Security in the age of cloud computing: How IT leaders are mitigating risks

Posted in: Business Insights


As the world becomes more connected, and more systems are moving to the cloud, security and data privacy are major considerations for IT leaders. But with the ever-present possibility of security threats, vulnerabilities and privacy exposures, how are today’s CIOs and IT leaders securing their systems?


According to a recent survey by the Cloud Security Alliance, despite concerns about the security of corporate data moving to the cloud, just 35.0 percent of IT leaders said that cloud-based systems of record are less secure than their on-premises counterparts. And 64.9 percent said that the cloud is either more secure than on-premises software or equally secure.


This is not to say that these same IT leaders don’t see security as a major concern as they evolve their systems onto the cloud. While businesses have to focus on innovation and agility to gain competitive advantage, the question of security has to be addressed alongside innovation. But the key is to address security without slowing the business down.


So what are IT leaders doing to secure their systems as they move forward with business and IT innovations? I had the opportunity to discuss this with IT leaders from RMS and Mozilla, during Pythian’s CIO panel discussion in November 2015.


Cory Isaacson, CTO at RMS has been working on bringing big data and scalable systems together to create a new cloud-based platform, and says his customers — some of the world’s largest insurance companies — are constantly concerned about threats to their data. This is an industry rife with concerns over privacy exposures because of the nature of data being handled. RMS runs catastrophe models for their customers, like scenarios that will tell insurance companies what a disaster like an earthquake or hurricane might cost them.


One of the biggest fears on the minds of Isaacson’s customers is about the security of their data. “The best idea is to not have anything that’s worth stealing. We’re looking at techniques that will keep the data encrypted from the user’s browser all the way into the database. If we can solve the data security issue simply by not having anything worth stealing, then that’s much better and much safer. Just take all the confidential and proprietary information and encrypt it end-to-end, and work with it on an encrypted basis,” he said.


RMS is betting on this encryption strategy for the longer term. But, it’s not an easy one to implement. Isaacson admits that it’s going to take some doing, and he hopes that after following ISO standards, going through quality gates and adhering to all of the industry prescribed protections and processes, that he will have some robust security in place.


Sean Rich, director of IT at Mozilla, is leading their application services group, and is facing the question of how to automate security within their day to day processes.  “Just like agile development found ways to build quality assurance into the process and DevOps found ways to build operations into the process, we now need a way to build greater security into the process. The definition of working software has evolved to include all three: quality, runtime and security,” said Rich.


Aaron Lee, the Chief Digital Officer at Pythian, believes that we all need to think about automating security, just as we do with things like QA.  “When it comes to security, the cost of inaction is super high and the risk of inaction is super high,”  Lee said.


According to Lee, many IT leaders think the idea of automating security is not feasible. “I think the idea of depending on humans to do the same thing over and over again is nuts,” he said, referring to the manual effort that goes into security.


“The idea that a static security design can secure a dynamic engineering environment is an incredible mismatch,” he added.


Lee’s team at Pythian spends a lot of time with clients trying to figure out how to parse the regulatory requirements to automate as much as possible.


And Lee asserted that companies don’t always know what they’re getting into when they host their data with a third party.


“My favorite example is single tenant versus multi tenant. Single tenant sounds safer because all your data is in one place. But it’s all multi tenant in the end, you’re all sharing the building, you’re all sharing the earth so it’s hard to make that distinction. For a certain part of the SaaS industry, this is an important marketing distinction. But in reality, it’s meaningless. A data isolation strategy that might be implemented hypothetically could involve my business being a tenant on some multi tenant infrastructure in which I have a set of keys that I control and that are specific to my business. My third party doesn’t have access to those keys, and they are not shared by any other tenant. But in reality, are we all sharing the same set of keys?  And how are those keys and secrets managed? Are they sitting on a high risk security module somewhere on somebody’s laptop? Is it some combination of all that? When you start looking at what vendors promise from a security standpoint and what the industry talks about, it doesn’t always match reality,” he said.


These are the issues Pythian faces every day when assessing the vulnerability of a company’s IT systems.


Companies that are serious about security aren’t just checking compliance boxes to make auditors happy, according to Lee.  They’re getting experts like Pythian to address their issues in a constructive way.


“My observation is that the enterprise world at large has gone from needing to have people in place to check boxes to being at true risk of fundamental intellectual property leakage and for that matter, business continuity problems,” Lee said.


But most companies aren’t putting resources on automating. They’re hiring. And according to the Cloud Security Alliance survey, IT leaders see the biggest barrier to mitigating threats to their systems and data is not a limitation in security technology — it’s a human resource limitation. The survey results suggested that companies just can’t find enough security professionals to fill their hiring needs.


In keeping with that trend, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that JPMorgan expected to spend $500 million on cyber security in 2015, double its 2014 budget of $250 million.


While companies continue to spend their security budgets on hiring, Mozilla’s Sean Rich agrees that there’s a need for automation to deal with vulnerability.


“This need has driven transformation. We’ve moved from maintaining compliance to actually dealing with practical threats and with real consequences, looking at every single attack vector and how to mitigate them,” said Rich.


“Finding the answer to mitigating IT risks won’t be easy, and will continue to be costly,” said Pythian’s Aaron Lee.


“The best, most sophisticated zero day vulnerability attacks are utterly widespread in a month, so we all eventually get to feel the enormity of those attacks. Security is the biggest expense and it’s rising. It’s only going to continue to get worse because there are a lot of people who make a lot of money by hacking into systems, and they keep getting better at it.”


About the Author

Lynda Partner is a self-professed data addict who understands how transformational data can be for organizations. In her role as EVP of Data and Analytics, Lynda focuses on Pythian’s services that help customers harness the power of data and analytics and holistically manage their data estate.

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