Cloud vs. On-Prem

 In Blog, Security and Safety, Technology

Cloud data center

It’s Starting to Look very Cloudy!

As cloud computing becomes more and more popular, the question is often whether to install that new enterprise system in an on-premises data center or trust the cloud to house what may be very sensitive information.  There is not a single right answer but let me walk you through how we made the decision.

Evolution of the Data Center

Let’s first look at the evolution of the data center and the need to understand how we got to where we are now.  It was easy in the old days, wasn’t it?  Everyone had a computer on their desk but none of them were connected.  A shared phone line allowed each computer to talk to the outside world through a modem. The biggest challenge was waiting for the phone line to become available.

Then a network was added to the office, and computers become connected to each other… but not to the outside world.  Something new was also added about that time… a server.  We finally had a central repository for all of our data when we used the server.  The biggest challenge was fighting for disk space.  But our data was relatively secure because nobody from the outside had access to our servers.

As time went on, file sizes kept growing and so did the number of servers and their file sizes.  Pretty soon managing the servers became a full-time job for a team of people.  Now instead of having servers stuck in a corner or a closet, there is a room that houses the servers with proper cooling and other supporting equipment. Thus, the data center!

Somewhere along the way, the data center became connected to the outside world through a high-speed broadband connection.

The business depended on those servers and the data within them to be available 24/7/365.  The servers were no longer secondary to data kept in file cabinets, it was the primary, and often the only source of data.  A business will suffer, perhaps immeasurably if anything happens to the servers and the data contained therein.

Protecting the data is all-important.  In many cases, the data is the business.  If anything happens to the data, the business becomes irrevocably harmed.  The servers and the data within must be protected from many kinds of threats.  Threats may come from inside or outside the organization.  Threats can be of several types including environmental, accidental, or malicious.  Threats can be divided into 7 Threat Categories:

  1. Loss of power to the servers
  2. Loss of air conditioning
  3. Server malfunctions
  4. Loss of memory storage devices (which also means loss of data)
  5. Loss of data and corrupted data
  6. Compromised and stolen data
  7. Physical Security

Mitigation of Threats

Let’s look at how each of these threats are mitigated in an on-premises system:

  1. Loss of power to the servers

The concept behind this threat and how it is mitigated is pretty easy.  If the servers lose power, then they aren’t going to work.  A sudden loss of power may have detrimental effects on the data contained within the server, but most modern systems handle sudden power loss much better than two (2) decades ago.

 

However, the servers must always remain powered.  A drop in power, even if it is momentary may require some systems to be brought back online and to stabilize.  If the business is in areas that are subject to frequent brown and blackouts, then protecting against sudden power losses is even more important.  The primary method of protecting against sudden power loss is the Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS).  This becomes a significant investment when the number of servers is large.

When sizing a UPS, you must pay attention to the total load that will be on the UPS.  Check out the Blog titled “Choosing and Managing the Right UPS” for more information on how to size the UPS for your requirements and to maintain it after it is installed.

So that takes care of the short-term power loss.  What about the longer-term power loss?  This is a bit more complex, and this solution is not for every business.

If your business needs to supply data 24/7/365 with little to no exception, then the primary solution is to employ a standby generator.  Selecting and having an emergency generator installed is a big deal and beyond the scope of this blog.

  1. Loss of air conditioning

The way this is mitigated varies widely based on how much air conditioning we are talking about and how the air conditioning is configured.

No matter the size, contract with an air conditioning company to remain on standby for such emergencies.  The company should already be familiar with your setup and arrange a plan for what to do if the system goes hard down. Have them perform preventative maintenance on your system at regular intervals.

Another option is to place the servers in racks that come equipped with their own integral air conditioner units.  These are not inexpensive, but they go a long way in solving this problem.

 

  1. Server malfunctions

Servers and associated hardware like all hardware, have an expected lifespan.  A practical lifespan as a rule of thumb is 5 years.  Routine replacement of servers and other hardware must be considered as an operational expense.

Consider standardizing on a server make and model.  Have a spare or two that can be pressed into service if a server fails.  You must include the method by which you will transfer applications and data to the backup server.

  1. Loss of memory storage devices

Always operate hard drives in a RAID configuration.  There are several different types.  Each will require you to have extra hard drives running with the data spread between them.  The configurations will allow the data to be rebuilt, potentially on the fly while the system is still operating depending on the type of RAID and the way the hard drives are mounted.  Confer with the vendor that supplies the servers.

