Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Security concerns with Cloud Computing

A few years ago, there was a news story about an online tax service mixing up peoples tax returns. That scared the hell out of me. While I continued to e-file my returns, I use old fashioned desktop tax preparation software to prepare my return and then e-file it. I am not yet comfortable with someone else hosting all the personal information in a tax return.

Concerns regarding security are a primary barrier in businesses adopting cloud based services for critical stuff. As a cloud consumer, below are some issues to think about and ask the provider. As a cloud service provider, these are issue to think about and address.

1. Physical security

Are the premises that host the servers, databases etc physically secure. The buildings that host the systems needs state of art security technology to restrict entry and monitor who goes in and who goes out, as well as record who is doing what. Location is important as well. Who would want their business data hosted in a high crime area or in a country with a track record of wars.

2. Isolation

A cloud service provider is hosting data from multiple customers. That is something users should never have to care about. Any mixup, like the one described in the first paragraph is completely unacceptable.

3. Authentication and Access control

When sensitive data is hosted outside your enterprise, are the people who manage or access the data properly authenticated ? Is the access limited to those that absolutely need it ? Is the access control policy available for review and reviewed periodically.

4. Data security

Is sensitive data encrypted ? Operations staff such as system administrators manage files and databases. They need to move , backup, copy stuff etc but they do not necessarily need to be able to read credit card numbers from a customer table.

5. Audit trail

As is the case in any business, things can go wrong. There will be the bad apple who happens to come across some sensitive information and decides to misuse it. To be able to investigate such issues, a detailed audit trail is required. Who entered or left the premises ? Who logged on to the system ? what actions did he perform ?

As the saying goes "forewarned is forearmed". If you know the security practices of your provider, you can weigh risk versus benefit and decide what is appropriate to be hosted by the provider.