Printing via public cloud desirable, but risky

Print-anywhere solutions greatly beneficial to mobile workforce, but security concerns heighten when service is provided via public cloud, cautions security expert.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Print-anywhere services running through the public cloud network have obvious cost savings and increased productivity benefits to attract the attention of enterprises, but there are security issues and business processes to consider before adoption, advises a security expert.

Ronnie Ng, senior manager of systems engineering at Symantec Singapore, noted that the key concerns for public cloud printing services include loss of data, malicious attacks by cybercriminals, awareness and education among employees and internal security policies governing the print service.

Traditional security tools sometimes do not work in cloud environments so there are risks that corporate information stored on public clouds might be lost due to unmet service level agreements (SLAs) or cyberattacks, said Ng in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia.

At the same time, he added that employees need to understand the risks involved in using the service. "For instance, there is the possibility that through human error, the wrong printer is selected and confidential information is sent to the wrong location for printing," he said.

Companies also need to implement proper usage policies, he noted, pointing to a survey Symantec and the Ponemon Institute recently conducted on cloud security, which polled 637 IT security practitioners who work for companies that had adopted cloud computing platforms in the United States. Only 27 percent of respondents said their organizations had procedures for approving cloud applications that used sensitive or confidential data, he said, leaving much room for improvement.

Ng did note, though, that enterprises would welcome such services to increase productivity and improve business processes.

"The key benefit of cloud printing for enterprises is that it allows them to connect virtually any device to a printer with minimal hassle," he said. "The ability to not have to deal with software drivers is a plus in terms of simplifying end-points and peripherals management."

Google's cloud print roadmap
Ng's comments follow Google's announcement earlier this month to introduce its Google Cloud Print concept. Essentially, the service will enable users to print from any device or application using any "cloud-aware printer", according to a Google spokesperson.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, the spokesperson explained how print jobs will be sent via the Web-based common print dialog or API (application programming interface) offered by Google Cloud Print, to the selected printer that the user had previously registered. He added that the service works best with cloud-aware printers and does not require a separate driver or PC.

"While no cloud-aware printers exist today, we expect these capabilities to become standard and plan to engage with the printer OEM (original equipment manufacturer) community in the coming months to help drive this effort forward," said the Google spokesperson.

As for existing printers, he noted that the company is planning to create a "cloud print proxy" that will work with its service. Users will have to install and enable the cloud print proxy on their PC that the existing printer is set up, thereby registering the printer with the user's Google account, and the device will become compatible with Google Cloud Print, he explained.

Asked to elaborate on the security features of the new service, he said: "[Google Cloud Print] uses the same account and ACL (access control list) systems as other Google properties."

"Printer ownership and sharing will be the same as with Google Docs today," he added. "Therefore, a printer can only receive a print job from its owner or someone the owner has given permission to print to the printer. This will help counter security issues like spam jobs being sent to printers."

Google Cloud Print is currently still in its nascent state, with Google earlier publishing design documents for the concept and developing it to be compatible with its browser-based Chrome operating system. As the company's Chrome OS will not have native print drivers or a print stack, Google Cloud Print will solve the platform's print conundrum, said the spokesperson.

HP has CloudPrint, too
Google, however, is not the first vendor to tout the idea of cloud-based printing.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) had introduced its CloudPrint service in May last year, as part of its collaboration with Research In Motion (RIM) to allow BlackBerry smartphone users to print documents, pictures and other files on-the-go, according to HP's communications executive, Ethan Bauley.

Bauley, who responded to a ReadWriteWeb blog post, said HP's CloudPrint service has been "in use for many months" by early-adopter customers.

Its print service is similar to Google's concept in that it is also printer-agnostic and does not need print drivers to work, but the main difference is that print jobs are sent to a private cloud network--in this instance, the BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0--instead of a public cloud, according to a report that Bauley referred to in his statement.

He also made a veiled riposte to Google's cloud printing concept, saying: "[The] point is that talk is cheap. Some may be in the early stages of solving this very complex problem but HP has been executing its vision for a 'printing from the cloud' future for many years."

When contacted, HP declined to comment further on CloudPrint but pointed ZDNet Asia to marketing collaterals highlighting its collaboration with RIM in the Asia-Pacific region.

According to a press release, HP's cloud printing service was launched in the region last week and dubbed, "HP ePrint enterprise mobile printing".

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