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The Enterprise File Sync & Share Solutions (EFSS) Bet on “Zero Knowledge”

RSA interview with AlephCloud CEO Jieming Zhu

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Please tell us, what is AlephCloud all about and what do you do?

Jieming Zhu: A lot of people are curious as to how we arrived at AlephCloud® as our company name. "Aleph" is the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenicians were the first state-level society to make extensive use of the alphabet and are credited with creating the first geo-distributed trade partner networks. The AlephCloud name reflects our focus on providing a new privacy and compliance solution for enterprise digital assets management in the cloud era. Our first application, Content Canopy, solves the problem of how to share documents securely outside trust boundaries and across one or more public clouds.

AlephCloud has developed proprietary technology that enables secure collaboration without the need for a trusted third party. This "zero knowledge" model makes sure only authorized parties are privy to the information exchanged and stored, while nobody else has visibility, not even AlephCloud. We provide federated data privacy and policy controls that attach directly to the data to protect it while also ensuring ease of use and the flexibility for businesses to utilize a wide range of cloud service providers.

This is what we called "object-level security" or "protecting the content". We believe that this is the new security model that enterprises want and need to augment their existing "perimeter-based security" that focuses only on "protecting the data center boundary, virtual or not". In terms of specific service, the AlephCloud Content Canopy SaaS offering layers transparent data privacy, confidentiality and audit controls on top of leading cloud providers including Amazon S3, Box, Dropbox and OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive). By combining zero knowledge encryption and key federation, AlephCloud makes any public content sharing service a Trustworthy CloudTM.

What are you launching at RSA?

Zhu: Our Content Canopy solution is a new entrant in the secure cloud-based file sync and share market. But it is much more than that. Content Canopy enables organizations to securely share documents with external clients and business partners and to sync content with their iPads and smartphones. Essentially, Canopy transforms cloud file storage solutions such as Dropbox, Box, and OneDrive into viable solutions for business-critical documents by applying necessary levels of privacy and governance. Content Canopy also supports corporate-provisioned Amazon S3.

The Snowden incident heightened people's awareness that their data, now increasingly residing somewhere else (cloud storage), can be exposed to a third party by the cloud vendor without their knowledge. The immediate, reflexive thought is "oh, I need to encrypt my data and to make sure I am the one retaining the encryption key."

Encryption can be quite simple if you are one person who wants to store information in the cloud where you manage and secure your own encryption keys. However, when people and organizations need to share the data with others, key management can quickly become quite complex and burdensome. How to manage keys when sharing data with groups of people both inside and outside your organization? What about defining these groups with corporate identity repositories such as Active Directory?

Suddenly, you are faced with complex key management, identity integration, encryption key federation, etc. You also have to manage the lifecycles of the encryption keys in order to assign and remove authorization and define document retention policies, for example.  Content Canopy resolves these issues in ways that are transparent to business users. And most importantly, insiders who manage corporate IT networks cannot leak the information because they cannot decrypt it - while still being able to monitor the data accesses and users. This prevents Snowden-style insider attacks.

The biggest challenge we have now is to get the message out and educate people about the necessity for a trustworthy Cloud object-level security model. Once an enterprise or institution deploys our solution, they immediately understand the glaring gaps in security, compliance and ease/flexibility of use in other approaches. We will be demonstrating the security and ease of use of AlephCloud Content Canopy at the RSA conference next week in booth #2533 in the South Expo Hall.

Who is your target audience and how do you intend to reach them? What is the biggest challenge you face right now in telling your story and winning over new clients?

Zhu: Our target audience is an enterprise or institution that needs to share documents securely outside their firewalls, or security perimeter, with remote employees, contractors, partners, and clients. Industry segments that have expressed a pressing need for AlephCloud include federal and state government agencies, financial services organizations, banks, pharmaceutical/research companies, law firms, and media organizations. Any organization that wants to regain control of sensitive documents stored and shared in the cloud and via mobile devices including BYOD.

AlephCloud has developed an entirely new approach to cloud content protection and access. We have designed a security and compliance solution specifically for secure cloud and mobile content sharing and collaboration that lets users retain the familiar experience they are growing to know and love with consumer-grade public clouds.

I'd be curious to hear any general thoughts you have on market trends...

Zhu: Research data tells us that the market for our solution will grow exponentially over the next several years, as more organizations come to understand that the proliferation of easy-to-use consumer-grade file sharing cloud services (BYOC) along with an everyone does it BYOD (bring your own device) mobile environment in the enterprise presents significant and potentially gravely damaging risks for data leakage, as well as version conflicts and compliance gaps. At this time, scores of proprietary and regulated documents flow daily to non-corporate devices and environments, outside enterprise IT controls and audit trails. Business is being done everywhere on all manner of devices and the time is now for AlephCloud Content Canopy.

What's the business model? How will you make money?

