Head In The Cloud Feet On The Ground

Things to remember when choosing a cloud PACS in the federal government

More government agencies are taking their physical access control system (PACS) to the cloud, and it’s easy to see why. The cloud simplifies what otherwise can be an arduous operation. Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in its recent “Definition of Cloud Computing,” identifies cloud computing in terms of its simplicity. Cloud operations, it notes, require “minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

But in the rush to claim a spot in the cloud to enhance HSPD- 12 and PIV services, agencies would benefit by looking at the bigger picture. While a simple cloud solution is good, a cloud solution that is both simple and secure is even better.

The Benefits

Cost savings alone lure many information technology officers. Thanks to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), the expense and hassle of dedicated application server and workstation maintenance, upgrades, repairs and specialized personnel effectively become the responsibility of the solution host. With these savings, enterprises are able to reconfigure budgets so that more money is allotted for things such as operations. They also can more efficiently use IT and server resources, potentially sharing them for a more collaborative enterprise.

Centralization is likewise appealing, particularly to multi-tenant and multi-facility enterprises. Managing a separate server room or system at each facility is a far cry from efficient. Cloud deployment allows these enterprises to use minimal physical IT resources to support the maximum level of IT demand—whether that be through a private or hybrid cloud.

And let’s not forget scalability. Agencies can enjoy the benefits of the cloud regardless of their size. Should these agencies expand, the cloud can allow their PACS to grow with minimal disturbance.

These benefits are significant. To many enterprises, they are too appealing to pass up. But this is only half the story.

A Simpler, More Secure Cloud

Distracted by the obvious advantages of cloud PACS, enterprises must take the time to ensure that the cloud solution they choose is complete and secure. To do its part, the federal government has established an accreditation process for cloud providers called the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP). While FedRAMP is a step forward for standardization, a robust, viable cloud solution is one that mixes the benefits of reliability and cost savings with the promise of security and streamlined operations. With the assumption that all cloud PACS are created equal, some agencies may overlook an even simpler—and more secure—solution.

Secure Infrastructure

First, agencies should do well to ask vendors if their cloud PACS infrastructure is engineered as a complete solution—designed to serve the entire enterprise equally. A solid infrastructure supporting an agency’s PACS cloud solution can eliminate unforeseen challenges such as the complexity and costs associated with elaborate integration efforts.

Using seamless infrastructure can simplify this aspect of cloud PACS. For example, solution providers that upgrade an entire team of readers with the click of a button eliminate the need to service individual readers one by one and thereby showcase the benefits of an enterprise cloud solution. Likewise, the inconvenience and difficulty this work could present for an enterprise’s operations is removed.

In the move from a local server solution to a cloud PACS or SaaS, enterprises should ensure that they don’t trade one means of simplicity for another source of complication.

Authentication

By the same token, nothing undermines the benefit of simplicity and the single purpose of a PACS like the threat of fraud. For that reason, viable PACS cloud solutions in the federal government should be capable of strong authentication. With a tool as sophisticated as the PIV card, agencies should utilize the technology, which is called for in HSPD-12, OMB M11-11 and FICAM.

Agencies should deploy strong authentication that reinforces facility security with each access control transaction. Information should not be cached or reused for days at a time, creating an unnecessary security risk.

In short, cloud PACS in the federal government should use PIV and PIV-I credential authentication that:

  1. Verifies that the credential is genuine, cryptographically validating that the credential is not counterfeit or fraudulent by performing a challenge-response exchange for every single reader transaction.
  2. Verifies origin to ensure that the issuers are trusted and legitimate.
  3. Confirms that the credential data has not been altered; the system should verify that the unique ID and all information on a user’s card were not altered and that the certificate is signed and trusted.
  4. Confirms certificate status by using a Certificate Revocation List (CRL) or Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) Responder to confirm that the certificate is active.

The introduction of fraud to an access control system can complicate the operation and undermine the end goal of a PACS. Strong authentication enables enterprises to identify fraudulent credentials and prevent unauthorized access with each transaction. Some vendors offer one or two of the criteria but not all four, which is a shortsighted approach.

Opting for a cloud PACS solution is, without argument, an upgrade. However, the benefits are limited if that solution is not supported by a solid, holistic infrastructure and also protected from fraud. After all, only a secure enterprise cloud solution is truly simple.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Security Today.

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