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Cloud providers are wasting their time pursuing NERC CIP

Tom Alrich's picture
Supply chain Cybersecurity Risk Management and NERC CIP-013 consulting Tom Alrich LLC

Currently with Tom Alrich LLC, I provide strategy and compliance consulting to electric power industry clients and vendors to the power industry, focusing on the NERC CIP cybersecurity standards....

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  • Nov 17, 2021
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Last week, my friend Maggy Powell of AWS put up a post on LinkedIn that provided a link to their most recent document regarding NERC CIP, described by Maggy as the “AWS User Guide to Support Compliance with NERC CIP Standards”. She further states that “The User Guide describes key concepts for customers considering CIP regulated workloads in the cloud.”

Dale Peterson asked me for my comments on the document. Before I downloaded it, I pointed to this post from last year, where I tried to summarize the problem preventing NERC entities from deploying Medium or High impact BES Cyber Systems in the cloud (they’re free to deploy Low impact BCS in the cloud now). So I reviewed (skimmed, I’ll admit) the AWS document to see if it had anything to say that would change the situation enough to make it at least possible that Medium or High BCS could be put in the cloud.

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It didn’t. Like the document and presentation that Microsoft Azure prepared for the NERC CIPC (remember the CIPC?) in around 2016, AWS seems to think that what needs to be done is just convince NERC and utilities that AWS has good security. That has nothing to do with the real problem, as my previous post explains. There’s literally nothing that AWS, Microsoft, or anyone else – other than NERC, the Regions, the NERC entities, and FERC – can do to change the situation, absent a wholesale revision of the CIP standards. I replied to Dale:

I skimmed through the AWS document, but it was unfortunately as I expected. It tells you everything you need to know about AWS security, except the one thing that matters for CIP: How AWS could possibly produce the evidence required for the utility to prove compliance with about 25 of the CIP requirements, if they put BCS in the cloud.
And the answer to that question remains what I wrote last fall: There's no way any cloud provider could do that, without breaking their business model.
NERC CIP won't permit BCS in the cloud until it's completely rewritten as a risk based compliance regime (which involves revising the NERC Rules of Procedure as well). What's also required is for the focus on devices to go away, and the new focus be on systems. This is exactly what the CIP Modifications SDT proposed in 2018 (a year or so after Maggy left as chairperson), and it got shot down by the big utilities, because they didn't want to have to make big changes to their procedures, etc.
That's the barrier. Until that's overcome, BCS will never be in the cloud, period. I don't see any movement toward this currently, but I'd be glad to help out the insurrectionists if they materialize.

I’ll close by paraphrasing the ending to my post linked above:

Of course, changing CIP will require a much more fundamental revision of the CIP standards than even CIP version 5 was. Doing what I’m suggesting will require widespread support among NERC entities, and I see no sign of that now. Does that mean BCS will never be allowed in the cloud?

I actually believe it will happen, although I won’t say when, because I don’t know (it definitely won’t be soon). I think the advantages the cloud can provide for NERC entities are so great that they will ultimately outweigh the general resistance to change. But the NERC entities themselves need to be able to change. Until that happens, there will be no BCS in the cloud, period.

Any opinions expressed in this blog post are strictly mine and are not necessarily shared by any of the clients of Tom Alrich LLC. Nor are they shared by the CISA’s Software Component Transparency Initiative, for which I volunteer as co-leader of the Energy SBOM Proof of Concept. If you would like to comment on what you have read here, I would love to hear from you. Please email me at tom@tomalrich.com.

 

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Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Nov 17, 2021

Totally agree, Tom. The AWS document looks like the result of "group think in a vacuum" 2 me. Check out the proposed solution to CIP-010 on page 22:

Entities can address their security objectives for configuration change management, vulnerability management (CIP-010, Configuration Change Management and Vulnerability Assessment), and patching and malicious code protection (CIP-007, Systems Security Management), using AWS services.

 

I can just imagine the look on a NERC auditors face when a BES entity states:

AWS is compliant with several security standards including SOC 1, 2, and
3, and FedRAMP moderate and high. The security of AWS data centers is reviewed and
audited as a part of these and many other compliance programs. Customers can
download audit reports associated with these compliance programs by signing into
the AWS Management Console and navigating to Artifact . These audit reports can
be presented to customer’s auditors as evidence of compliance/meeting standards.

 

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