Security Considerations for Whatever Cloud Service Model You Adopt

Companies recognize the strategic importance of adopting a cloud service model to transform their operations, but there still needs to be a focus on mitigating potential information risks with appropriate cloud security considerations, controls and requirements without compromising functionality, ease of use or the pace of adoption. We all worry about security in our business and personal lives, so it’s naturally a persistent concern when adopting cloud-based services — and understandably so. However, research suggests that cloud services are now a mainstream way of delivering IT requirements for many companies today and will continue to grow in spite of any unease about security.

According to Gartner, 28 percent of spending within key enterprise IT markets will shift to the cloud by 2022, which is up from 19 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, Forrester reported that cloud platforms and applications now drive the full spectrum of end-to-end business technology transformations in leading enterprises, from the key systems powering the back office to mobile apps delivering new customer experiences. More enterprises are using multiple cloud services each year, including software-as-a-service (SaaS) business apps and cloud platforms such as infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS), both on-premises and from public service providers.

What Is Your Cloud Security Readiness Posture?

The state of security readiness for cloud service adoption varies between companies, but many still lack the oversight and decision-making processes necessary for such a migration. There is a greater need for alignment and governance processes to manage and oversee a cloud vendor relationship. This represents a shift in responsibilities, so companies need to adequately staff, manage and maintain the appropriate level of oversight and control over the cloud service. As a result, a security governance and management model is essential for cloud services that can be found in a cloud vendor risk management program.

A cloud vendor risk management program requires careful consideration and implementation, but not a complete overhaul of your company’s entire cybersecurity program. The activities in the cloud vendor risk management program are intended to assist companies in approaching security in a consistent manner, regardless of how varied or unique the cloud service may be. The use of standard methods helps ensure there is reliable information on which to base decisions and actions. It also reinforces the ability to proactively evaluate and mitigate the risks cloud vendors introduce to the business. Finally, standard cloud vendor risk management methods can help distinguish between different types of risks and manage them appropriately.

Overlooked Security Considerations for Your Cloud Service Model

A cloud vendor risk management program provides a tailored set of security considerations, controls and requirements within a cloud computing environment through a phased life cycle approach. Determining cloud security considerations, controls and requirements is an ongoing analytical activity to evaluate the cloud service models and potential cloud vendors that can satisfy existing or emerging business needs.

All cloud security controls and requirements possess a certain level of importance based on risk, and most are applicable regardless of the cloud service. However, some elements are overlooked more often than others, and companies should pay particular attention to the following considerations to protect their cloud service model and the data therein.

Application Security

  • Application exposure: Consider the cloud vendor application’s overall attack surface. In a SaaS cloud environment, the applications offered by the cloud vendor often have broader exposure, which increases the attack surface. Additionally, those applications often still need to integrate back to other noncloud applications within the boundaries of your company or the cloud vendor enterprise.
  • Application mapping: Ensure that applications are aligned with the capabilities provided by cloud vendors to avoid the introduction of any undesirable features or vulnerabilities.
  • Application design: Pay close attention to the design and requirements of an application candidate and request a test period from the cloud vendor to rule out any possible issues. Require continuous communication and notification of major changes to ensure that compatibility testing is included in the change plans. SaaS cloud vendors will typically introduce additional features to improve the resilience of their software, such as security testing or strict versioning. Cloud vendors can also inform your company about the exact state of its business applications, such as specific software logging and monitoring, given their dedicated attention to managing reputation risk and reliance on providing secure software services and capabilities.
  • Browser vulnerabilities: Harden web browsers and browser clients. Applications offered by SaaS cloud vendors are accessible via secure communication through a web browser, which is a common target for malware and attacks.
  • Service-oriented architecture (SOA): Conduct ongoing assessments to continuously identify any application vulnerabilities, because the SOA libraries are maintained by the cloud vendor and not completely visible to your company. By using the vendor-provided SOA library, you can develop and test applications more quickly because SOA provides a common framework for application development.

