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Assessing, Alleviating Security Risks in the Cloud: Are We There Yet?

It's no secret that security is on the minds of most IT professionals who are considering cloud computing. In fact, some surveys show that as many as 80 percent of businesses believe that the security, availability and performance risks of cloud computing outweigh the potential benefits, such as flexibility, scalability, and lower cost--so much so that they're holding back from fully embracing cloud computing, at least, for now.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume the reason for their concern is that cloud providers are taking a cavalier attitude toward security. That assumption is an oversimplification and, more importantly, obscures the legitimate security concerns of IT organizations.

The reasons for concern have more to do with organizations losing their ability to quantify risk in the cloud. Without that ability, it's tough for them to justify taking the risk. Assuming they could quantify risk, how much control would they have in the cloud for mitigating that risk through the use of processes and technology? Today, little, if any. Organizations' hesitation to jump headlong into the cloud has more to do with these factors than a lack of confidence in cloud providers' security implementations.

In the data center, organizations typically determine their threshold for risk by considering the impact of the risk and the probability of its occurrence. As an example, take the potential impact of an outage on application availability. When an outage occurs, the monetary impact--measured by lost revenue and customers--is quantifiable. Similarly, organizations can reasonably assess the probability of a data center outage--and its impact on applications--but what about in the cloud? Today, a cloud provider's track record for uptime is more readily available than it was, say, even a year ago, making it easier to determine the chances of an outage, but uncertainty still exists.

In addition to these, there are other reasons that keep "security concerns" at or near the top of the list of barriers to cloud adoption. A significant one is that cloud computing environments don't give organizations the benefit of deploying a holistic security strategy. Organizations that are happy with their security practices in the data center have reason to be concerned about their ability to implement those same practices in the cloud. They won't have control over web application firewalls or application-specific firewall rules; they won't have data leak prevention solutions or intrusion detection/prevention systems in the cloud. They won't have any of that for the simple reason that today, the cloud is designed to deliver compute on demand. In other words, it's meant to run applications that can take advantage of that compute power. Other than load balancing, the cloud offers very few "infrastructure" services. That severely limits an organization's ability to apply internal security policies to the applications it moves to the cloud.

Many unknown variables still exist in cloud computing environments, which introduce security risks that haven't yet been quantified. Two of those variables are virtualization and cloud computing management frameworks. While virtualization may get the most attention of the two, the importance of computing management frameworks is inching forward. Exploits around virtualization have been theorized, but to date, few, if any, hypervisor "breaches" in a public cloud environment have occurred. Still, even the possibility of a breach and its potential damaging effects may pose too much risk for some organizations. And with few known vulnerabilities in hypervisor technology, it's almost a foregone conclusion that vulnerabilities will be discovered and ultimately exploited. So far, cloud APIs have not been taken over either, but the possibility of an attacker having complete control over an organizations' cloud computing deployment is frightening.

The fact that CIOs will likely continue for some time to cite security risks as a reason not to adopt cloud deployments doesn't mean they believe cloud providers are taking security concerns lightly. It just means they still have legitimate concerns about the security risks of new technologies in the cloud--concerns that haven't yet been answered to their satisfaction. They are highly sensitive to these risks, not just for their own sake but for the sake of their customers. Until they are alleviated, those risks will likely still outweigh the potential benefits of cloud computing.

Posted by Karl Triebes on 07/27/2010 at 12:47 PM


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