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Security Manager's Journal: The need for real security in a virtual world

Virtualization, cloud computing and SaaS all carry their own security challenges

By J.F. Rice
June 24, 2010 04:50 PM ET

Computerworld - In a recent column, my Security Manager's Journal counterpart, Mathias Thurman, wrote about securing virtual desktop environments. My company is going through the same exercise of evaluating VDI as a replacement for traditional desktops. As Mathias pointed out, the concept of virtualizing the applications that run on the system does not substantially change the threat landscape, nor does it modify the countermeasures we put in place to protect against those threats.

This is true in the server world as well. Physical servers are being replaced in our data center by virtual machines, but these VMs look and feel like any other server platform from the security perspective. Whether the server is real or virtual makes no difference from the network point of view. They all look the same on the wire.

But what about Internet-based services? Cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS) are beginning to proliferate in my company's network, and I find myself struggling with trying to apply the best practices we are using inside our network perimeter to outside companies beyond our control. I believe that the risks associated with Internet-based SaaS services are a combination of those risks associated with traditional data center environments in addition to those of Internet-based services, added to a new set of risks that arise from the convergence of private and public environments.

We are using SaaS-based services, including the well-known and Google Docs, other Web services, and outsourced third-party support and staffing services that connect into our network over the Internet. These services need to access some of our internal network infrastructure in order to work, such as our Active Directory authentication systems. Yet we don't really know that these outside companies will treat that access with the same care and caution that we use, and how do we know they are safe? All we really have is contractual reassurance. That's why I insist on a SAS70 certification from every potential SaaS vendor before we start any discussions about connecting to their service. While SAS70 may not completely guarantee that a vendor's service is safe, it at least establishes that the vendor has given some thought to protecting its customers' information assets.

When evaluating the security of SaaS services, I am concerned about some additional factors beyond traditional data center computing that need to be addressed. For instance, knowledge and control of the location of data are important for many reasons, with regulations being near the top of the list. In the past, service providers knew exactly where their customers' data resided, because individual servers were housed in specific data centers with minimal interaction from the providers. But in newer, distributed cloud environments, providers have many data centers and leverage virtualization of servers, network, and storage to provide elastic environments that can be scaled on demand. This means that finding the physical location of data can be difficult, and it can move around without warning.

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