Don't let the cloud obscure the view of your enterprise security

The rush to embrace cloud computing may be the defining trend of the decade, but businesses thinking public-cloud adoption relieves them of their information-security obligations should think again – and remember just what it takes to keep on top of an expanding hybrid enterprise infrastructure.

That's the warning from Ian Farquhar, ANZ sales engineer and security virtual team lead with security-monitoring firm Gigamon, who has seen many businesses make the jump to the cloud without considering how to replicate many of the controls – including monitoring of network traffic and application activity – that they have long used within their on-premises environments.

“Even in non-traditional areas, businesses are starting to move infrastructure into the cloud and they are seeing real advantages,” Farquhar says. “But just moving stuff to the cloud doesn't make security issues go away. It can complicate your performance and network management issues because you don't have the access to that workflow if it's not managed the same way in the cloud as it is on premises.”

With Frost & Sullivan expecting ANZ cloud-services revenues to nearly quadruple from $1.23b in 2013 to reach $4.55 billion by 2018, there seems to be no stopping this surging market.

Anticipated benefits have contributed to the mystique of the cloud, which has emerged front and centre in the strategies of major enterprises as they seek to digitally transform themselves and to refresh aging IT infrastructures that are no longer up to the demands of modern digital business.

Public Web sites, customer-facing portals, mobile sites, certain line-of-business applications and other non-core systems are rapidly being shifted to the cloud. Yet lack of visibility into public-cloud environments is a potential problem for the millions of businesses that are looking to tap into the cloud and its massive scalability, flexibility and repeatability.

“The idea that the cloud changes the need for visibility is absurd,” Farquhar says. “People need the cloud but it's not just a black box with data going in and information coming out. Other things happen there – there are security incidents, performance issues, and network issues – and they need visibility.”

Mapping the Amazon

By far the biggest public-cloud providers, Amazon Web Services (AWS) – which Synergy Research Group says has a 31 percent worldwide market share, well ahead of number-two Microsoft (10 percent) – offers particular challenges for enterprises because many businesses treat its infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) environment as an all-in-one destination when making the jump to the cloud.

AWS has invested extensively in supporting infrastructure and technologies to ensure the cloud instances it hosts run smoothly and scale effectively, but much of this work happens behind the scenes and customers have little or no visibility into what is going on with their virtual machines.

This, Farquhar warns, can leave enterprise customers in the dark about just what is happening within the company's cloud – and exposed from a security perspective because they can't monitor those cloud activities with the same level of detail as is possible on their on-premises network.

Regaining that visibility requires the implementation of what Farquhar calls a 'host-based tap' that sits alongside the company's virtual cloud servers and offers the ability to monitor data streams coming into the virtual machine and going out of it. Detailed security monitoring, threat scanning, network performance monitoring and visibility into all activities of the virtual machine “really de-risks that decision to move to the cloud,” he says.

“Unknown, unmanaged risk is a problem, and something that businesses deal with every day,” he continues. “The risk of the cloud is a cost to the business, and we're trying to remove a lot of that cost by allowing them to properly manage that risk. Sometimes it's such a low priority and low value that you just leave it alone – but you've got to have that capability to understand and control it.”

By running as agents within the company's AWS virtual environment, the probes collect data that is relayed back to GigaSECURE, a centralised monitoring console that also collects data from similar probes spread across on-premises systems as well as environments running on VMware ESX/NSX and OpenStack cloud platforms.

This approach provides customers with a 'one pane of glass' view of the activity across their network and, importantly, extends existing monitoring into new cloud environments with a minimum of difficulty. Gigamon has also been working on developing tap-as-a-service (TaaS) capabilities that simplify the deployment of taps within OpenStack environments.

Compliance in the cloud

As well as quickly identifying performance issues or anomalous activity that may indicate emerging security problems, the visibility provided by the host-based tap approach offers invaluable assistance in monitoring compliance with critical compliance standards with which companies must comply whether their infrastructure is on-premises or in the cloud.

The common Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS), for example, places tight controls around the way that sensitive financial details and personally identifiable information (PII) are stored and secured. Compliance with this standard would be threatened if customer credit-card details were, for example, being sent in plain text between on-premises systems and the cloud platform - but without visibility into those connections, businesses wouldn't even know they were non-compliant.

“We see cloud providers providing solutions which will address [compliance],” Farquhar says, “and while a reasonable organisation is going to trust them somewhat, they will also want assurances. The ability to monitor the cloud for transmission or storage of PII, and to understand that data is not being transmitted in the clear, is something that a lot of organisations will seek and value.”

Similar controls are particularly important for Australian organisations, whose secure handling of PII was carefully mandated by the extensive security controls introduced in recent Privacy Act amendments that have improved openness and accountability for the handling of all kinds of data.

As adoption of cloud services continues along its steep growth curve, businesses will progressively be moving increasingly sensitive workloads to their cloud environments – and will be able to do so with a higher degree of confidence knowing they have visibility into the whole process. “Because this market is growing, that visibility is becoming absolutely critical,” Farquhar says.

“Businesses want expandability, agility, and flexibility and the cloud provides this. But if you've got mission-critical workloads in the cloud, you've got to have that capacity to understand and control what's going on – and to do this, it's essential that you get visibility. You can't defend against what you can't see.”

Tags enterprise securityFrost & SullivanANZGigamonCSO AustraliaIan Farquhar

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