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Contracting the Common Cloud

After attending CSO Perspectives, Bill Brenner has some observations on contract negotiations with SaaS vendors. While his panel demonstrated a breadth of customer experience, it was, unfortunately, lacking in a critical perspective: that of a cloud provider.

Much of the point of SaaS, or any cloud service, in the economy of scale you get; not just in capacity, but also in features. You're selecting from the same set of features that every other customer is selecting from, and that's what makes it affordable. And that same set of features needs to extend up into the business relationship. As the panel noted, relationships around breach management, data portability, and transport encryption are all important, but if you find yourself arguing for a provider to do something it isn't already, you're likely fighting a Sisyphean battle.

But how did a customer get to that point? Enterprises typically generate their own control frameworks, in theory beginning from a standard (like ISO 27002), but then redacting out the inapplicable (to them), tailoring controls, and adding in new controls to cover incidents they've had in the past. And when they encounter a SaaS provider who isn't talking about security controls, the natural tendency is to convert their own control framework into contractual language. Which leads to the observations of the panel participants: it's like pulling teeth.

A common request I've seen is the customer who wants to attach their own security policy - often a thirty to ninety page document - as a contract addendum, and require the vendor to comply with it, "as may be amended from time to time by Customer". And while communicating desires to your vendors is how they'll decide to improve, no cloud vendor is going to be able to satisfy that contract.

Instead, vendors need to be providing a high-water mark of business and technology capabilities to their customer base. To do this, they should start back from those original control frameworks, and not only apply them to their own infrastructure, but evaluate the vendor-customer interface as well. Once implemented, these controls can then be packaged, both into the baseline (for controls with little or no variable cost), and into for-fee packages. Customers may not want (or want to pay for) all of them, but the vendors need to be ahead of their customers on satisfying needs. Because one-off contract requirements don't scale. But good security practices do.