Cloud Computing Services
Cloud computing services are provided on demand to users over the Internet. The cloud service providers use their own servers to provide this service unlike a company using their on-premise servers. There are different types of cloud services which may or may not be necessary for end users, but are of significant use to software developers. A fair understanding of cloud computing techniques helps to make an informed choice at the time of availing cloud services. The most prominent cloud services are related to infrastructure, storage, software and platform. Let us discuss these one by one.
Some of the commonly used cloud services are:
Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS): This is the most commonly used cloud service. It includes virtual servers, storage disks and networks and provides a basic (remote IT) structure to an organisation which is manageable and flexible. Customers can access and use the storage space that is provided using their handheld devices, such as smartphones to store data, including pictures, videos and music on the cloud. Some of the companies that offer Infrastructure as a Service (laaS) include Amazon, FlexiScale and Rackspace.
Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS): This is a cloud-based development platform designed for developers to build, run and manage applications over the Internet. The PaaS infrastructure is built and managed by the cloud service provider who provides the software and hardware tools required for application development -as a service. Some of the popular PaaS service providers are IBM BlueMix, Microsoft Azure and Cloudbees. Developers can run an operating system, database, or write code and execute that using a programming language. The platform gives the developers the flexibility to focus on the applications they are running on the cloud service. The cloud provider deals with the complexities of maintaining and building the infrastructure to run these applications.
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS): Software as a Service means that the users can access different software present on cloud on a pay-per-use-basis. This is a very useful service as software licenses are prohibitively expensive and it is not possible to license all such software. This is where Saas comes in. It provides access to a multitude of software which provide more or less the same functionality similar to their licensed counterparts. For example, Google Docs provides almost the same functionality compared to Microsoft Word which is expensive to license.
Working of Cloud Computing
Whether you are an executive or an employee, student or teacher, company agent or customer; being an avid Internet user, you must have experienced cloud computing even without explicitly opting for it. Anything which allows you to store and manage data on a remote network is a cloud service. For example, Gmail and Yahoo are examples of cloud services; where emails are stored on servers managed by cloud service providers and accessed by users on their local machines.
In order to understand the working of cloud architecture, let’s imagine it as an online safety deposit box. Individuals and enterprises view cloud services not as third party, but as trusted cloud providers who hold the custody of the data. They are like secure bank accounts and can be accessed from anywhere at any time. People store data on cloud which is valuable to them but is hard to carry everywhere, for example original music, pictures, projects, etc. Interestingly, even if the device that is used to access cloud is lost, data is still secure. The best examples of cloud services that are in use today are Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud and Dropbox.
The advantages of using cloud computing are:
Universal access: Cloud computing supports mobility, therefore, files can be accessed from anywhere. For employees, this facilitates work from home and business trips without having to carry the files with them all the time. Employees can collaborate and work on the same document simultaneously without being in the same place. This increases productivity and the speed at which information is exchanged.
Increased storage capacity: In the past, the amount of data allowed to save was dependent on the device capacity. If we ran out of memory, we would need USB support to continue working. Cloud computing has increased the storage capacity by leaps and bound; so, you do not have to worry about limited hard drive space of your computer.
Can be easily set up: Setting up a cloud service is a matter of minutes. Customizing settings options, such as password creation and selecting the devices you want to be connected to is equally easy. Cloud providers also provide instructions that can be followed to easily update cloud from time to time. Cost effective: As we discussed, if cloud was not there, users would have had to invest heavily in storage media, such as flash drives and external hard disk drives. The constant risk of losing data in case of hardware crash would also have been there. With the advent of cloud services, there is no risk of losing data and the cost is negligible.
Flexibility: Cloud offers scalability in terms of storage size that allows you to change the storage size depending on the requirement in a short span of time. For example, if you are planning to go on a vacation, you can increase your cloud storage size so that you have enough space to store your vacation pictures and videos. After returning, you can save these back to your hard drive and recover storage space on your cloud account. Therefore, you do not need to worry about data loss in case a memory card gets corrupted.
Associated Threats to Cloud Computing
A cloud network is accessible to users and multiple other networks. This makes it vulnerable to threats originating from computers following the same or different architecture. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the kinds of threats that are posed and take necessary precautions so that we are ready to face these threats. In this regard, it is all the more important to choose the right kind of cloud service provider.
Users store a lot of personal information and sensitive data on their computers and this information is now being stored on the cloud. The data stored on the cloud is valuable to individuals with a malicious intent. Therefore, it is important that users find out and evaluate the security measures that their cloud provider has in place. Additionally, users must adhere to the safety checklist and take precautions to secure their data.
