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SMB Cloud Is A Hacker's Paradise

User Ignorance, Provider Apathy, and Hidden Cost Make Cloud A Big Risk for Small Business

Cheaper, Easier, Scarier -

Small and medium-sized businesses are increasingly turning to cloud computing as an easier, cheaper alternative to in-house IT or shared and dedicated server hosting solutions. And, they are finding social media to be an accessible, inexpensive way to build brands, distribute content, and assist customers.

Correspondingly, cloud services and social networking providers are increasingly targeting the SMB segment for revenue they can't get from consumers and margins they can't get from large businesses.

Meanwhile, abetted by user ignorance, provider apathy, and the high cost of security solutions, hackers are turning to cloud computing and social media as an easier, cheaper alternative to botnets; and they are finding small business tenants and users to be accessible, inexpensive targets for crime and violence.

The biggest cloud security problems are largely unique to SMB and often ignored and downplayed by naïve or cynical cloud boosters, but they are real and growing faster than public awareness or available solutions. Consumers using public clouds primarily for storage and backup or using social networks for communication and file sharing are already pretty safe and getting safer. And, enterprises using private clouds for IT flexibility and efficiency or using social networks for crowdsourcing and brand building are also not facing particularly higher risks than with other, more established technologies.

However, small and medium businesses are increasingly using public clouds for business applications and commercial web sites, and they are using social networks for collaboration, communication and customer care. In so doing, they are leaving themselves open to a growing array of risks from an increasing number of sources. These include Distributed Denial or Service Attacks (DDoS), receiving and spreading trojans and other malware, criminal extortion, competitive dirty tricks, phishing and spoofing attacks, and more.

People in small businesses often think that hackers are only interested in attacking large companies and government agencies, but that is not true.  Most large enterprises employ concentrated IT resources that are very difficult to hack and not of much value to most exploits.

Most hacking schemes benefit from the availability of large numbers of unprotected systems.  In the past, this has mainly meant personal computers in homes and small businesses and, to a lesser extent, distributed embedded and industrial systems.  But, now it also includes cloud-based virtual servers.  One such server, closely connected to fast fiber, can do the dirty work of many compromised home computers.  This makes the less secure cloud hosting infrastructure increasingly used by small businesses a very attractive target for hackers.

Attacks From the Cloud
At DEFCON 18, a computer hacking convention held last month in Las Vegas, one of the most talked-about presentations was one given by two young network security consultants and entitled Cloud Computing, A Weapon of Mass Destruction? The question mark in the title proved to be a bit gratuitous and the title overall only slightly hyperbolic.

As reported on the highly respected DarkReading security site, (http://tinyurl.com/2d38kee) the presenters showed how, by spending $6 with a credit card "that could have been stolen" to deploy a simple computer program on a few virtual servers in the Amazon EC2 cloud, they were able launch a DDoS attack that took a small financial services company, their client, off the internet for a long time.  "With the help of the cloud, taking down small and midsize companies' networks is easy." one presenter said, "It's essentially a town without a sheriff."

DarkFire goes on to report that the presenters claimed they found no bandwidth restrictions in their Amazon agreement, there was no apparent automated malicious server detection operating in the cloud, and complaints to Amazon by the test victim went unanswered.  Amazon responded to DarkFire only in general terms, asserting that they have both detection and complaint response mechanisms in place.

Infrastructure-as-a-Service clouds are a place where it is easy and inexpensive for attackers to set up and run DDoS and other types of attacks that, in many cases, go undetected for long periods of time.

Attacks In the Cloud
In the previous case, the attack originated from a few virtual servers within the cloud and was directed against a conventional web site on the internet.  A more common case is where an attack originates on a conventional botnet and is directed against cloud-based web sites and services.

Many sites built with social media and content management services or software are run on public cloud infrastructure and can lead to a variety of cloud security problems, owing to the inherent complexity in the interplay of multiple companies, programs and services.  Such might be the case with, say, a commercial web built using the Wordpress open source content management system, run in the Rackspace public cloud with an address resolved through a third-party DNS service.  Some problems are technical, while others pertain to weaknesses in security management processes and accountability between the software and services companies.

Here is a technical problem example.  Posterous is a web-based service that allows people and businesses to upload and share content with others through Posterous web pages, emails, and social networks.  The Posterous service and the sites created with it run on the Rackspace cloud.  Posterous was recently the target of two virulent DDoS attacks that forced them to take technical measures that included circumventing Rackspace's security provisions after those failed.  Here are the real-time tweets from the incident.

"Our datacenter is experiencing heavy packet loss. We're on the line with Rackspace now.

"Network issues have been resolved for now. We're working with Rackspace to determine the cause.

"The DDoS attackers have returned and evolved their attack around our countermeasures. We expect to be back online ASAP w/ @gigenet antiddos

"We're back online thanks to @gigenet DDoS prevention. We're verifying all systems now.

"We're catching up on email queues and circling back to do everything we can to stay ahead of the attack.

"We're back online and systems are operational. Fools can't hold us back! Still see problems? Please email us at [email protected]

Our anti-DDOS layer provided by @gigenet is holding up well. Beer time.

The short duration of the event and sanguine tone of the last two tweets in the series belie the seriousness of the event and the impact it had on the company.  Those are better reflected in the following text from an email sent by the Posterous CEO to his customers.

"On Wednesday and Friday, our servers were hit by massive Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. We responded quickly and got back online within an hour, but it didn’t matter; the site went down and our users couldn’t post.

"On Friday night, our team worked around the clock to move to new data centers, better capable of handling the onslaught. It wasn’t easy. Throughout the weekend we were fixing issues, optimizing the site, some things going smoothly, others less so.

