Whether or not obfuscation or protection is worth it depends on several factors.
Is it worth it?
When looking at whether to protect software, we first have to answer a number of questions:
- How likely is this to happen?
- What is the value to someone else of your algorithm and data?
- What is the cost to them of buying a license to use your software?
- What is the cost to them of replicating your algorithm and data?
- What is the cost to them of reverse engineering your algorithm and data?
- What is the cost to you of protecting your algorithm and data?
If these produce a significant economic imperative to protect your algorithm/data then you should look into doing it. For instance if the value of the service and cost to customers are both high, but the cost of reverse engineering your code is much lower than the cost of developing it themselves, then people may attempt it.
So, this leads on to your question
- How do you secure your algorithm and data?
The option you suggest, obfuscating the code, messes with the economics above - it tries to significantly increase the cost to them (5 above) without increasing the cost to you (6) very much. The research by the Center for Encrypted Functionalities has done some interesting research on this. The problem is that as with DVD encryption it is doomed to failure if there is enough of a differential between 3, 4 and 5 then eventually someone will do it.
Another option might be a form of Steganography, which allows you to identify who decrypted your data and started distributing it. For instance, if you have 100 different float values as part of your data, and a 1bit error in the LSB of each of those values wouldn't cause a problem with your application, encode a unique (to each customer) identifier into those bits. The problem is, if someone has access to multiple copies of your application data, it would be obvious that it differs, making it easier to identify the hidden message.
SaaS - Software as a Service
A more secure option might be to provide the critical part of your software as a service, rather than include it in your application.
Conceptually, your application would collect up all of the data required to run your algorithm, package it up as a request to a server (controlled by you) in the cloud, your service would then calculate your results and pass it back to the client, which would display it.
This keeps all of your proprietary, confidential data and algorithms within a domain that you control completely, and removes any possibility of a client extracting either.
The obvious downside is that clients are tied into your service provision, are at the mercy of your servers and their internet connection. Unfortunately many people object to SaaS for exactly these reasons. On the plus side, they are always up to date with bug fixes, and your compute cluster is likely to be higher performance than the PC they are running the user interface on.
This would be a huge step to take though, and could have a huge cost 6 above, but is one of the few ways to keep your algorithm and data completely secure.
Software Protection Dongles
Although traditional Software Protection Dongles would protect from software piracy, they wouldn't protect against algorithms and data in your code being extracted.
Newer Code Porting dongles (such as SenseLock†) appear to be able to do what you want though. With these devices, you take code out of your application and port it to the secure dongle processor. As with SaaS, your application would bundle up the data, pass it to the dongle (probably a USB device attached to your computer) and read back the results.
Unlike SaaS, data bandwidth would be unlikely to be an issue, but performance of your application may be limited by the performance of your SDP.
† This was the first example I could find with a google search.
Another option, which may become viable in the future is to use a Trusted Platform Module and Trusted Execution Technology to secure critical areas of the code. Whenever a customer installs your software, they would provide you with a fingerprint of their hardware and you would provide them with a unlock key for that specific system.
This key would would then allow the code to be decrypted and executed within the trusted environment, where the encrypted code and data would be inaccessible outside of the trusted platform. If anything at all about the trusted environment changed, it would invalidate the key and that functionality would be lost.
For the customer this has the advantage that their data stays local, and they don't need to buy a new dongle to improve performance, but it has the potential to create an ongoing support requirement and the likelihood that your customers would become frustrated with the hoops they had to jump through to use software they have bought and paid for - losing you good will.
Only you can answer whether the economics of discouragement or protection are appropriate for your situation. But the more protection you go for, the more expensive it will be, and thus the more you need to stand to lose to justify it.