Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cloud Security

Security is not only the the number one concern for adopting cloud computing, it is also a serious barrier to the adopt-ability of cloud computing. Also, security considerations are causing the Virtual Machine (VM) operating system to evolve. All this came out at the SDForum Cloud SIG night on Cloud Security (the presentations are on the SIG page). There were three speakers and a lot was said. I am just going to highlight a few things that struck me as important.

Firstly, Dr Chenxi Wang from Forrester Research spoke on cloud security issues and trends. She highlighted the issue of compliance to various regulations and how it clashes with what the cloud providers have to offer. One concern is where data is stored, as countries have different regulations for data privacy and record keeping on individuals. If data from one country happened to be stored in another country, that could create a problem with complex legal ramifications that would be expensive to resolve. On the other side of the equation are the cloud system vendors who want to provide a generic service with as few constraints as possible. Having to give a guarantee about where data is stored would make their service offering more complicated and expensive to provide.

Another more specific example of the clash between compliance and what cloud vendors provide is with the PCI security standard in credit card card industry. One PCI requirement is that all computer systems used for PCI applications are scanned for vulnerabilities at least ever three months. Most cloud vendors are unwilling to have their systems scanned for vulnerabilities for a variety of reasons, one of which I will discuss shortly. The solution may be specialized cloud services that are aimed at specific industries. IBM is experimenting with a cloud service that they claim is PCI compliant. These specific services will be more expensive and we will have wait and see whether they succeed. 

Chris Richter from Savvis, a cloud provider spoke next. He mentioned standards as a way to resolve the issued described above. The International Standards Organization is creating the ISO 27000 suite of standards for information security. So far ISO 27001 "Information security management systems — Requirements" and ISO 27002 "Code of practice for information security management" are the most mature and relevant standards. As with other ISO standards like ISO 9000 quality standard, there is certification process which will allow cloud providers to make standards based security claims about the service that they provide.

Finally, Dave Asprey from Trend Micro discussed the evolving nature of the VM technology that underlies cloud computing offerings. The original VMware vision was that a virtual machine would be used to develop software for a real physical machine so they spent a lot of time and effort on faithfully replication every aspect of a physical machine in their virtual machine. Now the use case has shifted to making more efficient use of resources. However, a problem is that common operations can bring a set of virtual machines to a standstill if they all decide to do the same common operation at the same time.

Again, vulnerability scanning shows the problem. If the company default is that the anti-virus scan is scheduled for lunchtime Wednesday, then the whole virtual machine infrastructure can be brought to its knees when everyone's VM starts its scan at the same time. Furthermore, because many of the files being scanned may be shared by all the virtual machines, having each VM scan them is a huge waste of resources. Anti-virus software companies are working with the VM software vendors to provide a vulnerability scan that is VM aware and that uses new VM APIs to perform its function is an efficient and non-disruptive way. While this is necessary it seems to run counter to the original notion that each VM is an entirely separate entity that is completely unaware that other VMs exist.

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