Alumnus Profile: Changing the way we do things
His company’s rather cryptic name, Bromium, is dense with implications, as Gaurav Banga and his co-founders intended.
First, there is bromine—among the non-metallic elements, the only one that remains a liquid at room temperature. It evaporates readily—disappears from sight, like effective computer security. It’s useful as a fire-retardant and disinfectant—powerful stuff. And a bromide is a pithy bit of conventional wisdom.
“We wanted a name that got people thinking, that would suggest something powerful and maybe a little bit mysterious,” said Banga, who earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in computer science from Rice University in 1998 and 1999, respectively.
Banga has developed a new approach to computer security. It’s based on hardware isolation of unknown computer code and content and uses novel virtualization technologies. He seems to have a success story on his hands. Bromium has attracted almost 100 customers since its founding in 2010, including the New York Stock Exchange, Automatic Data Processing and BlackRock, the multinational investment management corporation. Twenty of its clients are Fortune 500 companies.
Banga came to Rice in 1994 after earning a bachelor of technology degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi that year. “As an undergrad, I was attracted to the field of parallel computing. Some of the most cutting-edge work being done in that field was at Rice, under Ken Kennedy. He was number one,” said Banga, referring to the late Ken Kennedy, the John and Ann Doerr University Professor at Rice and director of the Center for High Performance Software Research.
Peter Druschel, now a member of the Distributed Systems Group at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany, became Banga’s adviser at Rice.
“Gaurav was my very first Ph.D. student after I joined Rice as an assistant professor. He and I were my group during the first year, so we worked together very closely. He spent day and night at the lab during those years, living on pizza and Coca-Cola. Not accidentally, those are the names he gave the two lab computers he was working with at the time,” Druschel said.
Banga’s doctoral thesis at Rice was titled “Operating systems support for server applications.” Druschel recalled:
“I saw plenty of the entrepreneurial spirit that would mark Gaurav’s later career. His resourcefulness even got him into a bit of trouble when he used some computing equipment without authorization. There was no ill intent. He just wanted to do an experiment in the middle of the night rather than wait until the morning.”
The freshly minted Ph.D. moved to Silicon Valley in 1998, and his timing was superb. “That’s where all the action was happening. There was no better place to be for working on the bleeding edge,” he said.
Banga had contemplated a career in academia, but said, “I started having so much fun—research fun. I found more focus and more freedom in industry,” he said.
Before founding Bromium, Banga was chief technology officer and senior vice president of engineering at Phoenix Technologies Ltd. There, he drove the transition from the traditional BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) product, which loads the operating system, to the UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) standard. While at Phoenix he also led the creation of HyperSpace, the world’s first firmware-integrated client hypervisor, also known as a virtual machine monitor.
Before joining Phoenix, Banga was vice president of product management at Intellisync. He was also co-founder and CEO of PDApps, the creator of VeriChat, a mobile instant-messaging solution acquired by Intellisync in 2005. Banga started his industry career at NetApp, where he worked for more than five years on the Data ONTAP system and led creation of the virtual filer (vFiler) product.
Bromium is a venture-backed startup headquartered in Cupertino, Calif., “in the backwaters of Apple,” Banga says. It was named one of CNBC’s 50 Disruptors—companies that will “change the way we do things.” Bromium is in the Enterprise Security category. It uses a patented micro-virtualization approach—isolation as opposed to detection—to upend existing security models.
“It’s designed to protect an executive working in his hotel room or a salesperson connecting from a coffee shop—a highly mobile work force that is extremely vulnerable to cyber-attacks. With Bromium, each web page, document or computer program runs its own disposable (and invisible) virtual computer. You end up with hundreds of virtual PCs, being created and destroyed behind the scene as the user does their work. A bad program or web page cannot compromise anything because it is isolated in a dedicated virtual computer. Since Bromium works invisibly, and automatically, this is a solution for everybody,” Banga said.
Bromium now has more than 160 employees and revenues are increasing rapidly.
“All the detection-based security technologies have proven ineffective. They’ve been unable to keep up with new developments like BYOD, cloud, smartphones and tablets. As the market embraces our approach, we’ll be able to get closer to our ultimate goal—restoring trust in computing,” Banga said.
His former Rice adviser, Peter Druschel, remembered a story Banga’s father shared at the commencement festivities: “He informed his family as a little boy that he would become a doctor, as in Ph.D., and referred to himself as ‘Gaurav Banga Doctor.’ He seems to have had his priorities straight pretty early.”