  1. Loss of data and corrupted data

The classic way to mitigate data loss is to perform routine backups.  Data should not be backed up on the same server.  The classic method of backing up data includes some type of portable media such as tape.  The tape should then be stored offsite.  But these days there are better ways that are also less labor intense.

A common approach, especially for companies that have servers at multiple sites is to mirror their data within servers installed at different locations.  Data can be mirrored in real-time, or a scheduled process can copy the data in a batch during off-peak hours.

  1. Compromised and stolen data

Once data has been identified as having been compromised the first steps are to determine the following:

  • Was this an intentional or an accidental breach of data?
  • What type of data has been compromised? Does the data include PII?  What are the possible further losses and liabilities if this data is now in the hands of nefarious persons?
  • How much data was compromised?

Purchase and maintain cyber insurance to defray the costs, including legal costs, that may result from compromised data.

Seek the guidance and advice of an attorney before any such losses occur.  Then confer with your attorney when such losses occur if the compromised data can negatively affect your client’s PII or negatively affect your performance on projects where you are under contract.

The best way to mitigate compromised data is to protect against it in the first place.  Do the following:

  • Keep your employees educated as to best practices when it comes to how to do their jobs while logged into the company network
  • Keep all the software up to date. Software vendors are constantly providing upgrades and patches to thwart constantly newer cyber threats.
  • Keep your anti-virus and security systems up to date.
  • Employ a sophisticated system for authenticating users. It is recommended to implement a two-factor authentication (2FA) system.

Always employ NIST-compliant encryption on all critical and sensitive data.  Make sure the encryption key is stored elsewhere; not on the same server(s) as the encrypted data.  It is generally regarded as impossible to break encrypted data if the hacker does not have the encryption key.

  1. Physical Security

Most of the threats discussed are based on someone gaining access to your servers from an external location or from an internal location that is not located within the data center itself.  There is a very real threat if the “bad guys” can gain physical access to the servers themselves.  We know of a government agency that lost critical access badge data because someone physically picked up a desktop badging system and walked away with it.

Physically securing a data center can include many different security elements.  These elements will include physical construction, physical doors and locks, intrusion detection systems, security cameras, and security guards.  Although not all of these may apply to every data center, many of them will be and many will require attention to all these elements.  Describing these elements is beyond the scope of this Blog but highlighting the need to consider them is important.

Other Data Center Cost Elements

All different types of threat mitigation have a cost.  There is the cost of the software that will run on the servers themselves.  These costs include operating systems, applications, and other supporting software.  Keeping the software, applications, and supporting software up to date has a cost.  Most software vendors have adopted a subscription model for annual support which has made the costs have predictable.

There is a cost to install software updates and patches.  In the old days, many let these updates slide a bit (or a lot).  The updates were chiefly about new or changed features.  When the applications already did everything, we wanted it to do, we did not have a great incentive to install the updates.  Today the main reason for the update is (drum roll please) security so we can no longer let updates slide.  It is at our peril to not install an update as soon as it is released.

Hardware doesn’t last forever.  It breaks down, it becomes obsolete, and it can become a target for hackers that have figured out all of its “holes.”  There is a cost in keeping all of the hardware and its firmware properly updated.

All of these updates require qualified professionals to perform them.  Small organizations may use staff members that are also assigned to perform other duties.  Larger organizations will likely need a staff of professionals that spend full time on staying on top of the latest security risks, how to mitigate these risks, learning about the latest versions and patches to operating systems and database engines.  Such qualified personnel does not come cheap.

The Benefits of Cloud Services

Our company did not embrace the cloud immediately.  In fact, we marketed against it successfully.  “Why put your data on someone else’s server where you will not have control of it” we would say.  “Your data is full of PII.  You don’t know who else might see it” we would say next!  And we would more often than not, make the sale.  But guess what? We were wrong!

I will have to admit our position changed because of three factors.  The first two had to do with cost and function.  But it also became abundantly clear that cloud computing was more secure.

Let’s look back at those 7 Threat Categories discussed above and see how the Cloud fares:

  1. Loss of power to the servers
  2. Loss of air conditioning
  3. Server malfunctions
  4. Loss of memory storage devices
  5. Loss of data and corrupted data
  6. Compromised and stolen data
  7. Physical Security

Loss of Power

No longer an issue.  The cloud vendor will have provided for secondary power including UPSs and backup generators.  You can cross this off your list of concerns.

Loss of Air Conditioning

As with Loss of Power, the cloud vendor has taken care of this.  You can cross this off your list of concerns.

