Can we get ahead of security needs for the Next Big Thing?

If any one technology or idea dominated last week’s RSA Conference, it was cloud computing. Keynotes, session presentations and the exhibit floor were full of it. In fact, it might have been a little too cloudy. One speaker won a round of applause when he prefaced a technical talk on hashing algorithms by saying, “This is not a talk about cloud computing.”

But it obviously was what many people at the conference wanted to talk about. “Moving IT operations into the cloud is going to be the wet dream of government,” said Adi Shamir, professor of computer science at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science. That move has already begun. John Streufert, the State Department’s chief information security officer, said about 60 percent of the department’s servers are virtualized in a private cloud.

“The cloud is the buzz today,” said Scott Charney, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing Group. He predicted that eventually everything will go to the cloud. Art Coviello, president of RSA, said the cloud has the potential to complete the sweeping transformation of IT that the Internet started.

But there were caveats. “People must be able to trust the cloud,” Coviello said. While reaching for an IT paradise, “we have to be careful we don’t end up in security hell.” Brian Snow, former technical director for information assurance at the National Security Agency, predicted that the U.S. would have a meltdown of trust in IT if industry failed to adequately secure online transactions.

If the buzz about cloud computing is accurate and not just another topic of the year, the cloud might offer us a chance to get ahead of the curve with security.

The challenge of securing the Internet, which we have yet to meet, is that it has evolved so rapidly in ways that we failed to anticipate. So many of the applications that have become or are becoming mission-critical began life as toys and gizmos. While administrators were focusing on the wired infrastructure, wireless connections moved from being the playthings of geeks to being business tools. By the time administrators got around to banning wireless access, it had already moved into the enterprise. Handheld devices quickly went from electronic calendars for executives to mobile computing platforms for an untethered workforce before adequate security policies or tools were in place.

We were busy trying to lock down e-mail while texting, Twitter and social networking were evolving from high-school chatter to professional essentials. The distinction between personal and professional online activities, platforms and resources has blurred to an extent that few predicted. In short, we’ve been busy struggling with the past and present while being overwhelmed by the future.

So if we are right this time — if cloud computing actually is the wave of the future and we can see it coming before we’re treading water — maybe we will have time to secure it before it becomes built into our enterprises. Many of the security issues have already been identified: the further blurring of the enterprise perimeter, the challenge of identity management and access controls, the severing of the bond between software and hardware platforms, the lack of visibility into internal communications and relationships, the inability of traditional security tools to work effectively in a virtual environment, and the lack of a legal and regulatory framework for accountability and security in this new environment. And then there are all the old security challenges that still have to be met, such as software assurance and configuration management, to name two.

I believe that government and industry probably have the know-how to address these issues if there is the will to do it. The biggest threat we face now is that instead of using that know-how to secure the cloud, it goes instead into developing some new Next Big Thing that blindsides us.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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