It's time to embrace (and prepare for) the shift to the cloud

By Philippe Courtot, chairman and CEO, Qualys

June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 17, 2009 at 11:31 AM EST

The software industry is entering another age of astonishing innovation. It's a time when not only is software advancing at an astounding rate, but so are hardware devices – where power is increasing as quickly as size is decreasing. This is making software and computing power near ubiquitous. Consider this: a handful of years ago, few would have believed that customer relationship management software would have moved almost completely to the cloud. Or that Lotus Notes, that gray old lady of IT, would have made the jump as well. Even among the proponents of cloud computing, few believed corporate software and data wanted to be liberated so quickly – and make itself readily available anywhere, anytime, on any device, and from within any web browser. Today, it seems more unusual not to have a SaaS or cloud offering that complements, or completely replaces, a software maker's traditional software applications. No doubt, along with all of the benefits of SaaS, will come new risks and challenges. This is especially true as even more mobile devices access critical corporate data. Consider the fact that one out of 10 laptops in use today will be lost or stolen. You know most will not be encrypted. Then, there's the challenge associated with securing new cloud computing architectures, in all of their various shapes and sizes. I'm sure that in the years ahead, there will be a number of negative stories surrounding cloud computing. Providers will go out of business. There will be a number of system outages that affect large numbers of customers. And there will be a number of data breaches. Yet, I believe that the SaaS and cloud computing revolution holds the potential to benefit everyone in the software industry, and all who rely on it for their business. For instance, we in the industry are well aware that software is evolving too quickly. It's a never-ending process of software enhancements, upgrades, security fixes and new installations. And, few would disagree that there are too many vulnerabilities affecting too many applications. In this disorder, most of the burden has fallen on the shoulders of corporations that have had to dedicate extraordinary resources to patch and mitigate the security holes. Here is an interesting statistic that reveals the magnitude of the challenge. According to Qualys' The Laws of Vulnerabilities 2.0 research, companies take an average of 59 days to patch their vulnerabilities. Five years ago, that number was 60 days. That's a reduction of one day in the past five years. When one considers all the effort and automation that has gone into patch management in the past five years, that's not much in the way of improvement. And this shows not just how steep the challenge is, but just how broken the current ecosystem of traditional software is. Fortunately, the SaaS and cloud computing models are positive disruptions on the infrastructure of both private networks and the internet. Unlike when individual organizations patch (work that must be duplicated for every installation), when SaaS vendors update their software applications, all of their customers are patched instantaneously as well. Because of this simple fact, many of the security problems that plague today's business-technology systems — such as patches and software misconfiguration issues — are solved. So, in this, and many other ways, the burden of maintaining a secure application largely is transferred from the software user to the software service provider. The effect of proper patching is amplified throughout all the IT systems the SaaS and cloud providers touch. Some still are fighting the shift to SaaS and cloud computing. But, I don't believe that resistance to the transformation of on-premise business IT to cloud computing-based IT is a viable option. Not for long. The business benefits, cost savings and reduction in complexity are just too compelling for businesses to overlook. Actually, today, the strongest resistance we see is emanating from IT departments and IT security staff — mainly out of fear of what might happen if one were to lose control of data. This is a false choice, and the market will not reward cloud or SaaS providers that attempt customer data lock-in. Nevertheless, despite reservations from IT, businesses will march forward, because the business has no choice but the path that simplifies many of today's IT complexities. And in this, the primary — and strategic — role of IT security will be successfully and securely managing the privacy and security risks associated with data living in the cloud. While the SaaS and cloud computing revolution is well underway, there still is much work to be achieved before the core infrastructure and associated services are as secure, reliable and trustworthy as they can be. For instance, we need ISPs to coordinate so that network traffic flows more cleanly and is free of malicious packets. We'll also need a simple, universal way to recognize and manage the identities of people and devices. There also is the crucial business of defining accurately how enterprises can integrate and secure their current infrastructure as more of it is moved to cloud services. For this effort, I encourage all businesses, security professionals, CIOs and vendors to work together to make the transformation as beneficial as possible for all. Some of the organizations working hard to ensure that we build this new cloud infrastructure right from the beginning include the Cloud Secure Alliance and the Jericho Forum, both of which are promoting cloud computing best practices. While the visible shift to cloud computing to date has been the movement of applications and data to the cloud, it's not going to stop there. Soon, the day will come when companies outsource not only their software but their network infrastructure as well. One day, most everything we do on private networks — manage information, applications, infrastructure and services — will be accessible instantly and securely from anywhere and from any web browser. It's time to prepare.




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