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Transitioning to Cloud Computing

Auditability must be a goal

Robert Grapes Session at Cloud Expo

The drive toward cloud computing continues to be a dominant infrastructure deployment theme for organizations looking to reduce costs, increase storage and optimize mobility. What many fail to realize is the trend towards cloud computing is continually forcing IT managers to rethink fundamental security issues as a barrage of new attacks and exploits continue to assault the cloud every day.

Compelling for any business model, cloud computing delivers a scalable, accessible and high-performing computing infrastructure that comes at an appealing price for organizations.

Similarly, operating in the cloud allows for the convergence of new and emerging technologies. Providing appeal to both the provider and the consumer, cloud computing enables new application deployment and recovery options, as well as new application business models. However, cloud computing may not be the panacea that the press and many organizations make it out to be. We must have trust and confidence in the platform on which we are deploying our applications and data. We must be able to maintain control of the information that drives our business. Ultimately, we must be able to prove that trust to our auditors. The solution, having not yet been defined, could be deemed "auditability."

Cloud computing is made possible and viable through its use of new and emerging technologies. These same technologies also introduce new security threats that if left unaddressed could prove to be the Achilles' heel of cloud computing. Auditability stems from an understanding of the threats and risks that face an application and its associated data. It is deployed to any system or platform and makes certain the commensurate security measures are taken to mitigate risks and monitor and address the threats. Traditional security risks and more sophisticated attacks are all threats that plague the deployment of applications and data in the cloud. It's of the utmost importance that organizations understand and increase the auditability of their cloud computing deployments to ensure the best security solutions are in place to protect their systems.

Threat and Risk Assessment
Threat and risk assessments provide insight to the potential weaknesses of systems and applications that could be exploited by an attacker for malicious purposes. Often these assessments identify weaknesses that could provide opportunities for damage through simple negligence. An attack analysis, as part of these assessments, places one in the mindset of an attacker for the purposes of identifying all the possible ways a system could be breached. One should not be afraid of performing an attack analysis on existing systems and applications as it is better to find potential areas to exploit prior to deployment than by a malicious attacker once in production. To make an attack analysis more thorough, one should include external and internal attacks, static and dynamic analysis attacks, and manual and automated attack types. The more tests that are run, the more resilient the auditability reports will be to auditor scrutiny and the more confident an organization will be placing applications and data into the cloud.

Virtualization is the cornerstone technology upon which the cloud computing infrastructure is built. Without it, the capital and operating costs of the cloud would simply outweigh the return. With it, providers are able to deliver near-instant recovery options and portability, using snapshots and elastic computing capabilities. This offers cloud consumers the benefit of on-demand utilization of resources to meet peak computing needs without requiring the overhead and cost of standby and latent computing power, all at very reasonable costs.

Virtualization's agnostic view of the host operating system also enables the consolidation of services onto lower-cost platforms and the appropriate reduction of power consumption and cooling costs. However, this independence from the host operating system and physical platform also introduces several security risks.

Both the authenticated system administrator of the physical platform and the host operating system has the power over the virtual instance. An attack analysis must consider the host platform and its authenticated users. While the host administrator may not have logical access through authentication to the virtual instance, the host administrator has control of the virtual machine underpinnings and thus the potential to damage either maliciously or through operation negligence of the virtual instance by simply updating a driver.

A new challenge is introduced for the management of authentication credentials since virtualization has the ability to take "snapshots" of a virtual instance for the purpose of recovery and portability. Virtual snapshots, like their photographic equivalents, are an impression of a moment in time and thus are not under the same real-time management layer that executing systems and applications enjoy. It is possible that an out-of-synch virtual snapshot could create an unintentional denial of service if an organization is attempting to recover a system from a snapshot that has not been updated. An attack analysis must consider the system processes and their potential impact on the working components of the cloud deployment. Furthermore, an attack analysis must explore the virtual machine environment capabilities and authorization controls. A clear definition of the cloud provider's responsibilities and the consumer's responsibilities must be outlined. If not, issues such as virtual machine instances executing on physical hosts in the cloud and who does/does not control access can lead to potentially catastrophic security holes.

It is imperative that an attack analysis go beyond the traditional security threats to identify the controls that must be included in certain applications to retain control of integrity checking. It is also vital to determine what controls exist within the virtual environment to provide the needed assurance for integrity checks. Tampering attacks through static analysis and modification will be reduced because of virtualization when compared with native application deployments. However, dynamic analysis remains a very real threat, especially when you consider that with public cloud computing the physical and logical infrastructure is not hosted within your own walls.

Organizations should look to private cloud deployments to expand their knowledge of the new and additional risks that they may be facing as they pursue the business advantages of cloud computing. Organizations should invest time and resources toward gaining an understanding of threat and risk assessments, attack analysis and the appropriate security techniques that must be deployed to mitigate the identified threats and risks. Thinking about and building auditability into cloud computing plans will prevent security from being an afterthought or a reaction to a real-world breach. Planned auditability should not be considered a burden but rather a goal of a cloud computing project. Moreover, including auditors in the planning process will help gain their confidence and trust in one's efforts and ongoing success.

More Stories By Robert Grapes

Robert Grapes is Chief Technologist for Cloakware's Enterprise e Solutions business. His expertise on enterprise security and Governance, Risk Management and Compliance (GRC) has enabled many large government and financial service organizations to meet their audit while reducing risk and improving operational efficiency. Prior to joining Cloakware in 2004, Grapes spent many years with Entrust Technologies as a software toolkit product manager, with Cognos in vertical analyst relations, and with Allen-Bradley as a control systems automation developer.

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