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Cloud Database Security: 2011 vs. Today

By Adrian Lane

Adrian here.

I had a brief conversation today about security for cloud database deployments, and their two basic questions encapsulated many conversations I have had over the last few months. It is relevant to a wider audience, so I will discuss them here.

The first question I was asked was, “Do you think that database security is fundamentally different in the cloud than on-premise?”

Yes, I do. It’s not the same. Not that we no longer need IAM, assessment, monitoring, or logging tools, but the way we employ them changes. And there will be more focus on things we have not worried about before – like the management plane – and far less on things like archival and physical security. But it’s very hard to compare apples to apples here, because of fundamental changes in the way cloud works. You need to shift your approach when securing databases run on cloud services.

The second question was, “Then how are things different today from 2011 when you wrote about cloud database security?”

Database security has changed in three basic ways:

1) Architecture: We no longer leverage the same application and database architectures. It is partially about applications adopting microservices, which both promotes micro-segmentation at the network and application layer, and also breaks the traditional approach of closely tying the application to a database. Architecture has also developed in response to evolving database services. We see need for more types of data, with far more dynamic lookup and analysis than transaction support. Together these architectural changes lead to more segmented deployment, with more granular control over access to data and database services.

2) Big Data: In 2011 I expected people to push their Oracle, MS SQL Server, and PostgreSQL installations into the cloud, to reduce costs and scale better. That did not happen. Instead firms prefer to start new projects in the cloud rather than moving existing projects. Additionally we see strong adoption of big data platforms such as Hadoop and Dynamo. These are different platforms with slightly different security issues and security tools than the relational platforms which dominated the previous two decades. And in an ecosystem like Hadoop applications running on the same data lake may be exposed to entirely different service layers.

3) Database as a Service: At Securosis we were a bit surprised by how quickly the cloud vendors embraced big data. Now they offer big data (along with other relational database platforms) as a service. “Roll your own” has become much less necessary. Basic security around internal table structures, patching, administrative access, and many other facets is now handled by vendors to reduce your headaches. We can avoid installation issues. Licensing is far, far easier. It has become so easy to stand up a new relational database or big data cluster this way running databases on Infrastructure as a Service now seems antiquated.

I have not gone back through everything I wrote in 2011, but there are probably many more subtle differences. But the question itself overlook another important difference: Security is now embedded in cloud services. None of us here at Securosis anticipated how fast cloud platform vendors would introduce new and improved security features. They have advanced their security offerings much faster than any other platform or service offering I’ve ever seen, and done a much better job with quality and ease of use than anyone expected. There are good reasons for this. In most cases the vendors were starting from a clean slate, unencumbered by legacy demands. Additionally, they knew security concerns were an impediment to enterprise adoption. To remove their primary customer objections, they needed to show that security was at least as good as on-premise.

In conclusion, if you are moving new or existing databases to the cloud, understand that you will be changing tools and process, and adjusting your biggest priorities.

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