Managing the Cloud's Security Risks

The security pitfalls of cloud computing can be neutralized with proper planning.

By Kenneth van Wyk
Wed, September 22, 2010

ComputerworldCloud computing is all the rage these days. CIOs seem to be diving into cloud-based solutions with reckless abandon despite the fact that a mistake in planning or execution can have career-limiting effects. So, let's take a moment to balance the benefits against the potential security pitfalls that lie in the clouds.

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The really important question is, How safe is your business in the clouds? After all, cloud vendors all aim to put your stuff onto cloud servers, and in most cases, these systems sit outside of your data center and outside of your direct control.

While this may buy you some cost reductions, it carries significant risks. Let's consider the classic triad of information security: confidentiality, integrity and availability.

There's no getting around that putting data onto an external server carries confidentiality risks. No matter what your cloud vendor may promise contractually or in its service-level agreement, if its security gets breached, so may yours.

How do you counter that risk? You can encrypt sensitive data, or you can keep the real sensitive stuff off the server. Encryption can be a viable path for some stuff like off-site backups. Being particularly careful about what goes on the server can help as well, so long as you maintain some level of oversight and control over the day-to-day decisions. That is, if you give your users the ability to store stuff on a cloud server, they're liable to store all sorts of stuff there, blissfully unaware of the security risks.

As to integrity, the risks in cloud computing are relatively small, unless your cloud service provider's security gets breached anyway. If an attacker breaches its defenses and tampers with your business data, then integrity can become vitally important all of a sudden, depending on the nature of the data.

And then there's availability. You're gambling that your data will be available when you need it when you put it in the cloud, betting that the availability won't be eroded by network outages, data center outages and other single points of failure. You can hedge your bet a bit by going with an industrial-strength cloud provider, but you'll pay more. If availability of data is important to your business, then you can't blithely go with the lowest bidder. You need to do appropriate due diligence and find out everything you can about your vendors' availability, disaster recovery and business continuity plans. "Trust but verify" should be your mantra.

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