Open Group security gurus dissect the cloud: Higher or lower risk?
February 7, 2012
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For some, any move to the cloud — at least the public cloud — means a higher risk for security.
For others, relying more on a public cloud provider means better security. There’s more of a concentrated and comprehensive focus on security best practices that are perhaps better implemented and monitored centrally in the major public clouds.
And so which is it? Is cloud a positive or negative when it comes to cyber security? And what of hybrid models that combine public and private cloud activities, how is security impacted in those cases?
The panel: Jim Hietala, Vice President of Security for The Open Group; Stuart Boardman, Senior Business Consultant at KPN, where he co-leads the Enterprise Architecture Practice as well as the Cloud Computing Solutions Group; Dave Gilmour, an Associate at Metaplexity Associates and a Director at PreterLex Ltd., and Mary Ann Mezzapelle, Strategist for Enterprise Services and Chief Technologist for Security Services at HP.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Is this notion of going outside the firewall fundamentally a good or bad thing when it comes to security?
Hietala: It can be either. Talking to security people in large companies, frequently what I hear is that with adoption of some of those services, their policy is either let’s try and block that until we get a grip on how to do it right, or let’s establish a policy that says we just don’t use certain kinds of cloud services. Data I see says that that’s really a failed strategy. Adoption is happening whether they embrace it or not.
The real issue is how you do that in a planned, strategic way, as opposed to letting services like Dropbox and other kinds of cloud collaboration services just happen. So it’s really about getting some forethought around how do we do this the right way, picking the right services that meet your security objectives, and going from there.
Gardner: Is cloud computing good or bad for security purposes?
Boardman: It’s simply a fact, and it’s something that we need to learn to live with.
What I’ve noticed through my own work is a lot of enterprise security policies were written before we had cloud, but when we had private web applications that you might call cloud these days, and the policies tend to be directed toward staff’s private use of the cloud.
Then you run into problems, because you read something in policy — and if you interpret that as meaning cloud, it means you can’t do it. And if you say it’s not cloud, then you haven’t got any policy about it at all. Enterprises need to sit down and think, “What would it mean to us to make use of cloud services and to ask as well, what are we likely to do with cloud services?”
Gardner: Dave, is there an added impetus for cloud providers to be somewhat more secure than enterprises?
Gilmour: It depends on the enterprise that they’re actually supplying to. If you’re in a heavily regulated industry, you have a different view of what levels of security you need and want, and therefore what you’re going to impose contractually on your cloud supplier. That means that the different cloud suppliers are going to have to attack different industries with different levels of security arrangements.
The problem there is that the penalty regimes are always going to say, “Well, if the security lapses, you’re going to get off with two months of not paying” or something like that. That kind of attitude isn’t going to go in this kind of security.
What I don’t understand is exactly how secure cloud provision is going to be enabled and governed under tight regimes like that.
Gardner: Jim, we’ve seen in the public sector that governments are recognizing that cloud models could be a benefit to them. They can reduce redundancy. They can control and standardize. They’re putting in place some definitions, implementation standards, and so forth. Is the vanguard of correct cloud computing with security in mind being managed by governments at this point?
Hietala: I’d say that they’re at the forefront. Some of these shared government services, where they stand up cloud and make it available to lots of different departments in a government, have the ability to do what they want from a security standpoint, not relying on a public provider, and get it right from their perspective and meet their requirements. They then take that consistent service out to lots of departments that may not have had the resources to get IT security right, when they were doing it themselves. So I think you can make a case for that.
Gardner: Stuart, being involved with standards activities yourself, does moving to the cloud provide a better environment for managing, maintaining, instilling, and improving on standards than enterprise by enterprise by enterprise? As I say, we’re looking at a larger pool and therefore that strikes me as possibly being a better place to invoke and manage standards.
Boardman: Dana, that’s a really good point, and I do agree. Also, in the security field, we have an advantage in the sense that there are quite a lot of standards out there to deal with interoperability, exchange of policy, exchange of credentials, which we can use. If we adopt those, then we’ve got a much better chance of getting those standards used widely in the cloud world than in an individual enterprise, with an individual supplier, where it’s not negotiation, but “you use my API, and it looks like this.”
Having said that, there are a lot of well-known cloud providers who do not currently support those standards and they need a strong commercial reason to do it. So it’s going to be a question of the balance. Will we get enough specific weight of people who are using it to force the others to come on board? And I have no idea what the answer to that is.
