Cloud Means More Secure Remote Access
Connecting hosts running remote-access services directly to the Internet is so last decade. Instead, companies look to move to cloud-enabled services or virtual desktop infrastructure.
Remote-access software such as Symantec's pcAnywhere have been a popular option for companies and individuals that want to connect to their work computer from outside the office, or support organizations that want to allow remote maintenance.
Yet, the recent revelation that a hacking group gained access to the source code for pcAnywhere and subsequent warnings about vulnerabilities in the product has underscored that traditional remote access tools carry risks. A Symantec white paper listing a number of steps -- including not connecting the software directly to the Internet -- to reduce the attack surface of the product added emphasis to security concerns regarding remote-access software.
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"Any software that is exposed to the Internet is at high risk, anyone can find out that you are running it," says Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer with Veracode, an application-security testing firm.
The concerns have highlighted some of the security benefits of using cloud infrastructure to boost the security of remote-access services. A cloud infrastructure can, for example, remove the Internet-visible signs that remote-access software is running behind a particular Internet address. Whereas scanning for the default ports used by remote-access software -- ports 5631 and 5632 in the case of pcAnywhere -- can give attackers a list of potentially vulnerable hosts.
"One of the fundamental benefits of cloud is the reduction of the attack surface -- there are no open ports," says Malte Muenke, vice president of engineering and operations for Citrix Online.
Citrix Online runs the popular GoToMyPC.com service, a remote-access service that uses frequently polling to the company's cloud servers as a means to pass data back to a host computer. There are no inbound connections to the host computer; instead, it pulls data down from the cloud. The result is that the attackable parts of the service -- any open ports -- are eliminated and the attack surface is reduced to a centrally managed hub that can be more easily secured and monitored.
"That is where a cloud service is more secure," he says. "You are concentrating all the attacks on one point, but you can secure that point really well."
Remote-access software such as pcAnywhere evolved from a time when each installation was managed separately. For companies that want to allow remote direct connectivity to a computer using pcAnywhere, Symantec issued a white paper with a long list of steps to reduce the attack surface area as much as possible.
Remote access to desktops and data via the cloud also has the benefits of central management. In addition, security policies can be more easily pushed to the endpoints, says Danny Allan, chief technology officer of Desktone, a virtual infrastructure company.
"The benefit of putting the desktop in the data center is that you can consistently apply policy," he says.
Yet, cloud is not a perfect solution. With so much trust be placed on a single cloud provider, companies need to make sure that they conduct the proper due diligence on the company, its infrastructure and security.
"I wouldn't say that any cloud offering is more secure," says Muenke. "So you really need to look at the vendor, see what they are claiming to do and ask if that is somebody that I can trust."
Moreover, the cloud does not solve the problem of insecurities caused by the end users. For example, the service relies on strong user credentials and, in many cases, that boils down to passwords.
"If you don't have strong password, a cloud service can clearly just as well can be at risk," Muenke says. "There is still responsibility on the user side."