What to look for in a secure cloud system

Not all cloud products support the same level of security, so what should organisations be looking out for?

Blue square background with a yellow cloud superimposed, with a cut-out key icon on it to represent cloud security

Cloud security was the top priority for IT professionals in 2019, according to a survey from NetEnrich, a trend showing no signs of going away. This isn't a surprise, given the implementation of GDPR, and large-scale data breaches frequently hitting headlines over the past year.

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Against this backdrop, it is understandable that there are still a sizeable number of businesses who are reluctant to fully embrace cloud computing as part of their business practice. But although this concern isn't unjustified, cloud providers are increasingly putting security at the forefront of their products. By using military-grade defences, providers can protect their clients' data and ensure their environments are as safe as they possibly can be.

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But as is the case with other features of cloud services, not all products are equal and some provide better levels of security than others. This isn't because cloud providers don't realise the need for solid defences, but because different products are designed for different use cases. Some are designed for highly regulated and sensitive industries, while others don't need to be so locked down.

A recent survey from Ingram Micro revealed that high levels of security are the most important thing that 83% of IT professionals look for when choosing a cloud solution, with competitive pricing being the next most important at 74%. If you're unsure about what to look out for when choosing your cloud provider and service, here are four things to explore from a security point of view.

Information access

The first thing to check for in a cloud solution is the ability to share information across departments. This functionality is key for CIOs looking to transform their businesses by improving customer experiences and organisational agility, while also introducing new digital revenue streams. 

Corporations run hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of interconnected applications to support their operations. Traditional solutions store information in many different places, so keeping those systems in sync is a challenging task.

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True, multi-tenancy SaaS with human resource, finance and planning data stored in one application makes all of this much easier. This central design has many benefits, including all systems working from a common framework, so there are no inconsistencies in data. It also eradicates the disconnect between the system and its users; a problem prevalent in many legacy systems.

Consequently, overall security improves with a single version of the software that is continuously updated, scanned and patched. This is far better than working with multiple packages, and any security-related changes to the system architecture are relayed to all customers simultaneously. If a leading enterprise needs a stringent new security feature, it's available to an SMB as well.

Conversely, it's important to make access control a serious priority. The modern workforce comes paired with all sorts of different hardware, meaning a spread of data across more access points, increasing the likelihood of a vulnerability. By prioritising an access solution involving vetting applications used, specifying permissions and setting policies, the correct employees can access the tools they need in order to work efficiently.

Encryption benefits

In the old days, corporations relied on firewalls to protect information, believing that once the business had warded off outsiders, information was safe. Since hackers can attack systems at different levels, such thinking is now very outdated. Once hackers gain access to a system, they stay, often working their way from low-level to high-level security clearances and compromising sensitive information.

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Encryption serves as one way firms can protect themselves. Typically, data is encrypted in transit, which is a first rather than last step. Once information enters the data centre, it's unencrypted and therefore vulnerable. To address this problem, organisations need to encrypt information at rest in a persistent data store.

Unfortunately, these systems are complex and difficult to implement, so cloud services built on legacy architectures rarely support the encryption of all customer data at rest.

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With modern cloud architectures, a good cloud vendor will take on those responsibilities, especially if privacy and security are embedded into the system from the beginning.

Eliminate passwords

Passwords serve as a marker to which technological advancement has long since surpassed, with the phrase ‘password safety’ itself quickly becoming an oxymoron; rather than assuring security, a password acting as the dominant user authentication method in accessing a computer or network should instead serve as a warning.

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Passwords can be infiltrated by malicious software commonly available to hackers, making it easier and quicker than ever before for security perimeters to be breached. The scale of the problem is vast and well-known, with Google recently releasing figures that reveal 1.5% of password sign-in attempts include the use of compromised data. 

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Complex passwords have developed in an attempt to plug the security gap. Typically they consist of a randomised sequence of letters and digits, including special characters. However, faced with rapidly evolving malicious technology these do little to resolve the wider security issues present.

Fortunately, security technology has responded to pick up the slack. Single-sign-on (SSO) technology has developed into the user authentication method of choice for secure organisations, eliminating the need for regular passwords. SSO makes computers and networks more secure by allowing users to access multiple applications using just one set of login credentials by logging them into a central hub.

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This allows administrators to more easily apply enhanced security controls and is a great convenience for users who no longer have to remember a plethora of passwords, with SSO thus paving the way towards a more positive user experience. 

SSO comes with its own security risks, however. A hacker who gains control over a set of credentials will be granted access to each and every application integrated into an enterprises’ IT infrastructure. Therefore, it’s vital to couple SSO with identity governance to more readily authenticate users.

Support for third-party standards

Industry and government groups have designed various compliance frameworks to protect customer information, with increasingly tough regulations being introduced around the world. However, the specifications are only a starting point.

While assessing a solution, the various compliance standards and security implementations should be thoroughly examined. Is the service simply aligned with the standard or has the service been certified? How is the information stored? What level of encryption is supported? How are updates handled?

All cloud providers claim to have secure systems, but few offer the higher levels of protection needed for an enterprise's valuable data. Carefully examining a vendor's solution, however good it may seem on the surface, is the key to a compliant, breach-free cloud future.

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