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Data security in the cloud: tactics and practices

Data security is a concern for any enterprise, and cloud computing often can magnify security anxieties. Adopting a few ground rules will help protect users, their data and your overall

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cloud investment.

The list of security concerns with cloud computing may seem lengthy. In reality, though, cloud security tactics can fall into two main categories: partner-based security or security for Software as a Service, Platform as a Service or Infrastructure as a Service models and end user-based or client-based security. Here are a few guidelines for securing a private or public cloud.

Strategically plan your cloud security. Every environment is unique. Give careful consideration to how corporate workloads should be delivered to end users. Placing security at the forefront during the initial planning phase creates a solid foundation and allows compliance-conscious organizations to create a resilient and audit-ready cloud infrastructure.

Pick your cloud vendor wisely. According to the Cloud Security Alliance, data loss and leakage are the top security threats of cloud computing. It's crucial to choose a cloud partner that can protect your enterprise's sensitive data. When evaluating a cloud partner for corporate IT services, make sure the vendor has experience in both IT and security services. Verify that cloud-ready risk mitigation is part of the provider's common security practice. And evaluate only cloud providers that have a proven track record integrating IT, security and network services and can provide strategic service-performance assurances.

Formulate an identity management system. Every enterprise environment will likely have some sort of identity management system that controls user access to corporate data and computing resources. When moving to the public cloud or building a private cloud, identity federation should be a major consideration.

A cloud provider must be willing to integrate an existing identity management system into its infrastructure using identity federation or single sign-on (SSO), or provide its own identity management system. Without this, environments create identity pools in which end users must use multiple sets of credentials to access common workloads.

Protect corporate data in the cloud. In a secure IT organization, data from one end user is properly segmented from that of another user. In other words, data at rest must be stored securely and data in motion must move securely from one location to another without interruption. Reputable cloud partners have can prevent data leaks or ensure that unauthorized third parties cannot access data. It's important to clearly define roles and responsibilities to ensure that users -- even privileged users -- cannot circumvent auditing, monitoring and testing, unless otherwise authorized.

Develop an active monitoring system. Enterprises must continuously monitor data in the cloud. Performance bottlenecks, system instabilities or other issues must be caught early to avoid any outages in services. Failure to constantly monitor the health of a cloud environment will result in poor performance, possible data leaks and angry end users. Organizations that are cloud-ready must plan which monitoring tools to use and how often they must track and monitor data.

For example, a company pushing a virtual desktop to the cloud may be interested in the following metrics:

  • SAN use
  • WAN operation
  • Networking issues or bottlenecks
  •  Log-in data, i.e., failed attempts, lockout information
  • Gateway information
    • Where are users coming from, is there suspicious traffic coming into the private cloud
    • How are IP addresses being used? Is internal gateway routing functioning properly?

After that, you can implement manual or automated procedures to respond to any events or outages that occur. It's very important to understand the value behind actively monitoring a cloud solution. By constantly keeping an eye on the cloud environment, IT administrators can proactively resolve issues before an end-user can notice them.

Establish cloud performance metrics and test regularly. When researching a cloud service provider -- for public cloud or private cloud -- check that the vendor presents a solid service-level agreement that includes metrics like availability, notification of a breach, outage notification, service restoration, average resolution times and so on. Regular proactive testing will remove a great deal of security risks or potential for data leaks.

Even though your cloud provider conducts testing, it's imperative to also have internal test procedures in place. IT managers know the environment -- and its end-users' demands -- best. Inconsistencies or irregularities in how cloud-based workloads are being used can lead to security breaches or data leaks.

Next steps: Identity federation in the cloud 
Thorough security tactics must be in place, starting from the host level and continuing all the way through the cloud infrastructure and to the end user. There are several tools on the market to help enterprises secure an investment in cloud computing.

Identity federation, for example, helps take credential management to the next level by securing a cloud infrastructure. Cloud computing offers great benefits to those environments prepared to make the investment, as long as they make wise and well-researched decisions when evaluating cloud security options.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bill Kleyman, MBA, MISM, is an avid technologist with experience in network infrastructure management. His engineering work includes large virtualization deployments as well as business network design and implementation. Currently, he is a Virtualization Solutions Architect at MTM Technologies, a national IT consulting firm.

This was first published in September 2011

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