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Cloud Computing Security

One of the greatest game-changing innovations of this decade is cloud computing. The shift away from pure on-premises applications and data storage is already well underway, with consumers, small and midsize businesses, and even large enterprises putting applications and data into the cloud. The ever-present question however, is whether it is safe to do so. Cloud computing security is by far the biggest concern among those considering the technology. And if you’re an IT manager, it’s good to be paranoid. Losses from cybercrime and attack can be enormous, and the 2008 CSI Computer Crime and Security Survey show an overall average annual loss of just under $300,000.

It may seem like a leap of faith to put your valuable data and applications in the cloud, and to trust cloud computing security to a third party. Yet faith is not a part of the equation, nor should it be. Every enterprise needs to know that its data and applications are secure, and the question of cloud computing security must be addressed.

In fact, the cloud does have several security advantages. According to NIST, these cloud computing security advantages include:

o Shifting public data to a external cloud reduces the exposure of the internal sensitive data
o Cloud homogeneity makes security auditing/testing simpler
o Clouds enable automated security management
o Redundancy / Disaster Recovery

All four points are well taken. Cloud providers naturally tend to include rigorous cloud computing security as part of their business models, often more than an individual user would do. In this respect, it’s not just a matter of cloud computing providers deploying better security, the point is, rather, that they deploy the precautions that individual companies should, but often don’t.

A common security model
Most application providers impose some level of security with their applications, although when cloud application providers implement their own proprietary approaches to cloud computing security, concerns arise over international privacy laws, exposure of data to foreign entities, stovepipe approaches to authentication and role-based access, and leaks in multi-tenant architectures. These security concerns have slowed the adoption of cloud computing technology, although it need not pose a problem.

The very nature of a cloud platform is that it imposes an instance of common software elements that can be used by developers to “bolt on” to their applications without having to write them from scratch. This advantage is especially useful in the area of security. The cloud “platform as a service” brings an elegant solution to the security problem by implementing a standard security model to manage user authentication and authorization, role-based access, secure storage, multi-tenancy, and privacy policies. Consequently, any SaaS application that runs on the common platform would immediately benefit from the platform’s standardized and robust security model.

Superior physical security through cloud computing provider
Lack of physical security is the cause of an enormous amount of loss, and insider attacks account for a surprisingly large percentage of loss. And while the specter of black hats hacking into your network from a third world country is very much real, very often, the “black hat” is in reality a trusted employee. It’s the guy from the Accounting department who you have lunch with. It’s the lady who brings you coffee in the morning and always remembers that you like two sugars. It’s the recent college grad with so much potential, who did such a great job on that last report.

Of course, insiders can attack your network and data regardless of where it is located, given enough incentive and information, but physical proximity of the actual hardware and data makes it much easier to gain access, and cloud data centers tend to have better internal physical security protocols, including locked rooms, regulated access, and other protections against physical theft and tampering.

Conclusion: Superior security through the cloud
Besides physical security, technical security is of the utmost importance. Hosting your own servers and applications requires extra measures. A larger organization may need to deploy dedicated IT staff to security only. Cloud computing, on the other hand, builds cloud computing security directly into the cloud platform. While the company still must maintain in-house security in any case, the provider ensures that the applications and data are safe from attack.

We tend to think that retaining control over everything is inherently more secure, when this is not the case. Smaller companies especially may lack the skilled security staff in-house, and even larger firms often just don’t have the resources to dedicate to implementing rigorous security on an ongoing basis. A cloud computing provider on the other hand, which offers a detailed service level agreement and retains skilled security staff in-house, will often provide superior security when compared with the in-house alternative..