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Cloud Brokers Seek To Simplify, Secure Services

An original aim of the cloud was to simplify corporate infrastructure, but having a multitude of services has made networks complex and hard to manage. Can adding a third party make the cloud more secure?

Cloud services aim to simplify information technology for businesses, but as companies subscribe to a greater number of cloud services and integrate that virtual infrastructure into business processes, complexity rises -- and with complexity comes insecurity.

Enter in the cloud broker, an intermediary that can aggregate, integrate, or otherwise simplify some aspect of a company's cloud and internal infrastructure. While cloud brokers are not commonplace yet, as companies use more cloud services, they will look to brokers to help them simplify infrastructure and make it more manageable, says Daryl Plummer, chief of research for emerging trends and cloud computing for analyst firm Gartner.

"You start getting too many services, and you now have to manage security across multiple services and multiple providers," Plummer says. "That introduces a problem -- how do you deal with the accumulation of all these different services and all of these different providers?"

While brokers are a nascent industry, experts predict that the service providers will help manage a customer's identity, risk, and compliance efforts in the near future. Others will help with nonsecurity functions, such as dynamically finding the lowest cost service or maximizing bandwidth.

In a cloud-standards paper published last September, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defined cloud brokers in three categories: aggregation brokers, integration brokers, and service arbitragers.

Aggregation brokers make cloud services better by adding capabilities or improving some aspect of the service, such as adding support or hosting identity services. Integration brokers bring together multiple services and secure the data going between the consumers and the cloud providers. And brokers arbitraging cloud services allow the consumer to dynamically select from multiple cloud service providers depending on some attribute, such as cost or speed.

Brokers are needed whenever a company's infrastructure becomes too complex to efficiently manage because they are using an increasing number of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications or integrating local applications with services in the cloud.

"The value add may be different depending on what the broker is in business to do," Plummer says. "The broker comes in and they say, 'We are going to do something that the original provider probably will never do.' The cloud providers are not interested in doing it because it takes too much of their attention away from what they are trying to deliver."

Managing the security of cloud services is just such a problem, he says, because the responsibility for the security of data in the cloud has been a sticking point in cloud adoption. Last year, a study by the Ponemon Institute found a deep gap between service providers and the expectation of their customers. While 69 percent of cloud providers placed security responsibility with their customers, only 35 percent of customers believed they need to worry about the security of their data in the cloud.

Brokers could solve this disconnect.

"They will assure their clients that certain security requirements have been met," Plummer says. "These brokers are going to bring a greater level of security confidence to the customers and [possibly] layer on additional security mechanisms on top of what the providers offer."

At the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) Summit in San Francisco, for example, Intel announced an authentication- and identity-brokering service that will manage identities for multiple cloud and internal services, simplifying the provisioning of resources to employees and enabling a single policy to be applied across all cloud services. The current problem for companies is that every cloud provider has its own password service that needs to be managed separately, Girish Juneja, director of Intel's application security and identity products group, told attendees at the event.

"Different applications have different level of password controls -- some have password-strength requirements, others do not," Juneja said. "And in many cases, deprovisioning just doesn't happen, so the result is there are many orphan accounts that exist, and companies continue to pay for those orphan accounts."

The service combines technologies that Intel bought through its Nordic Edge and McAfee acquisitions and is implemented on the SalesForce.com platform. The standards-based service allows a company to manage its employees identities and access to different cloud services.

Another broker opportunity is as an auditor of cloud services, says Gartner's Plummer. A company can provide significant value by interceding on behalf of its customers, collecting the security data needed from cloud services to satisfy industry regulations. By 2016, Garter predicts that 40 percent of companies will demand a security audit before using a cloud service.

"This is information that an average [company] will never be able to get from a service provider, but a security audit company can," he says.

While some cloud groups -- such as the Cloud Security Alliance -- are attempting to create standards, they will not be so successful that cloud brokers will no longer be necessary, says Plummer.

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