Five lessons from Microsoft on cloud security

While Google, Amazon and Salesforce have gathered the most attention as cloud service providers, Microsoft-with its 300 products and services delivered from its datacentres-has a large cloud bank all its own and plenty of knowledge worth tapping.

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In May Microsoft released a paper on its approach to cloud services and how the company plans to secure those services. The paper by Microsoft's Global Foundation Services, the group responsible for overseeing the company's software-as-a-service infrastructure-spells out the current dangers for online services, including a growing interdependence between customers and the companies that serve them and more sophisticated attacks on Internet services.

Microsoft argues that its approach to security, which it carved out with its Trustworthy Computing Initiative in 2002, works as well for online services, with some modification.

"If I take the traditional security principles, that hasn't changed in terms of discipline and approach," said Charlie McNerney, general manager for business and risk management at Microsoft's GFS. "What has expanded is the amount of controls we have applied."

In recent interviews, McNerney and other cloud providers shared their thoughts on Microsoft's approach to securing cloud services and the datacentres that power such services.

1. Discuss risk with customers. The security of cloud services worries many customers, and it should, said McNerney. Figuring out where the responsibilities lie with respect to a customer's data is an important conversation, he says.

"What are the defect scenarios and the responsibilities that parties have in that environment when it breaks," McNerney says. "That is the type of thing that large enterprise companies want to talk about the most."

But Microsoft has found that security is not just a worry for their biggest clients. Web sites and e-mail are central to the brand of any company and have to be protected, he says.

"I don't find anyone casual on trust," McNerney says. "The small guy operating on the Web with his commerce site is just as passionate about security as the big guys."

2. Pay attention to compliance. To assuage its clients fears, Microsoft has invested a lot of time in organising the controls necessary to meet various compliance standards.

The company reduced 26 different types of audits to a list of 200 necessary controls and mapped those controls across its data-center environments and services, McNerney says. Standardisation means that Microsoft does not have to give every customer, or its auditor, access to the company's datacentres.

"Larger enterprise customers want to understand the controls, but how many companies can I let into a datacentre?" he says. "If you think about what that could be, there is no way that I could let all those customers into our facilities."

Instead, Microsoft has an agreed-upon compliance framework that allows auditors to order off a menu of tests and get the results.

"Each company is going to want to understand the tests and results," he says. "Therein lies the opportunity and challenge."

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