Thursday, August 5, 2010

Moving To The Cloud Primer

Everywhere you look, there are articles, research and analysis on the topic of cloud computing. It has even been termed, “the most significant shift in information technology in our lifetimes.” The positive aspects are exciting and offer many benefits, including access to applications, storage for legacy data, and powerful computer processing -all with the click of a mouse. For companies that want to avoid purchasing entire systems of IT software and hiring the talent to operate and secure them, this option may seem very tempting. One common concern that should be analyzed and researched thoroughly is the issue of security in cloud computing. Any future cloud user should gather as much information as possible about their potential cloud provider before sending any data to the cloud.

For instance, it would be wise to ask any potential cloud provider how they protect against malicious insider activity. One question that should be submitted is if a provider conducts background checks on all relevant employees. Nothing like sending PII to a cloud provider that lacks knowledge on who is working for them. Additionally, questions on employee monitoring, access determination, and audit trails would also be appropriate. Some providers may not want to divulge such technical information. If the cloud provider does not want to provide such information, ask if they have any monitoring and access control policies and procedures in place. If they don’t, tell them to create some and make it part of the service contract. One way or another, you’re going to want to be protected.

For those cloud providers that are providing Software as a Service where all development is handled on the provider side, questions on the system development lifecycle would apply. For example, customers will want to know if the cloud provider has incorporated security into their SDLC. Also, see if the future cloud provider takes into consideration the OWASP Cloud Top 10 during the development cycle. Lastly, ask the provider if they follow Cloud Security Alliance guidance for critical focus areas. If the cloud provider answers in the negative or has no idea what you’re talking about, it may be best to look for another provider.

As touched on above, some cloud computing companies practice the “security by obscurity” method, which will usually exacerbate the fears of the company seeking cloud services. It is a fine line to walk, because the cloud computing company does not want to divulge too much information, which could compromise their security from malicious attackers. However they should want to be as transparent as possible to their potential clients. Try to find a cloud computing company that offers voluntary monthly or quarterly security reports. This report will show the client what issues the company is addressing, without broadcasting information that compromises their security posture.

What other types of data are being stored by the cloud provider? Do they allow data that may be malicious code, spamming data or information related to criminal activity? In multi-tenant environments “Innocent” data can be located on the same shared infrastructure as “Malicious” data. This should be investigated thoroughly before choosing a cloud provider. Specific questions about strict registration and validation processes and ongoing monitoring of network traffic before, after and during storage and use should be the norm. Besides, if the provider accepts unscrupulous clients and the provider’s defense in depth as well as compartmentalization is weak, what’s to stop a malicious tenant from accessing your data?

Before utilizing any cloud services, customers should conduct an internal assessment for any regulatory compliance complications. Many regulations demand that certain classes of data not be intermingled with other, less sensitive data, such as on multi-tenant shared servers or databases. Additionally, data retention laws vary among countries, with data limits on what can be stored, and for how long being heavily regulated in some countries. Some countries even make it unlawful for some data to be transferred to foreign cloud providers. When the data is no longer needed, most retention laws will require the cloud provider to wipe the data clean before being sent to the pool. Can your cloud provider provide this service? Also, many regulations or standards require some sort of logging as well as log reviewing to be conducted in order to be compliant (PCI Anybody). However, most cloud provider logs are internal and access to these logs by customers or auditors may be difficult. As a result, this type of scenario would make complying with such regulation or standard nearly impossible. Consequently, a compliance impact assessment should be carried out before moving to the cloud.

In conclusion, there are many concerns that companies must consider before utilizing the Cloud. The concerns highlighted in this blog post are only the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, a proper assessment of any cloud provider is warranted for any organization planning a move to the cloud.

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