s suddenly out of the ordinary in a familiar streetscape.

The VR concept has already helped clinch business from a top law firm, Stevens says. ProtectWise hasn’t determined how much the service will cost. While the software is proprietary, the hardware isn’t. Customers will be able to use goggles from Oculus Rift or other VR gear. (Pricing for ProtectWise Grid is based on the amount of network traffic a company chooses to run through the system as well as the length of time it chooses to retain records.)

Richard Rushing, chief information security officer at Motorola Mobility LLC, has previewed the VR software and gives it high marks. “On the highway, I can tell there’s traffic, but I don’t have complete visibility about what’s going on,” he says. “I think of this as a traffic helicopter.”

Rushing says the phone maker has been using the original Grid product for about a year. It’s made job training easier, he says, and helped less experienced security staff get up to speed more quickly. “For lack of a better term, it is almost like the interface was contagious,” he says. “People were like, ‘Oh, this is cool, I can find out exactly what I want to.’ ”

The bottom line: ProtectWise is gearing up to roll out a VR product that gives cybersentinels a fresh way of dealing with hacks.

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