Server Malfunctions

website server

All servers are configured for every possible contingency.  If you are concerned about what might be called by the insurance industry as “an act of god” swallowing up the entire cloud facility, you can include a “hot standby” duplicate in another geographic location.  The time it takes to switch to the hot standby can be negligible when configured to do so.

You no longer have to worry about the servers. The cloud vendor provides the servers and maintains them for you.  They are experts at maintaining the servers.  Monitoring the servers is all automated.  If a problem develops, the cloud support team will likely know about it before you or your employees know it.  Another concern you can cross off your list.

Loss of Memory Storage Devices

Just like the servers, the cloud support team will make sure that storage devices are always working correctly.  They will handle any problems with the memory storage device.  They replace any devices that are malfunctioning and ensure your data is moved intact to the replacement device.  Cross off this concern.

Loss of data and corrupted data

All of your data is carefully safeguarded.  It is noteworthy to say that with the ability of the cloud to keep unauthorized people, which we refer to as the “bad guys,” out of the system, your data will be very safe from malicious intruders.  When we say, “bad guys”, we are talking about people who circumvent network security and attack through the back door.  You will have to implement standards to allow your intended users to gain legitimate access and keep others from mimicking a legitimate user and coming in through the front door.

This isn’t quite as cut and dry as some of the other Threat Categories because the mitigation isn’t quite plug-and-play.  But by paying a little attention you can implement a fail-safe environment that will help you sleep a little better at night.

Our network security people will be glad to assist if that is desired.  Our contact information is on this blog page.

Compromised and Stolen Data

Now we are getting to the nitty-gritty of cloud computing.  Is your data going to be safe and secure?  Many actions required to keep your data safe are the same regardless of where the servers are placed (the next room, across town, or thousands of miles away).  But one of the biggest reasons data gets compromised is inadequate safeguards and lack of installing patches and updates.  This is one of the areas where clouds work.  First off, they implement top-of-the-line security systems to keep unauthorized people out.  Security devices are kept up to date. They have the cost advantage of implementing the same security for thousands of cloud subscribers, whereas providing that level of security for an on-premises data center may be cost-prohibitive.  Plus, they have staff that focuses on each threat type. They are experts that are always on top of the threats.  Your staff must spread themselves out over lots of different data center duties. Unless you have a huge budget and can afford to keep your staff well trained, they will not be able to provide the same level of expertise.

The cloud support staff will always install updates and patches as soon as they are available.  They have already installed and tested these updates so the likelihood of having unintended consequences is minimized.

Other security goodies often come with cloud implementations such as defenses against Denial of Service (DOS) attacks and other sophisticated threats.  You inherit the full force of a security team when you go with a cloud.  Unless you have the budget and staff to duplicate what is offered security-wise by the cloud vendor.

Chalk another one off to the cloud.

Physical Security

security guard watching video monitoring surveillance security system

Cloud vendors build their data centers in very secure structures.  The construction practices are beyond the scope of this blog but suffice it to say that the structures are vault-like.  The building is under 24/7/365 guard service.  The facility will be under constant video surveillance and will use sophisticated physical access controls.  The identities of everyone entering will be verified.  Physical security meets or exceeds that implemented by the Department of Defense and others.  The checkmate goes to the cloud!

 

 

 

Other Cost Advantages

There are other cost advantages in moving to the Cloud. The cloud servers include physical hardware, which you do not have to purchase.  Nor do you have to pay to maintain the servers or pay for their replacement when they reach end-of-life.

You do not have to pay directly to purchase other supporting hardware.  That too is supplied by the cloud vendor.  Cloud users are indeed paying for such things, but the costs are amortized over a long time.  And since the cloud vendor acquires their hardware in large volumes, they are paying far less than an individual company will pay.

You do not have to pay for database licenses either.  The cloud subscription fees can also include the database engine.  We have applications that use enterprise-grade database engines.  Because we store Personally Identifiable Information (PII) as well as other sensitive information, we must encrypt this information.  The size and type of database licenses we use would cost tens- to hundreds of thousands of dollars when purchased for an on-premises system.  The subscription to the same database will cost a fraction of that when added to the cloud subscription.

Summary

The security, cost savings, and functionality of going to the Cloud were immensely positive in our favor.  We came out way ahead on the 7 Threat Categories discussed above. Even if we had the budget to duplicate what a Cloud provider does for us, why would we want to?  The cost savings were immediate.

 

Database engines for what we do are expensive.  Being able to remove the upfront load of purchasing databases and annual support was a huge saving for us.   The cost savings, shorter implementation times, and better security found in the Cloud than we can provide for ourselves made moving to the Cloud the clear winner.

 

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