"Just at the moments we thought the worst was behind us, we’d run up against another challenge. It tested not only our technical abilities, but our stamina, patience, and we lost more than a few hairs in the process.

"I’m happy to report Posterous is at 100% and better than ever. Switching to a new data center will help us avoid the type of attacks we saw last week, and the new, bigger, beefier servers will speed up the site and increase capacity. We were hit pretty hard, but we’ve come out stronger in the end.

"While we were certainly frustrated, we know that no one was more frustrated than you. Your website was down, and I humbly apologize for that. Know that throughout these six days, restoring your site and your trust has been our number one priority."

Now, here is an example of the personnel and policy clashes that often add to the problems of cloud security.  Alison Gionotto is a technical author and experienced web developer who builds and manages web sites that include many built with WordPress and hosted in the Rackspace cloud.  After suffering through many security problems with those sites, she happened to receive a form letter from Rackspace listing security tips that included this one:

"Many applications, like WordPress, have optional plugins developed by the community. Since these add-ons are often not as well vetted, it’s extremely important to carefully evaluate and manage third party application plugins, themes, or other functionality that is introduced to a running web application. Most hackers are exploiting these plug-ins."

That was apparently the wrong thing to say to Alison.  She said it made her "brain melt", and it also made her write and post a furious public open letter to Rackspace that, in addition to containing numerous specific things about Rackspace that make it difficult for her to do her job, included the following passages:

"This week, I have personally had to repair 11 WordPress websites hosted on the [Rackspace] Cloud that were hacked, all were running [the latest WordPress version] and had very few plugins in common. The plugins they do have in common, like WP-Supercache, are plugins Rackspace suggests to keep the CPU-cycle raping down to a minimum.

"I would like to know what Rackspace is doing to help developers isolate these issues?

"If I am going to continue hosting with Rackspace, I want to be assured that Rackspace is actually doing something to help us protect ourselves other than send emails that overstate the obvious.

"Your customers are under attack, and I want to know what you plan to do to help us protect ourselves and our clients, or I am taking my business to a company that values my time and reputation."

The Rising Cost of Safety and The Dropping Price of Mayhem
Cloud computing can significantly lower the regular and predictable costs of IT for small business, but, as the examples above show, it comes with a potential for unpredictable problems that can be very costly to fix and, in some extreme cases, can even kill a company.  And, as bad as these problems were, they occurred in relation to some of the largest, most secure cloud service providers.

For every such major provider, there are many dozens of companies jumping into the cloud computing land rush who lack the mass of companies like Amazon and Rackspace.  In order for these much smaller companies to be price-competitive with the bigger players they must cut corners, often in the area of security software and personnel.  Phrases like "bare bones" are code for "limited security".

Such offerings are creating opportunities for Security-as-a-Service providers, like Zscaler.  They sell add-on security solutions directly to end users and also to cloud service providers, adding cost for customers, one way or another.  But, any small business considering using cloud computing or relying on social networking cannot afford not to do everything they can to ensure security, even if it ends up costing more than they thought it would.

While the cost of prevention and protection will continue to rise as threats multiply, until better solutions are deployed en mass, the cost of making mischief continues to go down.  For example, botnets of the type that attacked Posterous can be rented - by a competitor, disgruntled user, extortionist, or anybody else - for as little as $200/day for a 10,000 agent network.  Or, the Eleonore Exploit Pack, a toolkit for exploiting browser flaws and spreading viruses, which was used recently to bring down a US Treasury Dept. site running in the Network Solutions cloud (another top-tier provider) only costs $700 and requires very modest programming skills to use.

The Real Solution is Warmware
Hackers, security consultants, cloud service providers, and experienced users all agree on one thing, security software and hardware are not enough.  Safety in the cloud also requires warmware - geek speak for "people".

Even the smallest companies usually have somebody on staff who handles things like setting up email accounts and passwords or helping users with applications.  Those people should be trained to be on the lookout for trouble and in what to do if/when it happens.  There may be someone who manages the relationship with the company's cloud service provider, the social network accounts, the web site content, and so forth.  Those people may think of themselves as accounting or creative types, but, as the people with their hands on "the stuff", they are in the best position to ensure that things are setup right for maximum security and that vendors are held accountable for doing their part.

Better still, though, even the smallest company should consider the wisdom of making cloud security management something that is purposefully budgeted and staffed.  The Cloud Security Alliance is a non-profit organization founded and supported by a large number of technology vendors and service providers that is dedicated to making cloud computing more secure and helping users protect themselves.

The CSA coordinates the implementation of cloud security standards and provides educational resources for end-users, and last week announced a new certification program called the Certificate of Cloud Security Knowledge.  It is a web-based training program and certification test designed to cultivate and certify cloud security management competence.  See http://www.cloudsecurityalliance.org/ for more  details.  It is something worth looking into for any size of company using cloud computing technology. The test costs $195 until the end of the year and $295 thereafter, either way a bargain compared to the cost of ignorance.

More Stories By Tim Negris

Tim Negris is SVP, Marketing & Sales at Yottamine Analytics, a pioneering Big Data machine learning software company. He occasionally authors software industry news analysis and insights on Ulitzer.com, is a 25-year technology industry veteran with expertise in software development, database, networking, social media, cloud computing, mobile apps, analytics, and other enabling technologies.

He is recognized for ability to rapidly translate complex technical information and concepts into compelling, actionable knowledge. He is also widely credited with coining the term and co-developing the concept of the “Thin Client” computing model while working for Larry Ellison in the early days of Oracle.

Tim has also held a variety of executive and consulting roles in a numerous start-ups, and several established companies, including Sybase, Oracle, HP, Dell, and IBM. He is a frequent contributor to a number of publications and sites, focusing on technologies and their applications, and has written a number of advanced software applications for social media, video streaming, and music education.

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