NIST Standards Demystified: Guide for Cloud Service Providers

Published August 14, 2023
by Dave Stenger

State or local governments, public universities, and organizations in highly regulated industries such as healthcare or finance often impose strict compliance requirements on their cloud service providers (SPs). Service Providers play a vital role in ensuring customer data’s confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Therefore, adherence to recognized standards is a crucial part of securing government contracts. A set of standards that has gained widespread recognition and adoption is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Framework. This guide aims to demystify NIST standards for SPs, providing a comprehensive understanding of the Framework.

What is NIST?

According to NIST, the organization “develops cybersecurity standards, guidelines, best practices, and other resources to meet the needs of US industry, federal agencies, and the broader public.”

NIST Cybersecurity Framework

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework is one of the most widely used security standards. First developed in response to President Obama’s 2013 Executive Order 13636, “Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity,” the Framework isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach but is intended to reduce cybersecurity risks and enable end-to-end risk-management communications regardless of an organization’s size or sector.

While the Framework is designed to be voluntarily implemented, some entities are required to abide by its guidance. Executive Order 13800, “Strengthening the Cybersecurity of Federal Networks and Critical Infrastructure,” signed by President Trump in 2017, made following the NIST Framework a requirement for all federal government agencies. Several state governments and insurance organizations are among those that have also made the Framework mandatory for some purposes or within specific sectors. 

The Framework can help organizations initially develop and prioritize or improve their cybersecurity programs and gives their teams an easy-to-understand common language for discussing cybersecurity risks.

The Framework is organized by The Five Functions—high-level and widely understood terms that, when considered together, begin to provide a comprehensive view of what’s required to manage cybersecurity risks. 

  1. Identify. Develop an organizational understanding to manage cybersecurity risks to systems, assets, data, and overall capabilities.
  • Identify critical enterprise processes and assets, as well as threats, vulnerabilities, and any risks. 
  • Maintain hardware and software inventories and monitor information streams.
  • Establish clear policies for cybersecurity to include roles and responsibilities.
  1. Protect. Develop and implement appropriate safeguards to ensure the delivery of services.
  • Manage and track access to assets and information, protecting sensitive data and securing personal devices.
  • Conduct frequent data backups, keeping one set offline to protect against ransomware and regularly update operating systems and applications on all devices to mitigate vulnerabilities.
  • Regularly train—and retrain—all users within your organization to ensure they know their responsibilities concerning cybersecurity policies and procedures.
  1. Detect. Develop and implement appropriate activities to effectively identify the occurrence of a cybersecurity event.
  • Routinely update and test incident detection processes.
  • Monitor and maintain logs, tracking expected data flow to recognize deviations quickly.
  • Understand the impact and severity of cybersecurity events, communicating relevant information with partners and stakeholders.
  1. Respond. Develop and implement appropriate activities to take action regarding a detected cybersecurity incident.
  • Ensure your organization’s response plans are well-tested and updated to accommodate lessons learned or needed improvements. 
  • Coordinate with internal and external stakeholders who can contribute to any improvements in response planning and execution.
  1. Recover. Develop and implement appropriate activities to maintain plans for resilience and restore any capabilities or services impaired by a cybersecurity incident.
  • Communicate with stakeholders regarding updates and improvements to your organization’s recovery plans.
  • Manage your organization’s reputation and public relations messaging to ensure information sharing is accurate, transparent, and timely rather than haphazardly reactionary. 

Compliance with NIST standards takes time, effort, and a systematic approach by SPs committed to continuous improvement and a stronger cybersecurity posture. Begin by prioritizing risk assessment and thoroughly examining cloud environments to identify potential risks or vulnerabilities. 

Working toward and meeting NIST standards may require significant time, resources, and training efforts. Still, they’re widely respected, and reaching compliance is regarded as a crucial competitive advantage. 

NIST Special Publications

The volume and breadth of NIST security standards can seem overwhelming or intimidating, but adhering to them can help providers meet compliance requirements and use best practices that effectively manage risks, gain the trust of partners and customers, and promote a proactive culture of continuously improving cybersecurity.

