Network security for the home office

Technology: Columbia-based Plethora is working on software that makes it safe for employees to access programs in a virtual workspace.

Small Business

July 29, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Network security doesn't have to be limited to the computer at the office, according to the folks at Plethora Technology.

The company, one of the newest in the county's Economic Development Authority's NeoTech incubator in Columbia, is creating software that allows employees access to their office computer's files and programs from anywhere, and offers a secure way to communicate and share documents with co-workers.

Plethora has 10 employees and already has the first version of its Secure Virtual Workspace software program on the market. The company is working on other versions that will add features such as secure video conferencing.

With a handful of customers and $100,000 in grant money from the state, the company also is expecting to announce a final round of angel investment soon. With that in hand, the company should be ready to seek venture capital.

It also is seeking partnerships with companies with other industry-specific and business specific software that would make a logical fit, corporate executives said.

"We have some pretty unique technology that's a little ahead of its time, and I think as we make traction, we'll find suitors in the marketplace," said Ben Martindale, Plethora's CEO. "We're going to succeed. There's no doubt about it in my mind."

The 2-year-old company has raised $1.5 million from investors and the state and is projecting revenue of $500,000 this year, but is not yet profitable. Plethora is targeting medium-size companies in the professional services field - particularly those with security concerns that have been unable to allow employees to work from home - and government agencies.

The concept behind Plethora's technology - providing security and extending it to communications programs that businesses use - gives companies more control over their computer networks.

While most companies that allow employees to work from home use a security feature called a virtual private network, or VPN, those systems do not protect everything on the employee's home computer. Instant messages, for example, are still shot across cyberspace using public channels.

Plethora's Secure Virtual Workspace links the employee's home computer directly to the company's network using a private channel. The software includes a VPN as well as secure real-time communications programs such as instant messaging. An employee cannot, for example, send an instant message to a friend from his home computer while on the system.

"One of the big forces behind us is we've included security in the entire product," said Tim Simms, chief operating officer and chief technology officer. "When you log in, your desktop becomes part of the corporate infrastructure."

Some of the communications features Plethora has added are application sharing, voice conferencing, and an electronic whiteboard.

Companies purchase a perpetual license for the software at $250 per user, and can opt for an annual maintenance and support contract for 35 percent of the original license cost.

"The value of what we do lies in the integration," said Simms. "You could find five different components of our application, but it requires a great deal of effort or cost to integrate them and keep them together."

According to a market study by Infonetics Research, the computer security market is growing strongly, despite the economic downturn and a soft technology sector. End-users worldwide are expected to spend 117 percent more on virtual private network products and services in the next four years, expanding the market from $21.3 billion in 2002 to $46.2 billion in 2006, the study showed.

That's good news for a group of young men who've had their ups and downs with business in the volatile technology market. Plethora was created by four guys, one a teen and the others in their 20s. The group had a business developing customized software, but later decided that they wanted to work on the product side of the industry instead of service.

In 1999, they started Auction Octopus - a master search engine that could find an item for sale on any Internet auction site. But when the technology bubble burst, so did their dreams of dot-com success.

The team decided to get back to the basics of business applications and they started creating Secure Virtual Workspace.

The company found its first home in a micro-business incubator at OAO Corp. in Greenbelt. OAO invested $1.3 million in cash and services before OAO was sold to Lockheed Martin Corp., which closed the incubator.

Plethora moved into the NeoTech incubator - owned by the quasi-public authority - in April, and has found it a welcome home, Simms said.

"The benefits here have been enormous," he said. "We're now beginning to sell our product. We have five or six customers, and a growing pipeline of prospects."

The company is still working on some other real-time services to add to the product by the end of next year - video conferencing and telephone services that connect a telephone extension at work to the computer the employee is working on.

Customers so far are impressed with the software and the company. M. Barclay Olson, an information technology consultant at Unlimited Systems Support Inc., said he was skeptical about the product, but has found it to work well.

"The VPN you can get from pretty much anywhere, but the fact you can hold a text conference or instant message or file share and it's all secure, that's what I like," he said. "We look forward to that."

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