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5 Questions SMBs Should Ask About Cloud Security

Most small companies need help. Start by asking the right questions.

The major hacking incidents reported in the media typically focus on large companies such as Sony and JP Morgan or a federal agency like the Office of Personnel Management, but SMBs are also regular victims of cybercrime.

Symantec’s 2015 Internet Security Threat Report found that 43 percent of spear phishing attacks two years ago were targeted towards SMBs.

Doug Cahill, an analyst at ESG who focuses on cloud security, says that companies have become very concerned about the use of cloud apps to store and forward malware.

“There’s a great deal of concern that bad actors are using cloud applications to propagate the distribution of malware,” Cahill says.

And a recent survey released by identity protection provider CSID found that while 58 percent of small businesses are worried about cyber attacks, a full 51 percent are not allocating any budget to risk mitigation.

Given that many small businesses have little or no budget for an internal IT department, subscribing to a SaaS security service from a cloud service provider (CSP) may often be the best option. We spoke with ESG’s Cahill, who mapped out five questions owners of SMBs should ask before signing on with a CSP.

1. What data encryption services are available? An organization’s most sensitive data must be protected regardless of the location. While a great deal depends on the company’s needs, most businesses will need to encrypt data at rest in the cloud service’s storage and potentially, in motion because some network connections used to access the cloud service may be untrusted. Make sure they offer both options. SMBs also need to find out how the encryption keys are managed. The last thing you want is for the encryption keys to be stored inside an insecure database, for example.

2. Who is responsible for securing different aspects of the cloud service? In most standard cloud security arrangements the CSP manages the physical building and the network and servers up to the hypervisor layer of the stack. That means you manage the data. While it’s somewhat unusual for an SMB to do an IaaS arrangement with AWS or Microsoft Azure, in those cases users are also responsible for workload security. Now that you understand this division of responsibilities, find out what security tools the CSP offers to help you secure access to the service, the data associated with the service and if necessary, any application workloads. Then embrace a collaborative security strategy by leveraging native security controls provided by the CSP, as well as best-of-breed third-party offerings to close any gaps.  

3. How is the least privileged best practice applied to reducing who has access? SMBs should ask a CSP if they employ a least privileged model to limit who has access to the underlying infrastructure. The goal is to minimize the risk of credential hijacking and issues with malicious insiders. While this best practice is not exclusive to a cloud service, it’s especially relevant in such multi-tenant environments. Customers should also ask about whether the CSP uses multi-factor authentication for access to critical systems such as jump hosts and automation servers, and if they have a trust but verify policy for auditing that access.

4. What about penetration testing and certifications? It’s fair to ask the CSP for a copy of their security and policy procedures. The document should cover a range of best practices, including the frequency and scope of vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. SMBs should verify this and ask about the remediation steps taken to further secure the service. Also, ask if the provider has certifications for major standards such as PCI DSS for credit card transactions and the SOC 2 standard for non-financial accounting data.  

5. Does the CSP offer consumption-based pricing? An SMB will have already determined that a CSP offers attractive business benefits, such as agility and the ability to budget the service as an operational expense, thus saving on capital costs. Budgets are tight everywhere, but especially for SMBs. Find out if the provider offers services in a “pay-as-you-go” model as small as hourly, and whether optional security services are also available in the same pricing units. More and more providers are offering these options, so you’re well within bounds to ask about them.    

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Steve Zurier has more than 30 years of journalism and publishing experience, most of the last 24 of which were spent covering networking and security technology. Steve is based in Columbia, Md. View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
5/9/2016 | 7:19:34 AM
The last thing you want is for the encryption keys to be stored inside an insecure database, for example.

Unfortunately there are only a few SaaS / cloud tools that are really end-to-end encrypted. (Like Stackfield or Only with that kind of encryption, the provider does not have access to the SMBs data.

Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
5/6/2016 | 2:40:14 PM
6th question
These are all good, but one of the most important questions an SMB can ask is about the availability of support.  Sometimes cloud services -- particularly their SMB packages -- offer very limited support, which may not suit the small businessman, sole proprietor, or independent contractor who has to do work on weekends and odd hours.
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