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Experts Question Security Payoff Of Sending Apps To The Cloud

Startups offer browsers in the cloud for security, while email and productivity apps are already there.

The browser appears to be following email and productivity applications in a move to the cloud, but security experts are mixed on whether turning desktop applications into cloud services will deliver promised security benefits.

This month, both Authentic8 and Spike Security announced cloud services aimed at allowing customers to run their browsers in virtual machines as a service. Virtualized browsers offer privacy and security benefits, such as isolation from potential malware, which --if it breaks out of the browser sandbox -- will still infect only a virtual machine.

The browser is not alone. Other applications have moved to the cloud, as well, and have benefited from more expert management and better security models, says Nick Piagentini, senior solutions architect with CloudPassage, a startup focused on securing cloud environments. The general trend, in fact, appears to be to move many software components to the Internet in a way similar to the thin client movement in the 1990s.

"I think we are going much more toward that thin client now," Piagentini told us. "Inexpensive compute power in the cloud makes it trivial to move that sort of security intelligence out there and then to shift very simple stuff back and forth to your device."

The focus on the browser should come as no surprise. The browser is the vector of choice for attackers. More more than two-thirds of malicious code -- and 90% of malware that evades detection -- is delivered to the desktop through a browser, according to a March 2013 report from the security firm Palo Alto Network. Other attack vectors such as email and documents, which have already moved to the cloud, are more successfully guarded by traditional security software. Antivirus firms typically cover the average threat sent by email within five days, compared with 30 days for malware sent through the browser.

Scott Petry, co-founder and president of Authentic8, said all cloud-based replacements for desktop applications benefit from access to a single copy of data in the cloud, which makes it easier to secure the data. "By nature of these applications, you get better security, because you have fewer distributed copies of your data in all these places."

Yet critics of pushing additional functionality into the cloud point to virtual desktop infrastructure, which has suffered from slow adoption, as the potential fate of applications in the cloud.

"There are a bunch of potential pitfalls that people face and why VDI has not taken off as some people had hoped, and performance is one of the big issues," said Rajiv Gupta, CEO of the cloud security management vendor Skyhigh Networks.

Petry stresses that putting the browser in the cloud is different from relying on virtual desktop infrastructure. He tells the story of one client that moved all its workspaces to VDI with Internet Explorer as the browser. When one employee clicked on a malicious link, the resulting attack -- the ransomware Cryptolocker -- still infected all the virtual machines and storage drives in the virtual workspace.

"Since they were connected to different file shares and connected to different resources, the Cryptolocker infection propagated everywhere it could," he said. "They thought they moved to the cloud for security reasons, but it was the same unprotected browser that users were putting their credentials into."

Though the browser is the current focus of attackers, interest in that program will likely ebb and flow as attackers shift in response to defenders' tactics, Petry said. "The fact that the browser is No. 1 is because it is least protected thing right now, but as soon as that is protected, the bad guys will move on to the next soft target."

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
3/31/2014 | 2:51:12 PM
Re: Do cloud services improve security -- or make it worse?
Agree, Randy that there is still a lot TBD about cloud security. But it's hard for me to imagine that the technology will be going away any time soon..  So better security is a must!
Randy Naramore
Randy Naramore,
User Rank: Ninja
3/31/2014 | 11:32:28 AM
Re: Do cloud services improve security -- or make it worse?
The truth of the matter is cloud services has not been around long enough to determine if it is a strength or a weakness. The same can be said for newly released medicines, until enough time has passed and enough testing has been performed we simply do not know how the cloud will be affecting us in the years to come. I personally feel it will be a good thing but it does present some challenges such as security and others that remain to be seen.
Ed Moyle
Ed Moyle,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/31/2014 | 10:35:40 AM
Re: Do cloud services improve security -- or make it worse?
Interesting question.  On the one hand, you have the promise that cloud vendors can use economies of scale to add more operational security capability.  On the other, you have the practical realities of how organizations use cloud (for example scenarios where cloud transition isn't as well planned as it could be.) 

AlertLogic has some data (http://www.alertlogic.com/resources/cloud-security-report/) suggesting that cloud is safer compared to traditional enterprise datacenter environments on the whole. Specifically, that all threat categories they measure excepting web application attackes are less likely to occur in cloud and that the overall number of incidents are reduced.  Could this be biased?  Maybe.  

It's interesting data about an interesting question, but I think it leaves out some important contextual factors.  As with anything, I think the question is about what you're comparing: meaning, not all cloud environments (whether public or private) are created equal and neither are all "traditional" apps/platforms/infrastructure.   

It's like asking whether an open source operating system is "more secure" than a closed source one: it depends on context.  For example, consider if the question is: "is OpenBSD more secure than Windows"?  You might think you already know the answer to this, but consider two scenarios: scenario one is a current vanilla install of OpenBSD and an unpatched legacy (and long end-of-life) Windows NT 4.0 install.  Which is "more secure"?  Scenario two is a patched, hardened Windows 7 install compared to an OpenBSD server that announces the root password for its login banner.  Again, pretty clear but in the opposite direction. Point is, context matters.  

To actually do apples to apples, you need to add constraints.  For example, you might say: given a system patched to current at XYZ date, with the following software running, administrative/root users configured per the following constraints, using a hardening methodology of ____, in an envrionment that consists of XYZ other systems, user behavior of ABC, etc., etc.  By the time you're done getting to the level of specificity requried to set context, you have a comparison scenario that's almost never likely to occur in nature.  

Sorry... rambling on about this for too long already.  Interested to see what people think about this.  
User Rank: Strategist
3/27/2014 | 10:36:53 AM
Do cloud services improve security -- or make it worse?
There has been a lot of debate on both sides, but emerging vendors say there's an opportunity to make the cloud a strength instead of a weakness. Do you think over the long term, cloud offerings will be more secure or less secure than today's premises-based networks?
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