Gardner: We’ve also seen that cooperation is an important aspect of security, knowing what’s going on on other people’s networks, being able to share information about what the threats are, remediation, working to move quickly and comprehensively when there are security issues across different networks.
Is that a case, Dave, where having a cloud environment is a benefit? That is to say more sharing about what’s happening across networks for many companies that are clients or customers of a cloud provider rather than perhaps spotty sharing when it comes to company by company?
Gilmour: There is something to be said for that, Dana. Part of the issue, though, is that companies are individually responsible for their data. They’re individually responsible to a regulator or to their clients for their data. The question then becomes that as soon as you start to share a certain aspect of the security, you’re de facto sharing the weaknesses as well as the strengths.
So it’s a two-edged sword. One of the problems we have is that until we mature a little bit more, we won’t be able to actually see which side is the sharpest.
Gardner: So our premise that cloud is good and bad for security is holding up, but I’m wondering whether the same things that make you a risk in a private setting — poor adhesion to standards, no good governance, too many technologies that are not being measured and controlled, not instilling good behavior in your employees and then enforcing that — wouldn’t this be the same either way? Is it really cloud or not cloud, or is it good security practices or not good security practices? Mary Ann?
Mezzapelle: You’re right. It’s a little bit of that “garbage in, garbage out,” if you don’t have the basic things in place in your enterprise, which means the policies, the governance cycle, the audit, and the tracking, because it doesn’t matter if you don’t measure it and track it, and if there is no business accountability.
David said it — each individual company is responsible for its own security, but I would say that it’s the business owner that’s responsible for the security, because they’re the ones that ultimately have to answer that question for themselves in their own business environment: “Is it enough for what I have to get done? Is the agility more important than the flexibility in getting to some systems or the accessibility for other people, as it is with some of the ubiquitous computing?”
So you’re right. If it’s an ugly situation within your enterprise, it’s going to get worse when you do outsourcing, out-tasking, or anything else you want to call within the cloud environment. One of the things that we say is that organizations not only need to know their technology, but they have to get better at relationship management, understanding who their partners are, and being able to negotiate and manage that effectively through a series of relationships, not just transactions.
Gardner: If data and sharing data is so important, it strikes me that cloud component is going to be part of that, especially if we’re dealing with business processes across organizations, doing joins, comparing and contrasting data, crunching it and sharing it, making data actually part of the business, a revenue generation activity, all seems prominent and likely.
So to you, Stuart, what is the issue now with data in the cloud? Is it good, bad, or just the same double-edged sword, and it just depends how you manage and do it?
Boardman: Dana, I don’t know whether we really want to be putting our data in the cloud, so much as putting the access to our data into the cloud. There are all kinds of issues you’re going to run up against, as soon as you start putting your source information out into the cloud, not the least privacy and that kind of thing.
A bunch of APIs
What you can do is simply say, “What information do I have that might be interesting to people? If it’s a private cloud in a large organization elsewhere in the organization, how can I make that available to share?” Or maybe it’s really going out into public. What a government, for example, can be thinking about is making information services available, not just what you go and get from them that they already published. But “this is the information,” a bunch of APIs if you like. I prefer to call them data services, and to make those available.
So, if you do it properly, you have a layer of security in front of your data. You’re not letting people come in and do joins across all your tables. You’re providing information. That does require you then to engage your users in what is it that they want and what they want to do. Maybe there are people out there who want to take a bit of your information and a bit of somebody else’s and mash it together, provide added value. That’s great. Let’s go for that and not try and answer every possible question in advance.
Gardner: Dave, do you agree with that, or do you think that there is a place in the cloud for some data?
Gilmour: There’s definitely a place in the cloud for some data. I get the impression that there is going to drive out of this something like the insurance industry, where you’ll have a secondary cloud. You’ll have secondary providers who will provide to the front-end providers. They might do things like archiving and that sort of thing.
Now, if you have that situation where your contractual relationship is two steps away, then you have to be very confident and certain of your cloud partner, and it has to actually therefore encompass a very strong level of governance.
The other issue you have is that you’ve got then the intersection of your governance requirements with that of the cloud provider’s governance requirements. Therefore you have to have a really strongly — and I hate to use the word — architected set of interfaces, so that you can understand how that governance is actually going to operate.
Gardner: Wouldn’t data perhaps be safer in a cloud than if they have a poorly managed network?
Mezzapelle: There is data in the cloud and there will continue to be data in the cloud, whether you want it there or not. The best organizations are going to start understanding that they can’t control it that way and that perimeter-like approach that we’ve been talking about getting away from for the last five or seven years.
