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Identity Management In The Cloud

Managing and securing user identities in the cloud is getting complicated.

Cloud Identity Control Gaps

Even after companies implement single sign-on, one of the biggest headaches they face in managing identity in the cloud is that IT managers still can't control, or even see, what people do with the application after they log on. For example, cloud app authorization at most organizations relies on a role or group member status to determine if a person has access. So the single sign-on system knows a person has access to, say, a Salesforce account, says Kaushik, but SSO doesn't know whether the person can just view or also access customer information. One risk is that tracking and monitoring becomes nearly impossible once a user is logged in to the system, and many companies are required by internal and regulatory rules to track who performs which actions to data, and when. A cloud system might only track that a company's account took a particular action.

Right now, to get granular understanding of what account holders do in a cloud application and with cloud data, many companies resort to manually customized controls involving "complicated road mapping" that can't easily be audited, Kaushik says.

Much of the blame lies with the cloud software providers, which haven't given companies much access to the internal software controls that providers use to manage user rights within the system. Similarly, user provisioning in cloud services is centered on proprietary APIs, and connectors frequently break and create holes in IAM. Many companies move to the cloud as a cost saver and don't have the resources to build connectors, Kaushik notes. Cloud vendors spend considerable time developing APIs and connectors around business functionality, but most haven't invested in APIs that connect to data feeds that enable identity governance, such as information about account privileges.

Some cloud providers and SaaS developers are beginning to recognize identity management as an opportunity to differentiate themselves. For example, ClickSoftware, a developer of mobile workforce management software, has invested heavily in CA IdentityMinder, Site­Minder and SiteMinder Federation for self-provisioning, which helps enterprises identify and authorize user access for its cloud-based software. "One of the main challenges every cloud company faces is the ability to provide its customer a way to self-provision services they are getting over the cloud," says Udi Keidar, VP of cloud services for ClickSoftware. "A real cloud or SaaS service should give users the utmost independence to run and maintain the service by themselves."

HID Global's Lovelock cuts cloud vendors more slack over not offering customers greater IAM control: "That's not entirely the cloud provider's fault -- good standards have yet to emerge."

A new standard called System for Cross-domain Identity Management concentrates on accounts and attributes and has received the endorsement of applications vendors such as Salesforce and Cloud Foundry. But SCIM is still in its infancy. "The questions with SCIM is, one, can it be broadly endorsed by the SaaS application providers themselves?" McAfee's Brown says. "And then, two, can we make sure that we can build in the administrative controls on the corporate side so that [the applications] are administered through the same interface?"

Until SCIM or another standard takes root, organizations must consign themselves to negotiating with each SaaS provider to get identity control into contracts. For example, John Michener, chief scientist at security consulting firm Casaba, says that when it comes to platform-as-a-service, a typical cloud provider will likely have some kind of authentication and authorization framework that users can employ to access a specific enterprise's instance of a cloud application.

Companies should negotiate that a SaaS vendor provide full knowledge of all actions taken by users, including authentication attempts, monitoring alerts on repeated failures, and auditable tracking of problems using a monitoring tool of their choice.

Identity management in SaaS is a little trickier than on-premises software because the available administrative features are usually limited by the cloud service's functionality. Some SaaS providers may not have features that are capable of tracking a user's access privileges, number of account log-ins, type of data accessed or downloaded, or amount of time spent in a system. They also may not let a company limit how much data or what type of data users can access through the SaaS application. Finally, cloud services may not have the API capabilities to connect with existing on-premises IAM tools.

Companies should check on whether the cloud vendor is properly managing privileged access controls for administrative accounts. A recent survey conducted by CyberArk showed that 56% of organizations had no idea what their cloud provider was doing to protect and monitor privileged accounts.

"The cloud isn't magical IT," says Lovelock. "It's made of servers, software and all the normal stuff of any IT service. That means there are administrative accounts. Someone has those passwords and access to your important data."

chart: Are you using single sign on?

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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