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Cloud-Based Security – an Evolution, Not a Revolution

An Emerging Option

Does this situation sound familiar? A company that you are very familiar with has just been the victim of a significant security incident. The clean-up has been complex and costly, as you've heard from multiple connections at other companies. And the president of your company has heard about it too. The bad news: your company is just as vulnerable, and you are responsible for dealing with the problem. The good news (maybe): the president now believes that the problem is real and is asking for answers. Your challenge: find a solution - fast - and capitalize on the company president's interest to get it paid for and implemented - before the company becomes the next victim and before the president forgets about the risk.

Insecure About Security
What makes this situation even more challenging is the size of your IT staff - perhaps you are the entire staff, but certainly, the team is a few people at most. Each of you wears multiple hats, has a passing knowledge about a variety of topics, and is always pressed for time. Security is most likely not a core competency for any of the IT staff in your company. It follows then that your approach to addressing new security challenges is equal parts Google search, conversations with colleagues, and likely a call to a reseller who's been reliable in helping to solve network issues.

Cloud-based Security - An Emerging Option
Just as appliances became an established platform for security solutions 10 years ago, the Internet cloud is now emerging as a platform for security solutions. Whereas solutions like SalesForce.com clearly fit into the category of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), cloud-based security solutions are most accurately described as Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). And that distinction is critical to understanding some of the benefits of cloud-based solutions - there's no infrastructure for the IT staff to manage, support, or account for. Instead, the IT staff's responsibility is strictly limited to managing - or working with the service provider team - to manage the capabilities of the security solution.

To avoid confusion, let's take these as a set of working definitions:

  • Premise-based solutions: Physically installed at your site, a colo facility, or a hosting center. These solutions are always dedicated to a single customer.
  • Cloud-based: Physically deployed in one or more Internet Data Centers, and supporting multiple customers. The capabilities are accessed or obtained via the Internet.

To be specific, consider the following security capabilities as examples, and note that all of them can be premise-based or cloud-based.

Since all of the above capabilities can be enabled via premise-based or cloud-based solutions, here the key factors to consider in determining what makes sense for your small business:

  • Does the company have IT staff with sufficient expertise and available time to manage the solutions?
  • Does the company have the budget to acquire the necessary products that enable premise-based solutions?
  • Does the company have unusual requirements that require specialized security solutions?
  • Does the company have the necessary excess space to house premise-based solutions?
  • Does the company have the necessary capacity from a power supply and back-up perspective to service additional premise-based solutions?
  • Does the company have sufficient Internet bandwidth available to continue filtering dangerous or unacceptable traffic on-premise rather than in-the-cloud?
  • Does the company have resistance to outsourcing IT services in general?

If you can answer "yes" to all of the above questions, then premise-based solutions will most likely be the best approach for your company. But if, like most small companies, you answer "no" to some or all of those questions, then cloud-based security solutions deserve close inspection and may well be the right answer for your company.

Beyond the very tangible points above, there are a series of other points that usually lead small companies toward cloud-based security solutions, including:

  • Time to value: Without the need to purchase and deploy software, servers, or appliances, cloud-based solutions can be turned on much faster, with the administrative process around the initial sign-up often being the single most time-consuming phase.
  • Ease of implementation: Compared to premise-based solutions that require physical installation and configuration changes at various points in the network infrastructure, cloud-based solutions have no installation process, and isolate security capabilities so that functions are carried out before traffic even gets to your network.
  • Zero-effort upgrades: No matter how smoothly your last software upgrade went, you will prefer to avoid the process. With cloud-based solutions, the service provider is managing the upgrade, and when it's complete, your company's network traffic is shifted over to the upgraded infrastructure - without any scheduling efforts, late nights, or complex explanations to users on your part.

Finances
Are cloud-based security solutions cheaper for the company than equivalent premise-based solutions?  Unequivocally YES!  While every company will have slightly different figures, consider the cost components shown in the following table.

Over a three-year period, it is quite possible that the subscription fees will exceed the cost of the product and associated support. But once you consider the other items in the left-hand column, the cloud-security option is clearly the lower-cost option. For periods longer than three years, you will need to consider product replacement as well, negating any potential benefit you would anticipate from longer amortization periods.

Is There a Downside to Cloud-based Security?
There are certainly caveats to using cloud-based security options, as described here:

  • There are certain types of security solutions that are simply more effective if deployed inside your network, such as intrusion detection and prevention systems, application firewalls, and data encryption systems.
  • If your company has serious reservations about outsourcing security functions, no matter how compelling the financial and customer service considerations are, security from the cloud will be perceived as high risk.
  • There are limits to how much a cloud-based solution can be customized to meet a particular company's needs.

For small companies in particular, the caveats listed above are unlikely to be relevant. The key security capabilities that small companies typically utilize (firewall/UTM, email filtering, antivirus, and URL filtering) are all readily available in a cloud-based format. And the types of policies that small companies normally implement are preconfigured for most product and cloud-based solutions.

Other Considerations
Other trade publications are rife with articles over the security of cloud computing, but the issues that are raised as concerns are simply not relevant to cloud-based security solutions. For example:

  • Questions are frequently raised about the degree to which customers' data is protected when it is stored in the cloud.
    -Cloud-based security solutions are not storing any data relating to your business. The only data these solutions do store are logs of events that occur within the individual security solutions.
  • Questions are raised about the identity management mechanisms used to validate users in business applications.
    -Cloud-based security solutions do not have user accounts for your business users, and under most circumstances are completely transparent to these users.

Conversely, cloud-based security solutions are primarily the creation of veterans of the security industry who have tremendous experience in creating product-based solutions, and their view is that they are not making any compromises on the capabilities or robustness of the new cloud-based solutions. Instead, these veterans articulate the view that they are responding more exactly to the customer needs they have learned about over their years in the product business.

The Future's So Bright...
For a security vendor, it is simply less expensive to provision capability in the cloud for a 100 or 1000 customers than it is to develop the equivalent product solution and deliver it via an appliance. For small companies, this circumstance means that cloud-based security solutions will become more prevalent over time, with more choices available. It also means that over time, prices will come down as more vendors offer comparable solutions.

More Stories By Eric Hemmendinger

Eric Hemmendinger is the Senior Product Manager for Managed Security Services at Tata Communications, a member of the $62.5 billion Tata Group. He is responsible for product line management and marketing for the managed security services business on a global basis. Eric has over 15 years of network security experience. He joined Tata Communications in March 2008, and has since led a team of product management and product marketing professionals in the launch of Managed Security Services at the company. Prior to joining Tata communications, he worked with Symantec Corporation, Nokia, the Aberdeen Group, and Data General. Eric holds a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from Carnegie Mellon University and a Bachelor of Engineering from the University of Michigan.

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Most Recent Comments
stevesmith 09/03/09 01:10:00 PM EDT

Eric,

Thank you for your detailed and well thought out post on the key considerations for cloud based security. I’m the Product Manager for Alert Logic, a provider of security services in the cloud. We hear the same reasons you talk about in your article from our customers and prospects. I’d add one point - the cloud model is even more important and meaningful for medium sized businesses. Our customers tell us that our solutions provide processes that they themselves aren’t able to implement or execute. The advantages we provide enable them to better address security and compliance requirements.

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