New Series: What CISOs Need to Know about Cloud Computing

By Rich

This is the first post in a new series detailing the key differences between cloud computing and traditional security. I feel pretty strongly that, although many people are talking about the cloud, nobody has yet done a good job of explaining why and how security needs to adapt at a fundamental level. It is more than outsourcing, more than multitenancy, and definitely more than simple virtualization. This is my best stab at it, and I hope you like it.

The entire paper, as I write it, is also posted and updated at GitHub for those of you who want to track changes, submit feedback, or even submit edits.

Special thanks to CloudPassage for agreeing to license the paper (as always, we are following our Totally Transparent Research Process and they do not have any more influence than you do, and can back out of licensing the paper if, in the end, they don’t like it).

And here we go…

What CISOs Need to Know about Cloud Computing


One of a CISO’s most difficult challenges is sorting the valuable wheat from the overhyped chaff, and then figuring out what it means in terms of risk to your organization. There is no shortage of technology and threat trends, and CISOs need not to only determine which matter, but how they impact security.

The rise of cloud computing is one of the truly transformative evolutions that fundamentally change core security practices. Far more than an outsourcing model, cloud computing alters the very fabric of our infrastructure, technology consumption, and delivery models. In the long run, the cloud and mobile computing are likely to mark a larger shift than the Internet.

This series details the critical differences between cloud computing and traditional infrastructure for security professionals, as well as where to focus security efforts. We will show that the cloud doesn’t necessarily increase risks – it shifts them, and provides new opportunities for significant security improvement.

Different, But Not the Way You Think

Cloud computing is a radically different technology model – not just the latest flavor of outsourcing. It uses a combination of abstraction and automation to achieve previously impossible levels of efficiency and elasticity. But in the end cloud computing still relies on traditional infrastructure as its foundation. It doesn’t eliminate physical servers, networks, or storage, but allows organizations to use them in different ways, with substantial benefits.

Sometimes this means building your own cloud in your own datacenter; other times it means renting infrastructure, platforms, and applications from public providers over the Internet. Most organizations will use a combination of both. Public cloud services eliminate most capital expenses and shift them to on-demand operational costs. Private clouds allow more efficient use of capital, tend to reduce operational costs, and increase the responsiveness of technology to internal needs.

Between the business benefits and current adoption rates, we expect cloud computing to become the dominant technology model over the next ten to fifteen years. As we make this transition it is the technology that create clouds, rather than the increased use of shared infrastructure, that really matters for security. Multitenancy is more an emergent property of cloud computing than a defining characteristic.

Security Is Evolving for the Cloud

As you will see, cloud computing isn’t more or less secure than traditional infrastructure – it is different. Some risks are greater, some are new, some are reduced, and some are eliminated. The primary goal of this series is to provide an overview of where these changes occur, what you need to do about them, and when.

Cloud security focuses on managing the different risks associate with abstraction and automation. Mutitenancy tends to be more a compliance issue than a security problem, and we will cover both aspects. Infrastructure and applications are opened up to network-based management via Internet APIs. Everything from core network routing to creating and destroying entire application stacks is now possible using command lines and web interfaces. The early security focus has been on managing risks introduced by highly dynamic virtualized environments such as autoscaled servers, and broad network access, including a major focus on compartmentalizing cloud management.

Over time the focus is gradually shifting to hardening the cloud infrastructure, platforms, and applications, and then adapting security to use the cloud to improve security. For example, the need for data encryption increases over time as you migrate more sensitive data into the cloud. But the complexities of internal network compartmentalization and server patching are dramatically reduced as you leverage cloud infrastructure.

We expect to eventually see more security teams hook into the cloud fabric itself – bridging existing gaps between security tools and infrastructure and applications with Software Defined Security. The same APIs and programming techniques that power cloud computing can provide highly-integrated dynamic and responsive security controls – this is already happening.

This series will lay out the key differences, with suggestions for where security professionals should focus. Hopefully, by the end, you will look at the cloud and cloud security in a new light, and agree that the cloud isn’t just the latest type of outsourcing.

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