The Cloud as the Operating System

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The current trend is to push more and more of our traditional desktop tasks to the cloud. We use the cloud for file storage, image processing and a number of other activities.  However, that transition is more complex than just copying the data from one location to another.

Desktop operating systems have evolved over decades to provide a complex series of controls and security protections for that data. These controls were developed in direct response to increasing usage and security requirements. When we move those tasks to the cloud, the business requirements that led to the evolution of those desktop controls remain in place. We must find ways to provide those same controls and protections using the cloud infrastructure. When looking at creating these security solutions in the cloud, I often refer back to the desktop OS architectures to learn from their designs.


Example: File storage

File storage on the desktop is actually quite complex under the hood. You have your traditional user, group and (world/other/everyone) classifications. Each of these classifications can be granted the standard read, write and execute permissions. This all seems fairly straightforward.

However, if you dig a little deeper, permissions often have to be granted to more than just one single group. End users often want to provide access to multiple groups and several additional individuals. The operating system can also layer on its own additional permissions. For instance, SELinux can add permissions regarding file usage and context that go beyond just simple user level permissions. Windows can provide fine-grained permissions on whether you can write data or just append data.

There are several different types of usage scenarios that led to the creation of these controls. For instance, some controls were created to allow end users to share information with entities they do not trust. Other controls were driven by the need for services to perform tasks with data on the user’s behalf.


Learning from the Desktop

While the technical details of how we store and retrieve data changes when we migrate data to the cloud, the fundamental principles and complexities of protecting that data still persist. When planning your file sharing service, you can use the desktop as a reference for how complex your permissions may need to be as it scales. Will end users have complex file sharing scenarios with multiple groups and individuals? Will you have services that run in the background and perform maintenance on the user data? What permissions will those services need to process the data? These are hard problems to solve and you don’t want to reinvent these critical wheels from scratch.

Admittedly there is not always a direct 1:1 mapping between the desktop and cloud. For instance, the desktop OS gets to assume that the hard drive is physically connected to the CPU that will do the processing. In the cloud, your workers or services may be connecting to your cloud storage service across untrusted networks. This detail can add additional authentication and transport level security controls on top of the traditional desktop controls.

Overall, the question that we face as engineers is how can we best take the lessons learned from the desktop and progress them forward to work in a cloud infrastructure. File storage and access is just one aspect of the desktop that is being migrated to the cloud. Going forward, I plan to dig deeper into this idea and similar topics that I learn from working with Adobe’s cloud teams.

Peleus Uhley
Lead Security Strategist

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Posted on 06-24-2014