The types of threats associated with cloud computing are:
Data breach: Data breach can happen when data is stored locally or on cloud, but if cloud data is compromised it is far more severe. In order to prevent this, cloud provider ensure that their network is highly secure and the security protocol that is implemented is regularly updated. This is done remain ahead of the newer and threats are cloud data breach places at risk multiple enterprises and their user data. That is why hackers prefer to attack a cloud system rather than standalone machine. The recent AshleyMadison.com breach compromised valuable data of their users.
Data ownership and control: The chances of a data breach are significantly higher if the management of your organization’s data stored on cloud is outsourced to a third party provider. Issues such as geographical location, backup processes to ensure that data is protected are now outside the control exercise by your organization. When users place their data on cloud, the cloud service provider gets access to their confidential data consequently, ownership is compromised and it may impact compliance control and requirements.
Data loss: No matter where your data is stored the impact of permanent data loss is huge. It has the potential to affect an organization financially, legally and operationally. Data loss would also lead to failure in satisfying compliance policies and protection requirements. Additionally, natural disasters, technical failures and data purge also affect cloud computing the same way as they affect a standalone system.
Malicious attacks: Hackers or authorized users with malicious intentions can attack and abuse cloud storage for conducting illegal activities or monetary gains. This includes storing and spreading copyrighted documents, pirated software and viruses. Cloud resources have become prone to malicious injections. Such as running a malicious code on the cloud after gaining access through illegal means.
Insider threat: The possibility of an attack originating from within your organisation is less compared to external threats; but these threats are real and have become prominent over the years. They have resulted in the misuse of confidential information belonging to many customer and/or organisations. Assigning incorrect access levels to users and delay/neglect in revoking access to attrited employees can result in organizational data getting exposed to people who should not have it.
Loopholes in technology: Every technology has some deficiency which is exploited by the hackers whenever it is exposed. A loophole in the technology that forms the backbone of a cloud network has the potential to exposes the entire cloud and its users to hackers. For example, there was a massive ransomware cyber-attack (originating in US) that took place and affected almost 99 countries including India. Almost 45,000 attacks were registered which compromised the data and finances of many organisations.
Shared space: Since cloud is a shared space, multiple users share and store data on a single server. One user getting access to the data of another user using the same technology cannot be totally ruled out.
Safety Measures Against Threats to Cloud Computing
Data servers of the cloud providers are scattered all over the world and are governed by different privacy and cyber laws in different countries. There is not a single law that governs these data centres, therefore, in the event of data loss, it will be impossible to decide which country’s laws are applicable for prosecution as your data could have been stored across multiple locations. So, we are left with the basic ways of prevention and precaution for safeguarding the information shared on cloud.
Some of the precautionary measures to protect cloud data are:
Backing up data: It is important that we create a backup file locally for the confidential data stored on the cloud. This will help to create a dual backup, one that is stored locally and other one that is on cloud. Therefore, if either of them is lost due to any reason, we can still have another copy to rely on. If the users don’t prefer local backups, then they can also create a backup on another cloud. Losing data from both cloud systems simultaneously is an extremely rare scenario.
Understanding the cloud provider’s user agreement: In order to safeguard your data, before selecting a cloud provider, it is better to go through the user agreement. Though this step of setting up your cloud account suffers from insufficient attention, it can contain something which makes you change your mind and go to another provider.
Updating the Backups Created: We might suffer data loss even after taking a backup. This is because the backup is not taken on a regular basis and any changes made after the last backup are not recovered. Therefore, it is necessary to keep taking backups on a regular basis.
Password protection: Cloud users need to understand the importance of strong password protection for theirfiles. Creating long passwords containing a combination of alphabets, numerals and special characters is the best way to keep your account safe from hackers.
Two Step Authentication: Some cloud service providers like Google provide an optional two step authentication feature. If it is enabled, each time you log in to your account, the system sends a one-time password on your registered mobile number. You need to authenticate your credentials by entering the password on the screen. Upon successful authentication, you will be able to access your account. This provides another layer of security on the cloud.
Encryption and Decryption: Some cloud service providers encrypt the data stored on cloud. Encryption provides total protection for your data. Unless you lose your encryption key or a hacker manages to decrypt the encrypted data (which is extremely difficult), your data is absolutely safe. Encryption is the process of converting the data saved on the cloud (using a defined algorithm) into a format that is not human readable. It can be read only after decrypting it. Data in encrypted format cannot be accessed even by authorised users without providing the decryption key. Users can encrypt the data and then store it on cloud to add another layer of security.
Disciplined online behaviour: Whenever you access cloud from a public terminal, never save your password on the web browser and always remember to logout. No amount of data security or protection features will be effective if users lose their passwords to an attacker due to carelessness.
Avoid cloud networks for storing sensitive information: The easiest and guaranteed way to keep your data safe is by not uploading it to a cloud. Personal details, such as social security number, passport details, credit card information, intimate and private pictures etc., should not be uploaded on cloud. It is strongly recommended to store this kind of information on an external hard disk in a secure physical space.