Venkatapathi Puvvada

ANOTHER VIEW—Guest commentary: Cloud computing

Safe and sound in the cloud

Cloud computing and cybersecurity are not mutually exclusive

Cloud computing is the talk of the town in federal information technology circles, with the Obama administration signaling that agencies should prepare to move rapidly toward adoption of this model. While a cloud environment can offer many important benefits to the public sector, security concerns weigh heavily on the minds of many federal IT managers. The question resonating today through the halls of many federal agencies is, “How can government agencies stay safe and sound in the cloud?” The good news is that cloud computing and security do not have to be mutually exclusive concepts.

Cloud computing, a model in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized IT resources are provided as a service predominately over the Internet, has raised security concerns for federal organizations that handle vast amounts of highly sensitive personal and national security data. For example, a federal agency may not know the physical location or the security profile of the servers it is utilizing via the cloud, raising questions with regard to the safety, security and privacy of the data and operational information. Just as important, it may be difficult to ensure that resources in the cloud meet Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) requirements, which mandate that all federal government organizations perform a risk-based methodology on all information systems managed by agencies and their contractors.

There are, however, strategies that federal IT leaders can adopt to ensure that their organizations and data remain secure in the cloud.

Use a hybrid approach as a bridge

There are three types of computing clouds, each of which offers various levels of control:

  • The public cloud, which offers the greatest potential for cost efficiency and scalability, refers to a computing approach in which a service provider makes resources, such as server, storage and applications, available to the general public over the Internet.
  • The private cloud is a proprietary network of data centers that uses cloud computing technologies, such as virtualization.
  • The hybrid cloud approach employs a mix of private and external computing and networking resources, enabling an organization to select the approach that best suits the task at hand.

The hybrid approach offers a judicious path forward, enabling a phased migration to the public cloud. It satisfies the need to protect sensitive information as well as the desire to move quickly to capitalize on the benefits of cloud computing, which include tremendous cost savings achieved by pooling and dynamically provisioning resources.

Federal IT leaders may want to begin the migration by moving public-facing data that has very low sensitivity, such as Web site content, to a public cloud environment. They also should consider transitioning their numerous test and development environments to the public cloud, a move that has low risk but offers the potential for significant savings across the federal government.

A private cloud, an approach that takes advantage of pooled resources while offering greater control than the public cloud, should be considered for information assets that require moderate or higher levels of protection. Additionally, government organizations may decide that there is certain data that is simply too sensitive to share even on a private cloud. This information would remain, at least in the short-term, in the agency’s dedicated IT environment.

A cohesive strategy is critical to the hybrid approach. IT leaders should first take stock of their IT assets and environment and determine which data they can migrate immediately to a public cloud, which is best assigned to a private cloud, and which should be held within dedicated agency or department resources. They must then map a strategy for continuing the migration of assets from department-based systems to the private cloud and, ultimately, to the public cloud environment.

Build in security from the ground up

Federal departments and agencies should be certain that security is built into the cloud and not bolted on as an afterthought. As federal organizations prepare to migrate their more sensitive data to the public cloud, security concerns will increase. When considering a public cloud computing environment, agencies should assess the environment with an eye for whether security permeates the cloud. In other words, is security an integral part of every level of the cloud – across the application, platform and infrastructure levels?

To ensure security, the borders of the cloud must be clearly defined, so an agency or its vendor partner can audit and determine the origin and security of the cloud resources it is using. To this end, we can expect to see the emergence of FISMA-certified clouds, which may remove much of the complexity for government agencies.

When selecting a vendor partner, federal organizations should consider the following checklist to be certain that security permeates the cloud environment:

  • Does the environment enable communities of interest (closed user groups) to share the same infrastructure without fear of another group accessing their data or their workstations and servers?
  • How is the data encrypted? Agencies should ensure that their partners are using Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) certified encryption, and are going beyond encryption to bit-level splitting of data into multiple slices as it traverses the infrastructure for the highest levels of security.
  • Does security go beyond cryptography? It takes a complete understanding of both physical and IT security to truly safeguard data and assets. Partners that own the data centers and infrastructure that comprise their cloud offerings can offer the highest levels of assurance, as they have greater oversight authority over both IT and physical security.
  • Does the vendor partner have experience with meeting FISMA requirements? As agencies know, there is a big difference between ensuring security for commercial and government entities, and having the ability and knowledge to comply with the increased security demands is critical.

In addition to security considerations, Federal organizations should ensure that their cloud environments are built on industry standards so that applications can run in the agency’s data center as well as the cloud vendor’s data center, and that even compatible inter-cloud communications are appropriately enabled.

Cloud computing holds the potential to deliver significant benefits to the federal government by eliminating duplicative processes, reducing costs and providing increased automation. To realize this silver lining, however, federal organizations must rise above lingering security and privacy concerns. The good news is that with careful planning and evaluation, and a commitment to building in security from the ground up, sensitive government data can indeed be safe and sound in the cloud.

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