The cloud will happen

Like many olde tyme sysadmins, I look at 'cloud' and shake my head. It's just virtualization the way we've always been doing it, but with yet another abstraction layer on top to automate deploying certain kinds of instances really fast.

However... it's still new to a lot of entities. The concept of an outsourced virtualization plant is very new. For entities that use compliance audits for certain kinds of vendors it is most definitely causing something of a quandary. How much data-assurance do you mandate for such suppliers? What kind of 3rd party audits do you mandate they pass? Lots of questions.

Over on 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, they recently covered this dynamic in a post titled The Inevitable Cloud as it relates to the legal field. In many ways, the Law field shares information handling requirements similar to the Health-Care field, though we don't have HIPPA. We handle highly sensitive information, and who had access to what, when, and what they did with it can be extremely relevant details (it's called spoliation). Because of this, certain firms are very reluctant to go for cloud solutions.

Some of their concerns:

  • Who at the outsourcer has access to the data?
  • What controls exist to document what such people did with the data?
  • What guarantees are in place to ensure that any modification is both detectable and auditable?

For an entity like Amazon AWS (a.k.a. Faceless Megacorp) the answer to the first may not be answerable without lots of NDAs being signed. The answers to the second may not even be given by Amazon unless the contract is really big. The answers to the third? How about this nice third-party audit report we have...

The pet disaster for such compliance officers is a user with elevated access deciding to get curious and exploiting a maintenance-only access method to directly access data files or network streams. The ability of an entity to respond to such fears to satisfaction means they can win some big contracts.

However, the costs of such systems are rather high; and as the 3 Geeks point out, not all revenue is profit-making. Firms that insist on end-to-end transport-mode IPSec and universally encrypted local storage all with end-user-only key storage are going to find fewer and fewer entities willing to play ball. A compromise will be made.

However, at the other end of the spectrum you have the 3 person law offices of the world and there are a lot more of them out there. These are offices who don't have enough people to bother with a Compliance Officer. They may very well be using dropbox to share files with each other (though possibly TrueCrypted), and are practically guaranteed to be using outsourced email of some kind. These are the firms that are going into the cloud first, pretty much by default. The rest of the market will follow along, though at a remove of some years.

Exciting times.