Cloud computing offers both unique advantages and challenges to government users. The advantages are well-advertised: Greater efficiency, economy and flexibility that can help agencies meet rapidly changing computing needs quickly and cheaply while being environmentally friendly.
Among the challenges, security is the most commonly-sited concern in moving mission-critical services or sensitive information to the cloud.
To address this, a recently released roadmap from the National Institute of Standards and Technology recommends a plan to ensure cloud offerings meet government security needs while being flexible enough to adapt to the policies and requirements of multiple tenants, including foreign governments. The plan involves periodic assessments of security controls and development of international profiles and standards.
The recommendations are brief and make up a small part of the 140-page document released by NIST in October but categorized as “high priority.”
The final version of the U.S. Government Cloud Computing Technology Roadmap has been several years in the making and reflects more than 200 comments on the initial draft, released in 2011.
Security is the first of three high-priority requirements addressed in volume one. Interoperability and portability – the ability of data to be moved from one cloud facility to another—are the others.
The government already has established the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), which became operational in 2012 to ensure that cloud service providers meet a baseline set of federal security requirements, easing the task of certifying and authorizing the systems for government operations. But the NIST roadmap addresses security requirements that extend beyond federal users.
Security in the cloud is complicated by a number of factors. First, it upsets the traditional IT security model that relies on logical and physical system boundaries. “The inherent characteristics of cloud computing make these boundaries more complex and render traditional security mechanisms less effective,” the roadmap says.
Second, a cloud system has to meet not only U.S. government security needs, but also those of other customers sharing the environment, and so security policy must be de-coupled from U.S. government-specific policies. “Mechanisms must be developed to allow differing policies to co-exist and be implemented with a high degree of confidence, irrespective of geographical location and sovereignty.”
Moreover, a comprehensive set of security requirements have not yet been fully established, the roadmap says. “Security controls need to be reexamined in the context of cloud architecture, scale, reliance on networking, outsourcing and shared resources,” the authors write. “For example, multi-tenancy is an inherent cloud characteristic that intuitively raises concern that one consumer may impact the operations or access data of other tenants running on the same cloud.”
NIST says recommended priority action plans for cloud security are:
- Continue to identify cloud consumer priority security requirements, on at least a quarterly basis.
- Periodically identify and assess the extent to which risk can be mitigated through existing and emerging security controls and guidance. Identify gaps and modify existing controls and monitoring capabilities.
- Develop neutral cloud security profiles, technical security attributes and test criteria.
- Define an international standards-based conformity assessment system approach.