Real words or buzzwords?: True Cloud - Part 3

Oct. 10, 2017
Properly evaluating a cloud-based system based on key criteria is paramount for a successful implementation

Editor’s note: This is the 15th article in the "Real Words or Buzzwords?” series from contributor Ray Bernard about how real words can become empty words and stifle technology progress.

Just as business applications have been moving into the cloud, so to have physical security applications.  However, a significant difference is that most business information systems can be 100 percent cloud-based, while most electronic physical security systems involve on-premises sensors and controls equipment. Some security systems, like emergency notification systems, can be completely cloud based, sometimes having an integration with a cloud-based HR system. The advantage of cloud-based systems is that they are available anywhere there is an internet connection, while the same generally can’t be said for fully on-premises systems.

Due Diligence and the Cloud

Over the past year, I have learned of several significant cloud-based security application deployments that ran into major trouble, which could have been avoided if the proper due diligence had been done. As Brian Coulombe, Principal and Director of Operations at Ross & Baruzzini’s DVS division, wrote a few years ago in a post on the Security Specifiers blog, “Sound security design principles don't change much over time - only the tools we use to enact them.”

One important set of tools is inspection and testing practice. In many cases, their application to security system deployments has been disrupted by the arrival of cloud applications. Many security application servers are now located in the cloud, and not on the customer premises, and thus are not owned by the customer.  This means that inspection and testing practice must change to account for that. In the cases of the troubled systems, no consideration had been given to what should be tested or inspected for the cloud-based system, and that’s what led to the deficiencies not being initially discovered.

Are You Getting a True Cloud System?

As discussed in the two previous True Cloud articles, cloud computing technology can take security system capabilities and performance far beyond what it has been in the past. Cloud computing makes vast pools of computing resources available for security applications, available on demand under a pay-for-what-you-use subscription. Major customer and integrator challenges that exist for on-premises computing don’t exist with a properly-designed cloud system. But since there are no on-premises servers, and since the cloud deployment wasn’t designed by the customer or the integrator, how can you know what you are getting?

What to Inspect

Documentation review has always been a part of the inspection process; with cloud deployments the type and content of documentation has changed. Instead of having to evaluate a detailed design of the system as the means of assuring the levels of performance required, Service Level Agreement (SLA) terms and subscription details are what to examine as a starting point. More detailed discussion should follow based on your system use scenarios. Let’s consider a cloud-based security camera system in which you specify the number of days for cloud-based video retention. When it rains for a week and your outdoor cameras’ motion-based recording sends ten times as much video to the cloud, video storage should increase automatically, and decrease back to normal when the rain is over. Is there any additional charge for 30 days of storage for that extra video? If so, run through the scenario and understand the cost.

Can you specify that for less critical cameras it is okay to trade off retention time in favor of the critical outdoor cameras? For example, cutting back to seven days, while maintaining 30 days of retention for critical cameras?

Or, if you live in a rainy or snowy area, can you skip the concerns over video retention space by investing in self-configuring smart video analytics that recognize rain and snow, and only record on activity that you truly want? Bosch and Agent VI (maybe a few others) have such analytics. Could that approach save you money on your cloud camera system subscription and make video review easier?

Cybersecurity Documentation

Cybersecurity involves people, process and technology. A cloud-based security system’s documentation should include cybersecurity documentation, not just for the cloud data center technical measures in place, but for the system data management practices and the cloud data access controls in place.

For systems with on-premises equipment, documentation should include their cybersecurity profile as well. Ideally, the on-premises equipment will be self-configuring using digital certificate-based authentication and data encryption. That’s the state of current technology. Ideally, the entire system—on premises and in the cloud—will have end-to-end data encryption. For some cameras that’s not possible, but other measures should be in place to compensate.

The Cloud Security Alliance provides a self-assessment questionnaire that cloud application vendors can use to document their security. It is a Yes/No type of questionnaire, with the ability to include a comment. So it doesn’t reveal details of the security implementation, it just identifies what the company found relevant and addressed. Some companies, like Brivo, publish their completed questionnaire on the Cloud Security Alliance website. Others share the information only under a non-disclosure agreement. 

Inspecting the Application

You can easily inspect a cloud application, and the nice thing about it is that you are inspecting the actual system that you will get. It’s already deployed in the cloud; what makes a difference is how the demo or actual application is set up, and what equipment it is connected to. Reference sites, as always, can be a great help, and end-user advice can help you focus on areas of importance. Once you find a facility that has similar usage to your own, what you see is what you should get.

What to Test

Testing a cloud application is not given much consideration, because it is really only appropriate when there are no subscribers who have the same scale of deployment as you do, such as for number of sites or equipment count. The user experience can be significantly different between a system with 1,000 employees enrolled and 10,000 employees. Does the user interface facilitate reviewing or scrolling through large sets of records? Are query-based searches available so that you can finely control the list of results you get? Do the important and commonly used functions work as well on tablets and on phones as in a PC browser?

For emergency notification systems, for example, how can you perform a test for the length of time it will take to get a notification out to 20,000 people? If there are no high-user-count subscribers, the cloud application provider should be able to make a QA testing system available that is a read-only copy of the production deployment, that can simulate a base level of system activity. You and the vendor can apply a cloud-based testing tool that simulates 20,000 mobile devices. You can actually prove to yourself how the system will work under the load that your usage is likely to generate. This is a proof of concept (PoC) test, and half of the problem experiences I mentioned earlier occurred because no PoC test was done. The customer didn’t realize that a True Cloud system’s deployment would include QA and Staging environments in which the application vendor first tests system updates before rolling them out to the production environment.

Final Note

Every type of inspection, review and test that you would perform with a fully on-premises system, you can perform with a cloud-based system, as long as you adjust your methods to fit the reality of a cloud-based application. Customer and integrators have both the need and the right to verify, one way or another, that a cloud-based system will perform as needed. Fortunately, with a True Cloud deployment there is always a feasible way.

About the Author:

Ray Bernard, PSP CHS-III, is the principal consultant for Ray Bernard Consulting Services (RBCS), a firm that provides security consulting services for public and private facilities ( He is the author of the Elsevier book, "Security Technology Convergence Insights," available on Amazon. Mr. Bernard is a Subject Matter Expert Faculty of the Security Executive Council (SEC) and an active member of the ASIS International member councils for Physical Security and IT Security.