Securing the cloud: The factors that need to be considered

AJ Hartenberg 1
AJ Hartenberg, Portfolio Manager: Data Centre Services at T-Systems in South Africa.

Security has typically been, and continues to be, one of the major areas of concern for organisations contemplating a move into the cloud, and for good reason. Security breaches can have far-reaching consequences that could cripple a business, and legislative compliance issues add further complications. However, security challenges, particularly regarding the public cloud, have led to a misconception that a private cloud is the most secure offering.

The perception that the private cloud is less vulnerable to security breaches is a risky one, as the reality is that the cloud, like any IT environment, is only as secure as it is made to be. Outsourcing to a specialist cloud provider, on the other hand, carries significantly reduced risk, as these providers have more extensive resources and expertise, and often are at the forefront of security practices. Securing the cloud, whether this is private or outsources, requires a layer-by-layer approach to minimise vulnerability. Whether organisations opt for the private model, or take the decision to outsource to a specialist, there are many security factors that need to be considered.

One of the very first security aspects, and one that is so simple it is often overlooked, is access rights to elements within the actual cloud platform. If user IDs and passwords are not secure, the entire environment could potentially be compromised, if the underlying platform is not secure with relevant security measures. If users have access to areas they should not, vulnerabilities are created. As a result, the first layer of cloud security should be to create stringent rules around passwords, from characteristics of the password to enforcing regular password changes, to ensuring appropriate levels of access for users.

In addition, it is essential to apply different levels of security at different stages within the cloud platform, to secure all layers from the physical environment to the various cloud components. This includes the hypervisor layer, which incorporates a variety of different components that must be secured. In addition, the different layers should be segregated to prevent users from being able to penetrate from one area to another or break out of the various layers. Securing network access is also essential, including aspects such as Intrusion Prevention Services (IPS), properly configured firewalls, network switch configuration and more.

These elements are similar to those required to secure any IT environment, however, the cloud serves to exacerbate the problems of not having adequate security. In a cloud environment, the entire system is at risk if security is ineffective, and in fact practically all systems are easily accessible if passwords can be hacked, traced or broken. This is why segregation is so important – to ensure that even if one system is breached, the entire system is not compromised. If this is not done correctly, a single misplaced or unsecured password could result in a person with malicious intent accessing everything from HR and finance to sensitive company information and strategic documentation. End user passwords remain the single most overlooked element of security, and must be secured.

In addition, organisations should ensure that strict operating system access rights are applied to ensure users cannot access file systems they do not need to access. This needs to be implemented at a file level, with permissions to read, write, create files and so on, to minimise damage should a breach occur. Access to applications should be controlled via two-factor authentication – using a password as well as an additional means of clarification – and access rights should only be granted as necessary. For example a marketing employee does not need to access HR or finance applications, so they should not be able to do so. Furthermore, application identities should not be generic. Each employee should have their own ID to access applications, to ensure greater levels of security and control.

Policies, procedures and processes also need to be put into place to ensure security. Standard policies need to govern access and application rights and roles defined per user: if a user has a certain role, they need a certain level of access to certain applications. This policy should drill down to a specific and granular level per user. Procedures need to be repeatable and ensure that all security aspects are governed and not overlooked. Processes too must be streamlined and repeatable, and people need to be made aware of these processes to ensure they can be followed. This in turn aids in compliance as it simplifies auditing with documented, signed and repeatable policies, processes and procedures.

Security, particularly when it comes to the cloud, is a complex task that, when considered at this level, is often too complex for many organisations to adequately assure using in-house skills. As a result, utilising a specialist cloud provider can be of enormous benefit in ensuring all of the elements of security are put into place and in reducing risk. Cloud service providers have greater access to resources, making it easier for them not only to ensure adequate security, but also to identify a breach and take proactive measures to prevent a breach happening. Outsource providers have a stringent approach to security with regular audits and penetration testing, to ensure segregation of layers is in place. Furthermore, they are often at the forefront of security due to close relationships with vendors that underpin cloud computing, including hypervisor vendors.

Securing the cloud is a complex task that can have significant negative consequences if ineffectively addressed. From standard security such as firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention, anti-virus and encryption operating systems and applications, there are many aspects and layers to consider. In addition, passwords are vitally important, but are something that is very often overlooked. Partnering with a specialist cloud provider can assist organisations to ensure their cloud IT infrastructure and services are adequately secured, so that they can leverage the benefits without falling prey to the pitfalls of a security breach.

By AJ Hartenberg, Portfolio Manager: Data Centre Services at T-Systems in South Africa