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Cloud Security Starts With Development, Better Tools

Companies must train their developers in secure coding and rely on others' expertise for complex components of cloud services and Web applications
Companies that aim to exterminate security bugs from their software face a long and difficult road. The developers of Web and cloud applications are no exception.

Almost all Web applications continue to have vulnerabilities, according to a study released in March by Cenzic, a cloud-applications security provider. Based on software tested by the company in 2012, the study found that 99 percent of applications deployed as Web and cloud services had vulnerabilities -- an average of 13 flaws per application. Cross-site scripting, information leakage, and session-management flaws topped the list.

"The industry is not as ready to secure Layer 7 [the application layer] as they should be," says Bala Venkat, chief marketing officer for the firm. "Companies need to focus on the coding practices that are used by the developers, and really focus on the static side, even before the application gets into production."

Part of the problem is that early cloud providers -- and companies building private clouds -- focused on creating the applications, not getting all the security details right, says John Howie, chief operating officer at the Cloud Security Alliance. Fixing those problems after that fact has left many companies with hard-to-secure code.

"Developers were not really thinking about application security or code-level security," Howie says. "And in some cases, the problems were exacerbated because they were developing the equivalent of intranet applications, but putting them on the public Internet."

Attackers have noticed. Recent distributed denial-of-service attacks against financial institutions, for example, have been powered by botnets using Web servers that have been compromised through common vulnerabilities. And while most cloud compromises -- such as LinkedIn and CloudFlare -- have relied heavily on social engineering, software-security missteps played a role as well.

[What makes cloud computing so attractive to businesses -- the sharing of resources to achieve economies of scale -- also makes the model attractive to cybercriminals. See How Cybercriminals Attack The Cloud.]

To harden Web applications and cloud services, companies need to start with the developers and give them the tools they need to produce secure code.

Education and training are the first steps. The demand for Web application and cloud-service developers has resulted in many developers -- who may not have the training necessary to produce secure code -- writing code for online applications and cloud services, the CSA's Howie says.

"All of the major cloud providers will bring in people who are not classically trained software developers and train them to write software," Howie says.

Companies should focus on giving those developers the skills they need to program securely and placing the training within the framework of a secure product development life cycle.

Web developers and cloud-service providers should also invest in the tools needed to secure their applications and infrastructure. Static code analysis and dynamic vulnerability checking can help companies avoid common errors. Code libraries can help developers get the tricky security components -- such as authorization, encryption, and key management -- done correctly.

When cloud infrastructure, and the management of hundreds or thousands of virtual servers, made creating and distributing security policies difficult, data security firm Vormetric created a toolkit to help deploy the policies more easily.

"Smaller enterprise deployments, they can deal with managing the security policies," says Derek Tumulak, vice president of product management for the firm. "In the large-scale deployments, that is when you hit a pain point."

Developers should aim to make cloud services as secure as inside the corporate network -- a tall order, says Tsahy Shapsa, co-founder of CloudLock, a provider of cloud security tools. "You should be able to give [the cloud customer] the safeguards to ensure that they can use the public cloud, and use it with the same security and control over their data as on premise," Shapsa says.

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