January 27, 2014

NSA-Developed Technology Sqrrl is a Great Development for Enterprise

With some of the most serious cyber-security and big data collection/protection chops anywhere, Cambridge-based Sqrrl Enterprise is not your standard tech entrepreneurial story. And, with the top level security clearances to prove it, Sqrrl may be the best news for enterprise data security as cloud computing becomes ubiquitous and the protection of data becomes vital.

Developed by former National Security Agency computer systems researcher Adam Fuchs; Ely Kahn, the former director of cyber-security at the National Security Staff in the White House; and former NSA developers/contractors John Vines, Phil Eberhardt, Luke Brassard and Chris McCubbin, Sqrrl may be the great success story spinoff of an organization that is not perceived very positively these days.

The "core founders" of Sqrrl worked at the NSA for ten years, as CEO Mark Terenzoni explained. At the NSA, they were tasked with building a technology that could help them break down the "silos" of data that kept all kinds of possibly important and related data separate and behind varying levels of security. As Terenzoni said, they needed to find a way to break down the "silos", and "put them into one system so that they could utilize that information for a number of missions within the NSA."

"One of the key things they were interested in, was being able to share their data sets across departments," he added. "So the product had to have very strong requirements for security."

What the Sqrrl/NSA team built was not a security that tried to keep people out, but as Terenzoni explained, "more of an enabling security."

The technology that emerged had the ability to tag pieces of information so that a later determination could be made as to who has access to certain data. The products that the team created enabled multiple departments to use the same big data system while maintaining requirements around secrecy, top secret clearances, etc. 

As Terenzoni said, "It was a really unique requirement they had to fulfill. There was nothing out on the market that could meet the scale requirement, the security requirement, and the flexibility requirement to be able to program the system very rapidly."

The technology they built ended up being called Accumulo, which became a top-level Apache Foundation project and was eventually open-sourced by the NSA in 2011. 

The Sqrrl team broke off on their own in 2012 to leverage the technology in the enterprise space. The team utilized the open core technologies of Accumulo, and as Terenzoni said, "built significant features around Accumulo that take that technology and make it usable for the enterprise."

In the summer of 2012, Sqrrl received a $2M Seed Round from Boston-based VC's Chris Lynch at Atlas Venture and Antonio Rodriguez at Matrix Partners. The investment also led the company to move its operations from Washington, D.C., to Boston. 

As Terenzoni said, there were two reasons for the move from D.C. to Boston. One, in the nation's capitol, there would always be the attraction to work on "fed business" and not focus on enterprise, and the team wanted to go all in as a startup. The other reason was that Boston had more development talent, specifically those who had an enterprise-geared skill set, that could help take Sqrrl to the next level.

In the spring of 2013, Terenzoni, who had worked with Chris Lynch at Acopia Networks, was brought on as the company's CEO.

As Terenzoni said, when he arrived he was shocked by how much possibility there was for the company. "There was a pent up demand for what Sqrrl was doing," he exclaimed. "It was pretty rare for an early stage startup."

Terenzoni continued, "When you go into a customer and show your functionality...questions always arise about [the ability] to scale and will [the product] work under stress."

"Sqrrl core tech [built at the NSA] has been running for the last five years, for some very mission critical applications, at a significant magnitude and greater scale than any commercial products in the same space."

"We have a unique story," Terenzoni added, "where we can talk about functionality, but also the proven scale for the marketplace."

Like most things in life, the best way to get a better understanding of just what Sqrrl can do is through some clever animation:


As for what's next, Terenzoni said that the company is growing its client base, adding new team members, and moving fast.

"What we found is that big data is certainly something that can benefit most organizations," he said. "If you think about it on a high level, its taking discreet data sets and bringing them together in one place. Most organizations, when they do that, they are concerned about the security aspects of that information. It's usually a multi-level security operation."

"A Chief Security Officer can see the benefit and value of bringing this information into one place, but there are sensitivity concerns about that information," Terenzoni said. Sqrrl assuages those concerns.

"Our system is based on taking the security requirement that most companies have and applying our platform verus trying to apply [security] at the application development level. You have control over the system at the source of information," he said, "versus trying to make sure that your app developers understand all your complex security requirements."

"What we are doing is making it much easier for companies to apply their policies to big data capabilities, allowing them to extract all these types of information in new and exciting ways."

"We are taking government grade technology and bringing it to the enterprise," Terenzoni concluded. 

The company most recently announced a $5.2M Series A from Atlas and Matrix in October.

I asked Terenzoni what was next for Sqrrl, and joking, he said, "world domination, of course." The company does, however, have a great opportunity to dominate big data collection and security like no one else. Specifically, Sqrrl is targeting key industries that would greatly benefit from their technology including banking/financing, healthcare, and telecommunications.

Of course, with all the criticism and unanswered questions surrounding the government's recent digital spying debacles, there will be questions hovering around an NSA-created technology and the possible misuse of the vast amounts of information and data that is being collected and analyzed in these key sectors. However, there is no indication that Sqrrl is anything but an independent enterprise leveraging a team-developed technology for what could be a VERY successful business endeavor. 

As for now, the company is accelerating growth and applying an NSA-developed technology to improve the security of and help to gain a better understanding of the vast amounts of unharnessed data in various enterprise sectors. Who knows, Sqrrl could actually end up being one of the best things to come out of the NSA's various technology initiatives. 

Dennis Keohane is the Senior Writer for VentureFizz. You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.