The good, the bad and the ugly

How SaaS providers measure up on managing info risk

Hosted apps Interested in software as a service (SaaS) but worried about the risks to your information? That’s understandable, given the chatter and FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that surrounds this area. What are the risks you really need to consider in making an objective assessment?

The answer will depend on your own situation and the type of provider you are looking at. We have already seen that users are often the weakest link when it comes to IT security. Some SaaS solutions, such as hosted office, help to tackle this, providing centralised storage and access that can minimise the degree to which users are tempted to make local copies of documents. Conversely, however, the ease with which information is shared can be a problem if the right safeguards are not in place.

So before considering a SaaS solution, it is important to think through your security and access policies. In practical terms, this will involve some information classification and the definition of roles, groups and access rights, based on a good understanding of what you need to protect from whom. Restrictions might include HR documents being accessible only to the HR department and senior management, or sales people not being able to snoop the pipelines of their peers.

If you don’t already have such policies in place, then you must be prepared to define them as part of the SaaS service implementation. Otherwise, when everything moves from departmental file servers or local databases into a single cloud space, things could quickly spin out of control.

The same principle applies for compliance policies. Here we enter the area of information lifecycle management, in which we consider the rules governing data creation, revision, retention and destruction. This may sometimes be dictated by external regulation, but you may have internal rules that need to be adhered to for business reasons. When you no longer have your local storage and information management facilities, you will be relying on the service provider to enforce the relevant rules and provide the necessary version control and visibility of logs, audit trails, and so on.

Now you may be thinking this all seems a bit excessive. After all, isn’t SaaS supposed to be a simple matter of “subscribe and go”? The truth is that even if your needs are relatively unsophisticated, careful preparation is necessary to avoid nasty surprises, and possibly unplanned and unbudgeted remedial work.

When it comes to assessing different providers, one requirement is to make sure your security policies can actually be implemented. If you are a small organisation, this may be a question of ensuring that you can set up users, roles, groups, and access rights manually. Larger organisations with policies already captured in another system are likely to need some way of automating the coordination between domains, or at least facilities to take the pain out of the process. Synchronisation with the on-premise Active Directory (or equivalent) may be a good starting point.

Smaller providers that have focused on application functionality at the expense of managing security and compliance pose the biggest risks here. The relatively low barrier to entry for becoming a SaaS provider has led to a myriad of start-ups, often with innovative and tempting services on offer. But if a provider doesn’t allow you the appropriate level of control over your information and how it is accessed then your business will be at risk.

The smaller players and start-ups may have other issues too. Many of the resilience and security benefits of SaaS come from economies of scale. Larger providers are able to invest in redundant datacentres, sophisticated fail-over mechanisms and state-of-the-art security measures to prevent the bad guys getting their hands on your crown jewels. If a small-scale provider is running its service from a single computer room on a trading estate, or renting cheap unmanaged capacity from an ISP, and is operating on a shoestring budget, it’s a totally different story.

But let’s not run away with the notion that the little guys are all bad and the big guys are a safe bet. Many small, responsible and reputable SaaS providers exist, and some larger providers can create risks of their own as they move off their familiar patch. We see big telcos and ISPs getting into the application hosting game but it is sometimes questionable whether they really understand how to deliver and support services effectively. Similarly, big providers with a mass-consumer-market heritage sometimes do not appreciate that business users have higher expectations than teenagers when it comes to security.

Even when the provider does understand business customers’ requirements there is sometimes a tendency to gravitate to the lowest common denominator, and the needs of more demanding customers are not always satisfactorily met. The golden rule is to make no assumptions.

For all these reasons, it doesn’t make sense to think in black and white terms about whether SaaS is right or wrong for your organisation. SaaS evangelists and sceptics whose advice is based on generalisations are both equally unhelpful. Success in this space will depend on evaluating specific providers against your particular needs. ®

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