McAfee's blunder, cloud computing's fatal flaw

McAfee's update fiasco shows even trusted providers can cause catastrophic harm

Thanks for proving my fears well founded, McAfee.

A while ago, I wrote a piece about not trusting the cloud for a variety of reasons, predominately security and the potential for a third party to ruin my company whether it meant to or not. McAfee's massive blunder last week provided a case in point for that argument.

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Granted, you can't really call McAfee a cloud vendor. McAfee's play is sort of the cloud model in reverse; instead of customers placing important assets on McAfee's cloud, customers download and install McAfee's software on their important assets -- desktops and servers -- and trust McAfee to issue updates without manual supervision. McAfee betrayed that trust in the worst way possible: It took down thousands and thousands of customer systems.

The same thing can and will happen to cloud vendors and their customers, but the damage could be far worse. While the McAfee debacle caused primarily Windows XP SP3 desktops and workstations to crash, servers and the corporate data stored on them were unaffected. If a similar situation were to happen to a real cloud vendor, the situation would be reversed. The time and aggravation required to reimage, repair, or reinstall hundreds or thousands of corporate desktop pales in comparison to the specter of massive data loss or long-term application and resource unavailability due to third-party problems. This should worry anyone who places trust in any cloud they don't control.

Naturally, other aspects of IT require significant trust in third-party vendors, but these areas are generally compartmentalized and can be accompanied by suitable backup strategies. You trust your storage vendor, but you also back up the data on their arrays. You trust your server vendors, but still keep spares on hand and implement virtualization or clustering to protect against hardware failure. You trust your WAN vendor, but have the capacity to deploy VPN backup in the event of a link failure.

Placing core business applications and data into the cloud doesn't really have a suitable backup plan unless you're maintaining local backups of all that data and can afford to bring the applications and data back online quickly during an outage -- but what's the point of leveraging a cloud if you have to run all that gear locally anyway just in case?

These issues aren't limited to failure and data loss. It's also security. Going back to the McAfee example, you might expect McAfee to have very stringent policies and procedures in place to thoroughly test and vet every DAT update it pushed out. You'd expect the company to have labs of hardware running the same operating system and service packs that its customers use to verify that the updates would do no harm.

You'd also expect that your cloud vendor would have teams of highly trained security professionals guarding your data. You'd expect it to constantly monitor threats internal and external, and employ cutting-edge technology to ensure that your assets are free from pilfering or destruction. You might be right. You might not. Unless or until there's a problem, you'll never really know.

Mistakes happen. They happen in your IT department, at vendors, at clients, everywhere. But when you have complete control over the assets you manage, you can employ suitable safeguards against the inevitable human error. If they're not sufficient, you didn't plan well enough, but at least you own the problem. If a third-party company falls down on the job and takes your data with them, your only failure was believing that you could safely farm out highly important data and applications and let them deal with it.

Call me paranoid, but that's simply not a risk I'm willing to take -- not yet, and maybe not ever.

This story, "McAfee's blunder and cloud computing's fatal flaw," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in security and cloud computing, and read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com.

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