Data Governance

  • Data ownership: Clearly define data ownership so the cloud vendor cannot refuse access to data or demand fees to return the data once the service contracts are terminated. SaaS cloud vendors will provide the applications and your company will provide the data.
  • Data disposal: Consider the options for safe disposal or destruction of any previous backups. Proper disposal of data is imperative to prevent unauthorized disclosure. Replace, recycle or upgrade disks with proper sanitization so that the information no longer remains within storage and cannot be retrieved. Ensure that the cloud vendor takes appropriate measures to prevent information assets from being sent without approval to countries where the data can be disclosed legally.
  • Data disposal upon contract termination: Implement processes to erase, sanitize and/or dispose of data migrated into the cloud vendor’s application prior to a contract termination. Ensure the details of applications are not disclosed without your company’s authorization.
  • Data encryption transmission requirements: Provide encryption of confidential data communicated between a user’s browser and a web-based application using secure protocols. Implement encryption of confidential data transmitted between an application server and a database to prevent unauthorized interception. Such encryption capabilities are generally provided as part of, or an option to, the database server software. You can achieve encryption of confidential file transfers through protocols such as Secure FTP (SFTP) or by encrypting the data prior to transmission.

Contract Management

  • Transborder legal requirements: Validate whether government entities in the hosting country require access to your company’s information, with or without proper notification. Implement necessary compliance controls and do not violate regulations in other countries when storing or transmitting data within the cloud vendor’s infrastructure. Different countries have different legal requirements, especially concerning personally identifiable information (PII).
  • Multitenancy: Segment and protect all resources allocated to a particular tenant to avoid disclosure of information to other tenants. For example, when a customer no longer needs allocated storage, it may be freely reallocated to another customer. In this case, wipe data thoroughly.
  • Network management: Determine network management roles and responsibilities with the cloud vendor. Within a SaaS implementation, the cloud vendor is entirely responsible for the network. In other models, the responsibility of the network is generally shared, but there will be exceptions.
  • Reliability: Ensure the cloud vendor has service-level agreements that specify the amount of allowable downtime and the time it will take to restore service in the event of an unexpected disruption.
  • Exit strategy: Develop an exit strategy for the eventual transition away from the cloud vendor considering tools, procedures and other offerings to securely facilitate data or service portability from the cloud vendor to another or bring services back in-house.

IT Asset Governance

  • Patch management: Determine the patch management processes with the cloud vendor and ensure there is ongoing awareness and reporting. Cloud vendors can introduce patches in their applications quickly without the approval or knowledge of your company because it can take a long time for a cloud vendor to get formal approval from every customer. This can result in your company having little control or insight regarding the patch management process and lead to unexpected side effects. Ensure that the cloud vendor hypervisor manager allows the necessary patches to be applied across the infrastructure in a short time, reducing the time available for a new vulnerability to be exploited.
  • Virtual machine security maintenance: Partner with cloud vendors that allow your company to create virtual machines (VM) in various states such as active, running, suspended and off. Although cloud vendors could be involved, the maintenance of security updates may be the responsibility of your company. Assess all inactive VMs and apply security patches to reduce the potential for out-of-date VMs to become compromised when activated.

Accelerate Your Cloud Transformation

Adopting cloud services can be a key steppingstone toward achieving your business objectives. Many companies have gained substantial value from cloud services, but there is still work to be done. Even successful companies often have cloud security gaps, including issues related to cloud security governance and management. Although it may not be easy, it’s critical to perform due diligence to address any gaps through a cloud vendor risk management program.

Cloud service security levels will vary, and security concerns will always be a part of any company’s transition to the cloud. But implementing a cloud vendor risk management program can certainly put your company in a better position to address these concerns. The bottom line is that security is no longer an acceptable reason for refusing to adopt cloud services, and the days when your business can keep up without them are officially over.

Contributor'photo

Brian Evans

Senior Managing Consultant, IBM

Brian Evans, CISSP, CISM, CISA, CGEIT is a Senior Managing Consultant for IBM Security Services and assists clients in...