So what we want to talk about is data-centric security, where you understand, based on role or context, who is going to access the information and for what reason. I think there is a better opportunity for services like storage, whether it’s for archiving or for near term use.
There are also other services that you don’t want to have to pay for 12 months out of the year, but that you might need independently. For instance, when you’re running a marketing campaign, you already share your data with some of your marketing partners. Or if you’re doing your payroll, you’re sharing that data through some of the national providers.
Data in different places
So there already is a lot of data in a lot of different places, whether you want cloud or not, but the context is, it’s not in your perimeter, under your direct control, all of the time. The better you get at managing it wherever it is specific to the context, the better off you will be.
Hietala: It’s a slippery slope [when it comes to customer data]. That’s the most dangerous data to stick out in a cloud service, if you ask me. If it’s personally identifiable information, then you get the privacy concerns that Stuart talked about. So to the extent you’re looking at putting that kind of data in a cloud, looking at the cloud service and trying to determine if we can apply some encryption, apply the sensible security controls to ensure that if that data gets loose, you’re not ending up in the headlines of The Wall Street Journal.
Gardner: Dave, you said there will be different levels on a regulatory basis for security. Wouldn’t that also play with data? Wouldn’t there be different types of data and therefore a spectrum of security and availability to that data?
Gilmour: You’re right. If we come back to Facebook as an example, Facebook is data that, even if it’s data about our known customers, it’s stuff that they have put out there with their will. The data that they give us, they have given to us for a purpose, and it is not for us then to distribute that data or make it available elsewhere. The fact that it may be the same data is not relevant to the discussion.
That’s where I think we are going to end up with not just one layer or two layers. We’re going to end up with a sort of a three-dimensional solution space. We’re going to work out exactly which chunk we’re going to handle in which way. There will be significant areas where these things crossover.
The other thing we shouldn’t forget is that data includes our software, and that’s something that people forget. Software nowadays is out in the cloud, under current ways of running things, and you don’t even always know where it’s executing. So if you don’t know where your software is executing, how do you know where your data is?
It’s going to have to be just handled one way or another, and I think it’s going to be one of these things where it’s going to be shades of gray, because it cannot be black and white. The question is going to be, what’s the threshold shade of gray that’s acceptable.
Gardner: Mary Ann, to this notion of the different layers of security for different types of data, is there anything happening in the market that you’re aware of that’s already moving in that direction?
Mezzapelle: The experience that I have is mostly in some of the business frameworks for particular industries, like healthcare and what it takes to comply with the HIPAA regulation, or in the financial services industry, or in consumer products where you have to comply with the PCI regulations.
There has continued to be an issue around information lifecycle management, which is categorizing your data. Within a company, you might have had a document that you coded private, confidential, top secret, or whatever. So you might have had three or four levels for a document.
You’ve already talked about how complex it’s going to be as you move into trying understand, not only for that data, that the name Mary Ann Mezzapelle, happens to be in five or six different business systems over a 100 instances around the world.
That’s the importance of something like an enterprise architecture that can help you understand that you’re not just talking about the technology components, but the information, what they mean, and how they are prioritized or critical to the business, which sometimes comes up in a business continuity plan from a system point of view. That’s where I’ve advised clients on where they might start looking to how they connect the business criticality with a piece of information.
One last thing. Those regulations don’t necessarily mean that you’re secure. It makes for good basic health, but that doesn’t mean that it’s ultimately protected.You have to do a risk assessment based on your own environment and the bad actors that you expect and the priorities based on that.
Leaving security to the end
Boardman: I just wanted to pick up here, because Mary Ann spoke about enterprise architecture. One of my bugbears — and I call myself an enterprise architect — is that, we have a terrible habit of leaving security to the end. We don’t architect security into our enterprise architecture. It’s a techie thing, and we’ll fix that at the back. There are also people in the security world who are techies and they think that they will do it that way as well.
The Open Group has been doing some really good work on bringing security right in to the process of EA.
Hietala: In the next version of TOGAF, which has already started, there will be a whole emphasis on making sure that security is better represented in some of the TOGAF guidance. That’s ongoing work here at The Open Group.
Gardner: As I listen, it sounds as if the in the cloud or out of the cloud security continuum is perhaps the wrong way to look at it. If you have a lifecycle approach to services and to data, then you’ll have a way in which you can approach data uses for certain instances, certain requirements, and that would then apply to a variety of different private cloud, public cloud, hybrid cloud.
