Data Security in a Nebulous World

Security - Other
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What's safer? The cloud or your own IBM i?


Nobody understands the cloud. That's a common joke amongst IT professionals. It's often spoken tongue in cheek about laymen consumers uploading selfies by the millions as they constantly sync their devices without a clue in the world about what's actually happening to their data. While the concept of cloud-based data may confuse most consumers, two groups of people actually do thoroughly understand how the cloud works: the IT professionals who build and maintain the droves of servers on which all of our data is stored, and the hackers who spend their every waking moment trying to break into them.


Several high-profile servers have been compromised in recent years, including the Target credit- and debit-card thefts back in 2013 and more recently Home Depot, where a nationwide breach lasted for nearly five months before it was finally detected. The now notorious iCloud celebrity photo hacks that happened at the end of summer proved that not even the big boys are safe when it comes to hacking and data theft. In fact, if anything, it showed that the larger a service becomes, the greater the likelihood of an attack. This is because the more data a server contains, the greater the value a hack against it is worth. It becomes a juicy target. With enough time and know-how, any server can be cracked. The key to successful data security is in making sure that the server you choose takes a skilled hacker longer to break into than the data inside is worth. You don't have to outrun the bear; you just have to be faster than your friends!


Large companies are typically the target of hacks because of the sheer amount of valuable information that travels through their servers, but smaller businesses using generic servers with too many security holes are commonly hit as well. Small and medium-sized businesses that cannot afford to purchase their own server farm often outsource their data storage to larger companies that specialize in cloud technology. This is basically putting everybody's eggs in one basket. Breaking into one of these joint servers can grant a hacker access to the private data of potentially hundred's of businesses and their customers all at once. This is basically how the iCloud works, putting everyone's photos in one location. Credit card information and nude photos are probably the two most powerful motivators for a nefarious hacker.


If you're reading this article, your business probably already owns an IBM i, which means the solution to cloud data security is right in front of you. The IBM i can already serve data to all your employees, so why not allow it to handle your cloud service needs as well?


Taking control of your company's data is the first step toward maintaining security. By keeping your data on your own IBM ia system well-known for its emphasis on secure, high availability datayou can remove your egg from the communal basket, eliminating the risk of a public server hack entirely. Storing your data in-house not only makes you a smaller target, but also tightens the inner circle of server administration. There's no longer any need to give strangers at a server farm access to your data. Sometimes the two kinds of people who understand the cloudIT professionals and hackersmay be one and the same. A hacker working at a server farm could be the fastest way to a million-dollar data leak. When you run your own server on your IBM i, you can oversee which employees have access to your full system. There's no more uncertainty about security practices or any need to worry about external leaks.


Software packages exist on the IBM i that are capable of using the system's built-in HTTP server to turn a portion of your Integrated File System (IFS) into a completely secure drop box for your company's employees and/or customers. With a Customizable Online Server, user accounts can be automatically generated and maintained, giving your company a new avenue for secure document distribution. Establishing two-way communication between users and your server opens the door for all sorts of other online services. Similar to online banking, users can log in and retrieve secure, private information that may be too sensitive or too large to email. Documents, like quotes or statements, can be automatically generated upon request, without the need for employee oversight and delivered to customers on their time. Built-in monitoring of IP addresses and failed login attempts can prevent hacking before it even gets started.


Depending on your needs, here are some potential make-or-break features to consider when looking for software packages for a cloud alternative:


  • Online account registration and maintenance: Doing things manually will take you only so far. Packages that have a secure automatic system for account creation and maintenance have a leg up on the competition. Dedicating an employee to overseeing account changes might work if you have hundreds of accounts, but maintaining thousands requires an automated system. You can't have people waiting on email/password/security question changes. These things, along with adding and removing accounts, are expected to be instant, so it's vital to choose a package that can handle such requests automatically and in a secure manner, protecting both server and users.

  • Ability to handle both public and private documents: Public documents, like manuals and product information, are typically the same for everyone and are okay for everyone to see. On the other hand, private documents, like invoices and statements, need to be managed more securely. A good software package is capable of showing users only what they're supposed to see, serving up public documents as well as allowing for sensitive and personalized documents to be retrieved when the user is logged in.

  • Document/file uploads: If you want two-way communication with your users, it's important to choose a package that can handle document uploads as well as downloads. This can be a much more efficient way of retrieving information from your users than relying on email. Email has size restrictions, and attachments generally aren't automatically processed. Your server should have the capability of receiving and processing user uploads for you.

  • On-demand processes: Now we're getting into the real power of cloud alternative software on the IBM i. Your Customizable Online Server is on your IBM i, so it should have the capability of running any backend process available on your system that you allow it to access. A good software package will provide a safe way for your users to initiate processes such as generating and displaying lists of outstanding invoices or current statements. Having your server run commands on a user's behalf allows for true on-demand access to resources. You can set buttons to automatically generate shipping documents or send information back to you, and users are then able to initiate these processes at any time, regardless of your operating hours. Employees no longer have to handle these tasks because the server runs the commands automatically on a by-request basis.

  • Security: The largest factor to consider when choosing a Customizable Online Server is, of course, security. You're forming an outside connection to your IBM i, but you don't want to risk your company's data to do so. Any time you get into the realm of allowing file creations/deletions on your server, the potential for malicious attacks must be considered.


To be sure that your software package is secure, it must contain all of the following features:


  • Everything's logged: This includes all IP addresses of everyone connecting to your server and the requests they have made.

  • Count sign-on attempts: Users should not be allowed to guess. If there are too many sign-on attempts, the system needs to lock the account out but should also automatically reset after a reasonable amount of time (usually an hour).

  • Limited access: This is a big one. Users should not have access to anything outside of their accounts. As an example, you would never want to allow any customer to connect to your IBM i using a File Transfer Protocol (FTP), which would allow them to potentially overwrite files anywhere on the system and introduce viruses.

  • Safety features to combat Denial of Service (DoS) attacks: Does your package allow uploads? Make sure there's a feature that stops someone from filling your disk or placing files in off-limit directories. Abnormal behavior must be noticed and dealt with automatically.


If your software package does all of these things, you've made a good choice.


With the list of cloud and web service possibilities on the IBM i matching and even surpassing those available from external services, there's really no excuse not to take control of your company's sensitive data. As the old adage says, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. If you want your data to be secure, you have to know how it's being stored and maintained. Data leaks are no joke, costing companies and individuals millions of dollars in credit monitoring alone. Setting up and maintaining your own secure online server on the IBM i can be as easy as installing a new application.