Zhu: AlephCloud Content Canopy is a SaaS offering and pricing is based on the number of licensed users and/or usage. However, guests "fly for free", that is, when you extend an invitation to share documents to someone outside your organization, that person uses the service at no cost. More recently, AlephCloud is offering a white-listed platform solution that we are licensing via an open API/SDK.

Who are your competitors?

Zhu: According to Monica Basso, an esteemed Gartner analyst in our space, enterprise file sync and share solutions (EFSS) is "an immature but crowded space." We have a tremendous opportunity to make a significant impact and are working toward that goal. While there are many point-solutions out there, our unique Trustworthy Cloud approach of object-level security with "zero-knowledge" offers a comprehensive solution for enterprise. It delivers:

  • IT visibility for audit and compliance
  • Control of content (privacy, revocation, recovery)
  • Any-to-any collaboration
  • Cloud agnostic storage
  • Ease-of-use to ensure that employees will migrate and use AlephCloud

In comparison, almost all point-solutions exhibit one or several of those shortcomings:

  1. "Zero knowledge" for exclusive information protection and access; you retain your keys but you can't collaborate with anyone else.
  2. "Zero knowledge" file sharing, but this only enables plausible deniability for the cloud vendor; data sharing among end users is either not secure or requires complex process or infrastructure for the key distribution.
  3. "Trust me" model in which the vendor can either access your content or holds the encryption/decryption keys, or holds the identity access of users-or a combination of the above. Snowden taught us why this model is completely broken.

How do you differentiate from your competitors?

Zhu: AlephCloud provides a complete, end-to-end solution for secure cloud collaboration and storage. We have developed proprietary technologies that elegantly manage encryption, key federation and ensure ease of use and flexibility to work with familiar solutions such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon S3 and OneDrive.

How does your technology differentiate from the competition and can you elaborate on the different technology deployed?

Zhu: AlephCloud's differentiation is in our cryptographic solution architecture.

We have developed an architecture for cryptography and secure document exchange that uniquely provides privacy, cloud agility and advanced services. Unlike alternatives that provide EITHER privacy OR document services, as with features, the AlephCloud architecture and cryptography delivers BOTH. The key to the architecture is the combination of client software and a cloud service-both are essential to deliver privacy along with advanced services.

The heart of the AlephCloud solution architecture is the key federation cloud service. This service provides Zero Knowledge cryptography, which ensures that only authorized parties can ever access content. The service also provides a mediation function to arbitrate all requests for content, enabling advances services such as emergency document access and immediate revocation - all done without the possibility for any cloud vendor, including AlephCloud, to access the content or the keys.

Another AlephCloud architecture advantage is flexible storage options. Our solution is cloud and storage agnostic, and conceptually documents can be stored anywhere. This allows organizations to align with their cloud migration strategies, and place content in the most appropriate repository with respect to cost, compliance, and availability.

What business or technology could yours disrupt?

Zhu: We believe that our core technology is game-changing with respect to digital content management both on-premise and in the cloud. The protection we provide is object based and we are cloud and storage agnostic.

Who founded the company, when? What can you tell me about the story of the company's founding?

Zhu: The company was founded at the end of 2011 by Roy D'Souza and me. Roy and I have known each other since we worked together at Brocade in the early 2000s. I was a Chief Technologist at HP Storage and have worked in several successful startups, including Brocade. Roy was most recently crypto architect for Microsoft Azure Trust Services, a pioneering effort to implement cryptographically enforced security with federated key management for cloud services. Over dinners in our respective living rooms, we decided that the time was right to combine our areas of expertise and bring to market a solution that addresses these badly needed market trends and opportunities.

What is your distribution model? Where to buy your product?

Zhu: At the moment, we are selling the AlephCloud SaaS solution directly. We are exploring various reseller partners and white list strategies.

Are you targeting a first VC round? If yes when and what will you use the funds for? How much money is being sought?

Zhu: We raised $7.5M in B Series funding in May 2013. The funding was led by Handbag, LLC, a new wave venture capital firm created by noted Silicon Valley investor and former CrossPoint general partner Seth Neiman. The new investment brings the total amount raised to $9.5 million.

Based in Sunnyvale, CA, AlephCloud has developed a transparent new approach for managing content privacy, confidentiality and auditability in public clouds. AlephCloud believes that only information owners should decide who sees their content, not cloud providers and not even AlephCloud. Visit www.alephcloud.com to learn more or follow us on twitter @alephcloud.

More Stories By Xenia von Wedel

Xenia von Wedel is a Tech blogger and Enterprise Media Consultant in Mountain View, serving clients in a variety of industries worldwide. She is focused on thought leadership content creation and syndication, media outreach and strategy. She mainly writes about Enterprise, B2B solutions, social media and open source software, but throws the occasional oddball into the mix. Buy her a coffee if you like her article: http://xeniar.tip.me

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