Is that where we need to go, perhaps have more of this lifecycle approach to services and data that would accommodate any number of different scenarios in terms of hosting access and availability? The cloud seems inevitable. So what we really need to focus on are the services and the data.
Boardman: That’s part of it. That needs to be tied in with the risk-based approach. So if we have done that, we can then pick up on that information and we can look at a concrete situation, what have we got here, what do we want to do with it. We can then compare that information. We can assess our risk based on what we have done around the lifecycle. We can understand specifically what we might be thinking about putting where and come up with a sensible risk approach.
You may come to the conclusion in some cases that the risk is too high and the mitigation too expensive. In others, you may say, no, because we understand our information and we understand the risk situation, we can live with that, it’s fine.
Gardner: It sounds as if we are coming at this as an underwriter for an insurance company. Is that the way to look at it?
Gilmour: That’s eminently sensible. You have the mortality tables, you have the current risk, and you just work the two together and work out what’s the premium. That’s probably a very good paradigm to give us guidance actually as to how we should approach intellectually the problem.
Mezzapelle: One of the problems is that we don’t have those actuarial tables yet. That’s a little bit of an issue for a lot of people when they talk about, “I’ve got $100 to spend on security. Where am I going to spend it this year? Am I going to spend it on firewalls? Am I going to spend it on information lifecycle management assessment? What am I going to spend it on?” That’s some of the research that we have been doing at HP is to try to get that into something that’s more of a statistic.
So, when you have a particular project that does a certain kind of security implementation, you can see what the business return on it is and how it actually lowers risk. We found that it’s better to spend your money on getting a better system to patch your systems than it is to do some other kind of content filtering or something like that.
Gardner: Perhaps what we need is the equivalent of an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) for permeable organizational IT assets, where the security stamp of approval comes in high or low. Then, you could get you insurance insight– maybe something for The Open Group to look into. Any thoughts about how standards and a consortium approach would come into that?
Hietala: I don’t know about the UL for all security things. That sounds like a risky proposition.
Gardner: It could be fairly popular and remunerative.
Hietala: It could.
Mezzapelle: An unending job.
Hietala: I will say we have one active project in the Security Forum that is looking at trying to allow organizations to measure and understand risk dependencies that they inherit from other organizations.
So if I’m outsourcing a function to XYZ corporation, being able to measure what risk am I inheriting from them by virtue of them doing some IT processing for me, could be a cloud provider or it could be somebody doing a business process for me, whatever. So there’s work going on there.
I heard just last week about a NSF funded project here in the U.S. to do the same sort of thing, to look at trying to measure risk in a predictable way. So there are things going on out there.
Gardner: We have to wrap up, I’m afraid, but Stuart, it seems as if currently it’s the larger public cloud provider, something of Amazon and Google and among others that might be playing the role of all of these entities we are talking about. They are their own self-insurer. They are their own underwriter. They are their own risk assessor, like a UL. Do you think that’s going to continue to be the case?
Boardman: No, I think that as cloud adoption increases, you will have a greater weight of consumer organizations who will need to do that themselves. You look at the question that it’s not just responsibility, but it’s also accountability. At the end of the day, you’re always accountable for the data that you hold. It doesn’t matter where you put it and how many other parties they subcontract that out to.
The weight will change
So there’s a need to have that, and as the adoption increases, there’s less fear and more, “Let’s do something about it.” Then, I think the weight will change.
Plus, of course, there are other parties coming into this world, the world that Amazon has created. I’d imagine that HP is probably one of them as well, but all the big names in IT are moving in here, and I suspect that also for those companies there’s a differentiator in knowing how to do this properly in their history of enterprise involvement.
So yeah, I think it will change. That’s no offense to Amazon, etc. I just think that the balance is going to change.
Gilmour: Yes. I think that’s how it has to go. The question that then arises is, who is going to police the policeman and how is that going to happen? Every company is going to be using the cloud. Even the cloud suppliers are using the cloud. So how is it going to work? It’s one of these never-decreasing circles.
Mezzapelle: At this point, I think it’s going to be more evolution than revolution, but I’m also one of the people who’ve been in that part of the business — IT services — for the last 20 years and have seen it morph in a little bit different way.
Stuart is right that there’s going to be a convergence of the consumer-driven, cloud-based model, which Amazon and Google represent, with an enterprise approach that corporations like HP are representing. It’s somewhere in the middle where we can bring the service level commitments, the options for security, the options for other things that make it more reliable and risk-averse for large corporations to take advantage of it.
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