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Secrecy of cloud computing providers raises IT security risks

Getting into the cloud can be a security and legal minefield

By , Network World
July 06, 2010 06:05 AM ET

Network World - Despite how attractive cloud computing can sound as an outsourcing option, there's widespread concern that it presents a security and legal minefield for businesses and government. Cloud service providers often cultivate an aura of secrecy about data centers and operations, claiming this stance improves their security even if it leaves everyone else in the dark.

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Businesses and industry analysts are getting fed up with this cloud computing version of "don't ask, don't tell," where non-disclosure agreements (NDA) dominate, questions aren't answered, and data center locations and practices are treated like national security secrets. But public cloud service providers argue their penchant for secrecy is appropriate for the cloud model -- and at any rate, everyone's doing it. They often hold out their SAS-70  audit certifications to appease any worry (though some don't have even that).

"The business data you store in Google's cloud is safe," said Google product marketing manager Adam Swidler at the recent Gartner security conference held in National Harbor, Md. He emphasized that Google's multi-tenant distributed model entails "splicing data across many hard drives" so that in this "hardened Linux stack" there's a "quick update of all fragments of all files in the hard drives," a process he called "obfuscated files."

Swidler acknowledged there has been some secrecy about where things are located because "we think it's a security risk." Nonetheless, "Google is trying to open up a little transparency in what we do," he said.

Currently, the information Google will disclose publicly or even under NDA won't satisfy everyone, Swidler acknowledged. "It's not enough for everybody. Some people do want to go deeper."

The location of data centers is a big issue in contract negotiations, where legislative and judicial issues abound. For instance, the location of data is an issue under some data-privacy laws, such as those from the European Union. But while customers often care about where their data is physically located, Google "believes this notion of where is data physically located is a bit antiquated," Swidler said.

Many disagree, however.

Customers want to know where a cloud provider's data center is, said Kurt Jackson, managing director in a Pitney Bowes Insight division called OnDemand that offers software-as-a-service applications, such as maps for city services, to business and government customers.

The willingness of cloud provider Terremark to allow site visits and to discuss details about its data centers and its physical and network security was critical in the decision to use Terremark, Jackson said. "If you're running in Miami, you know you're in Miami," he said. "Some other providers just aren't as transparent."

The argument over transparency vs. secrecy in cloud computing is leading to a culture clash between the more traditional ways of handling data outsourcing and the newer cloud-computing utility methods and mindset.

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