Saturday, January 21, 2012

SaaS Security and Compliance Concerns

Security is one of the major concerns which hold enterprises from embracing the cloud. But some think that this is manageable and as such have started adopting cloud based SaaS applications. Cloud based Enterprise solutions like Sales Force, Service Now, NetSuite are gaining ground. Let us attempt to list down some of the key areas, where the security and compliance needs are different from the on-premise applications.

Data Security 

Unlike on-premise applications, in case of SaaS applications, the underlying data is located outside the organization’s physical / logical boundaries. If the SaaS Provider in turn has hosted the application with a Cloud Platform or Infrastructure provider, then it is true for the Saas Provider too. This very fact that the data is located outside the enterprise could be a serious security concern for some enterprise, depending on the sensitivity of the data and the laws governing them.

Mature SaaS applications do expose Service Interfaces to facilitate data integration with other on-premise applications of the enterprise. Which means these Interfaces also need to be equally secured as these can be exploited to steal or manipulate data.

This means that the data as stored elsewhere should be secured by well established practices and methods like encryption, access control, etc. In addition, all the interfaces that expose data should also be secured using appropriate access control, authorization and logging techniques. The SaaS provider shall also make the data access logs available to the enterprise for review and audit.

Another important area to be concerned about is upon the service termination, how the provider ensures the proper return of the complete data and also make sure the destruction of copies maintained as the services may require.

When the SaaS provider assures adequate back-up and recovery tools and processes, it should also be ensured that the location of the back-up data is physically and logically secure enough and the data is stored with an acceptable form of encryption. Again, access to such locations should also be controlled, so that the SaaS consumers could access only their very own back up data and not that of others.

Data Segregation 

One of the key characteristics of SaaS application is multi tenancy, where an application instance is shared with multiple customers. That means, the customers’ data as handled by the application needs an appropriate physical or logical segregation, so that users of a customer access only their own data. On the consuming enterprise front, this could be a big concern as lack of adequate control could result in data being accessed by other consumers of the application, who could be competitors.

In this context, it is essential to know how the application and data stores are architected and what controls are in place to ensure isolation of customer’s data to its own users only. This is a larger issue and a lapse in one of the following areas could result in a compromise:

  • A design or architectural flaw in the user authentication and / or authorization 
  • A design or architectural flaw in the customer data separation 
  • A defect in the user authentication routine 
  • Regression issue caused by a design or application change 

Development Model 

 As we understand, how a flaw or change in the application could compromise the data security, the SaaS provider should also assure the consumers that their application design development model is developed to address the SaaS Security concerns. This means that the SaaS provider should have the following practices as part of their application design and development model.

  • The developers should be security aware and the design and code that they produce should be of high standards. The development team should be well trained in remediating security threats as they are detected. 
  • The development lifecycle should provide for security reviews and security testing at the end of every phase / sprint 
  • As the application instance is shared by multiple customers, there could be need for customer specific patches and far more quicker releases of smaller changes. This may require agile development methods to be adopted. 
  • The engineering process should include a configuration management process as the shorter release cycles and customer specific patches would require better source code control and more specifically in code branching and merging. 

Infrastructure Security 

Like in-house production environments, the environments where the SaaS application is hosted should be well secured. The SaaS provider should establish this fact by exposing the process and practices followed for the purpose by adhering to the popular security frameworks and standards. This need is the same as like in case of on-premise or cloud hosted enterprise’s own applications.

Regulatory Compliance 

There are a number of legislations in various countries, which stipulates for compliance to certain processes and practices when it comes to data. For instance in US we have HIPAA, SOX, etc. The SaaS model complicates this further as the enterprise may be operating out of a location in a country and the SaaS provider may be operating out of a different country and the data could be located in yet another country or even countries.

Again, in the SaaS provider perspective, customers from all over the world may subscribe for the application and in which case, the provider should establish necessary compliance practice to meet all such legal requirements. Some countries have legal requirements to retain data for certain minimum period, which the SaaS vendor should support.

It is needless to say that the governments would be monitoring the cross border data traffic and would seek clarifications and explanations and for which adequate audit trails and logs are essential.

Identity Management 

Provisioning users and managing their access and authorization permissions for various applications is becoming increasingly complex and enterprises are looking at central identity stores coupled with single sign on to address this problem. With SaaS, this could bring in additional complexity. Most enterprise SaaS application providers offer support for local store and as well as integration with enterprise’s very own identity store.

In case of local identity store, adequate security around the identity store and the process around managing the identity store gains significance. Any lapse in this area could lead to data a compromise in data security.

In cases where integration with enterprise’s own identity store is preferred, then the additional concerns could be in the areas of establishing trust relationships with the SaaS application and securing the federation of user identities between the identity store and the cloud hosted SaaS application.


Adopting a SaaS application does not absolve the enterprise from governing the information assets associated with such application. The CxOs of the enterprises will still be responsible whether these are managed on-premise or by the SaaS vendor. The SaaS vendors in turn should make sure that they comply with all these needs so as to win the confidence and trust of the enterprise for selling the software services.

Check out my presentation on the same topic on slideshare.