The NIST 800 Series covers various topics, definitions, and aspects of information security, including risk management, access controls, incident response, cloud computing services, device security, and more. The standards and frameworks in this overview include those most relevant and important to CSPs and their cybersecurity efforts.

NIST SP 800-145

NIST SP 800-145, “The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing,” is a foundational reference material for understanding key cloud computing concepts. The document provides an official definition of cloud computing and SP solutions, including five essential characteristics, three service models, and four deployment models.

Essential Characteristics

  1. On-demand self-service
  2. Broad network access
  3. Resource pooling
  4. Rapid elasticity
  5. Measured service

Service Models

  1. Software as a service (SaaS)
  2. Platform as a service (PaaS)
  3. Infrastructure as a service (IaaS)

Deployment Models

  1. Private cloud
  2. Community cloud
  3. Public cloud
  4. Hybrid cloud

NIST SP 800-53

NIST SP 800-53, “Security and Privacy Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations,” provides a comprehensive catalog of security and privacy controls for federal information systems. Many federal agencies and contractors must comply with the guidelines, and many state and local governments and private corporations also use NIST SP 800-53 as the basis for their cybersecurity controls framework.

As the volume and sophistication of cyber-attacks have increased, the guidelines have been reviewed and revised to Revision 5, which includes more than 1,000 controls across 18 security control families, including controls specifically tailored for managed cloud services and systems.

NIST SP 800-53A

A companion guideline to NIST SP 800-53, NIST SP 800-53A (“Assessing Security and Privacy Controls in Information Systems and Organizations”) covers tailoring control assessment processes, building effective assessment plans, and best analyzing and managing results.

Assessment procedures are customizable to align with an organization’s flexibility and risk tolerance. Now in its fifth revision, SP 800-53A provides valuable guidance for SPs to assess and validate the effectiveness of their security controls. The guidelines help achieve more secure systems by:

  • Enabling consistent, efficient, comparable, and repeatable assessments of security and privacy controls with reproducible results.
  • Promoting a better understanding of the risks to organizations’ operations and assets, individuals, and the nation resulting from using the systems.
  • Facilitating more cost-effective assessments of security and privacy controls.
  • Creating information for organizational officials to support risk management decisions, information sharing, and compliance with federal laws, executive orders, and industry regulations. 

NIST SP 800-144

Titled “Guidelines on Security and Privacy in Public Cloud Computing,” NIST SP 800-144 provides an overview of security and privacy challenges pertinent to public cloud computing, highlighting considerations and guidelines recommended to federal agencies or other entities seeking NIST-compliant partners, including:

  • Carefully planning cloud computing solutions’ security and privacy aspects before engaging them.
  • Understanding the public cloud computing environment offered by the cloud provider.
  • Ensuring that a cloud computing solution satisfies organizational security and privacy requirements.
  • Ensuring that the client-side computing environment meets organizational security and privacy requirements for cloud computing.
  • Maintaining accountability over the privacy and security of data and applications implemented and deployed in public cloud computing environments.

NIST SP 800-171

NIST SP 800-171, “Protecting Controlled Unclassified Information in Nonfederal Systems,” is especially important and relevant for SPs or other providers that handle sensitive information on behalf of the federal government. Protecting controlled unclassified information (CUI) in nonfederal systems or organizations is paramount to federal agencies. This special publication recommends basic security requirements for protecting the confidentiality of CUI, while additional enhanced security requirements are provided in the supplemental SP 800-172.

Join the Coalition of Secure Cyber Defenders

Are you an SP interested in doing more business with state or local governments and public universities? Preparing RFPs is a time-consuming commitment with no assurances they’ll lead to business opportunities, and many smaller or medium-sized providers often (incorrectly) assume they won’t be the most qualified applicants anyway.

Joining RAMPxchange represents a significant competitive advantage. Contact us to learn more about RAMPxchange and join the growing coalition of stakeholders dedicated to improving the nation’s cybersecurity posture for a safe and prosperous future.