cloud security

Cloud security challenges and best practices

Information security is of paramount concern for any organization with digital infrastructure. When that infrastructure exists in the cloud, the challenge of maintaining a strong security posture grows exponentially.

Have your engineering teams deployed cloud-native security tooling with purpose-built policies and personnel to help support cloud-focused architecture? Or have they tried to force legacy tools and security thinking on top of your cloud environment? If it’s the latter, your cloud environment is simply not adequately secured and is at high risk for compromise.

Learning what cloud security is, the unique challenges it presents, and cloud security best practices—including the tools to help meet those challenges—will help empower your organization to make measurable improvements to its security stance.

What Is Cloud Security?

Cloud security is all of the facets of information security — including software, policies, processes, staff, and infrastructure — designed specifically to be applied to the unique challenges and requirements of cloud architecture.

Cloud-hosted infrastructure introduces new security concerns into the threat model that differ significantly from those in the past. . Cloud security necessarily asks organizations to form a deeper understanding of their security obligations in a shared responsibility model, as well as to be conscientious of the increased attack surface brought on by the general public visibility of most cloud-provisioned resources.

Although cloud security requires an updated approach, the core tenets of classical information security still apply. Organizations are ultimately bound by a need for their critical information to retain confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Understanding the specific challenges of cloud security is key to achieving this triad.

Key Challenges of Cloud Security

Cloud security works differently than standard security, primarily as a result of the shared responsibility model.

While each cloud provider maintains its own unique definition of shared responsibility, they all share the same primary concept: both the provider and customer share responsibility in maintaining a strong security posture throughout their infrastructure.

Cloud providers own the security for the underlying physical infrastructure, software, and networking components. Customers own the security of their provisioned resources, including computing resources, storage, and networking. Unlike most traditional infrastructure, customer-provisioned cloud infrastructure is almost always entirely virtual, and lacks a well-defined network boundary.

Securing Legacy Systems vs. Cloud

The lack of a true network boundary underscores the different threat model a cloud environment presents. In legacy infrastructure, firewalls and physical network topology created a clear distinction between the inside and the outside of a network. Making interior resources available to external traffic typically required explicit configuration to network devices—including the firewall—and depended on specific routing topology.

cloud security transitions to cloud native application security

In contrast, most cloud resources are publicly available as soon as they are provisioned. Those that aren’t can typically be configured to be so with minimal configuration or a simple UI selection. In order to maintain a secure posture, a zero-trust policy must be adopted. Engineering teams should assume any node is a potentially compromised target and enforce authentication and encryption on any communication attempts, regardless of their location in the network architecture.

The Agile Methodology

In typical cloud environments, software development tends to follow the agile methodology. Feature iteration happens quickly, and as a consequence, the cadence of software deployment tends to be fast. Agile fits into the larger cultural concept of DevOps, and more recently DevSecOps. Maintaining a high deployment velocity means that security tools and objectives have to be adaptable to a dynamic and rapidly changing environment. Cloud security tools should be proactive and should be able to cover the entire software development life cycle (SDLC) end to end.

Modern Solutions for Cloud Security

Legacy security tools and software were developed in an entirely different context than that of the modern cloud. Changes to the software environment were infrequent, with software development and releases occuring at much longer intervals, such as what occurs during waterfall development. Internal networks were clearly delineated from external ones, and the scale of public-facing infrastructure was much smaller. These tools could provide adequate protection for end-user workstations and traditional servers. The cloud security model introduces concepts and workloads that were not even conceived of when these tools were developed.

Secure Software Development Life Cycle

To start with, organizations have to think differently about how they design, develop, and deploy applications and cloud native application security. Applying the methodologies of DevSecOps to the SDLC gives rise to the secure software development life cycle (SSDLC). Catching defects, bugs, and vulnerabilities in software early is critical, since the cost to remediate them grows exponentially as they progress from design to implementation and production.

In high-performing DevOps cultures, deploys happen frequently, further multiplying the potential costs of bugs or vulnerabilities that are not detected early. Being able to integrate DevSecOps-focused automation into DevOps tooling like CI/CD means that SSDLC objectives can be achieved automatically. No longer are development teams able to wait on long feedback cycles from security teams to proceed with feature work:

Automation means that developers are empowered to own and achieve their application security objectives.

Container Workload Security

It isn’t just about focusing on the development life cycle either. The type of applications and workloads that run in the cloud have evolved significantly from the days of workstations and bare-metal servers. Web applications are one of the preferred software distribution methods, and containers have become one of the most popular workloads for running them. Beyond just containers, orchestration tools like Kubernetes give organizations powerful tools to scale their applications, but introduce additional complexity and security concerns.

Containers provide another example of the newer cloud security challenges that have no real parallel in legacy architectures. Containers such as those that run on the Docker engine are often built using base images sourced from third-party public repositories. Those base images may be out of date or actually compromised versions of legitimate images, uploaded by malicious actors.

These kinds of compromises highlight the need for security tools that work against the entire development life cycle and toolchain: Discovering a vulnerability like this in production means an organization has already been compromised. Companies like Snyk have actually partnered with Docker to help improve the security of public image repositories, providing scanning and image certification.

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Cloud Security Is Different, So Bring the Right Tools for the Job

Cloud security brings a new set of challenges that some organizations may not be prepared to confront. To say it’s important to have the right tools for the job is cliché, but never is it more appropriate than when talking about information security. The difference between secure and insecure could mean compromised customer data and millions of dollars in fines, so it’s important to choose wisely.

Having a solid cloud security model means an organization is using tools created specifically to protect dynamic, fast-moving application environments composed of cutting-edge containerized workloads. The attack surface is broad and shifting, so effective security that addresses cloud security concerns means leaning on DevSecOps and automation tooling to monitor and protect the entire development life cycle.

Organizations should move on from legacy software tools and consider modern security platforms like Snyk to build cloud-native applications fast and securely.

Alyssa Miller Headshot
December 22, 2020
| By Alyssa Miller