The Troposphere

Sep 7 2010   6:27PM GMT

The persistent itch: What does Amazon’s security really do?

CarlBrooks Carl Brooks Profile: CarlBrooks

A story we wrote last week about Amazon’s newest disclosures on its security procedures was sparked in part by a earful from one of the sources in it. Seeking reactions to the newly updated “Overview of Security Processes,” I expected a guarded statement that the paper was a good general overview of how Amazon Web Services approached security, but pertinent technical details would probably only be shared with customers who requested them, and Amazon didn’t want to give too much away.

Instead, what I heard was that Amazon not only does not disclose relevant technical information but it apparently also does not understand what customers are asking for. Potential clients were both refused operational security details and also told wildly different answers on whether or not AWS staff could access data stored in users’ S3 accounts: “No, never,” and “Yes, under some circumstances.” That’s, um, kind of a big deal. They also refuse to indemnify themselves against potential failures and data loss as a matter of course.

Typically, a big enterprise IT organization has a set of procedures and policies it has to follow when provisioning infrastructure; charts are made, checkboxes checked, and someone, somewhere, will eventually claim that information and park it somewhere. This includes minor details like “who can access our data and how,” and “how does a service provider protect our assets and will they compensate us if they fail.” A big customer and a provider will sit down, discuss how the hoster can meet the needs of the organization, assign a value to the business revenue being generated for the enterprise, and agree to pay that amount for any outages.

Everybody is aware of this

Even their biggest fans are somewhat down on AWS for this. Cloud consultant Shlomo Swidler said in an email that Amazon’s efforts to brush up their security picture, like the launch of the AWS Vulnerability Reporting and Penetration Testing program, was the right idea, but Amazon had neutered it by not letting customers use it in a meaningful way. “Without a way to test how things will really behave under simulated attack conditions — including the AWS defensive responses — I don’t understand what will happen under real attack conditions,” he said. The Vulnerability Reporting and Penetration Testing program can reportedly only be used with pre-approval from AWS staff, meaning it can never simulate an in-the-wild attack.

Others are more charitable, and point to Amazon’s track record. IT security auditor Andrew Plato was asked about the new white paper and responded via email.

“From what’s in there, they seem to be doing the right things. They’ve got a good risk management framework, good firewalls, monitoring, they’re following ISO and COBIT , They’ve got change management; they seem to be doing all the good practices that we advise clients to do,” said Plato, president of Anitian Enterprise Security. But he noted that all we had to go on was Amazon’s good word. ”The long and short of it is the content says they’re doing the right things — now, they could be lying,” he said, tongue only partly in cheek.

Plato isn’t worried about Amazon’s security. I’m positive they aren’t lying about anything in their white paper. Nobody should be worried; they have an amazing track record, but we’ll never know, at this rate, exactly what they’re so proud of.

The problem is enterprises are picky

Here’s the problem: IT does not work like baby shoes and garden rakes. It’s not enough to just deliver the goods. You have to show your work, or the IT practitioner cannot trust what you are giving him, at a certain level. All hosting providers know this, and they are proud to show off what they’ve done. After all, they’ve spent a lot of money to get best-in-class gear so they can make money off it.

Hell, Rackspace will drag a hobo off the street to show them around the data center, they’ll talk your ear off; you’ll know what color socks the hard drive guy is wearing on Tuesdays if that’s important to you.

Now, it’s OK that Amazon doesn’t work quite that way. We all understand that the amazing feat they have managed to pull off is to offer real-time self-service IT and charge for it by the hour, and that users are responsible for their own foolishness, and Amazon backs only access and uptime. Most of Amazon’s customers are more than happy with that; they can’t afford to care about what kind of firewall and load balancers run the AWS cloud.

But if Amazon is going to compete for the enterprise customer, and they are explicit that they are trying for those customers, they are going to have to get over it and spill the beans. Not to me, although that would be nice, and not to their competition (though that’s hardly relevant now since their nearest cloud competitor, Rackspace, is apparently $400 million dollars shy of eating their lunch) but definitely to enterprise customers. It’s a fact of life. Enterprises won’t come unless you play their ball game.

CloudAudit?

There are all sorts of ways AWS can address this without giving away the goose. CloudAudit is one idea; that’s self-service security audits on an API; it fits right in to the AWS worldview. Talking to analysts and professionals under NDA is another. AWS must at the very least match what other service providers offer if it is sincere in competing for enterprise users.

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