What is Cloud Security? 2024 Updated Guide

As companies increasingly make the move to the cloud, cloud security – which refers to the set of tools, processes, and techniques that organizations employ to protect their data and applications in cloud environments – becomes a vital part of their cybersecurity strategy. 

Complex, multi-cloud environments are difficult to monitor and secure, and cloud-focused development practices introduce new security risks and attack vectors. As cloud infrastructures are entrusted with more sensitive data and business-critical applications, companies need to have strategies and tools in place to manage the cybersecurity risks associated with these rapidly-evolving environments.

The Importance of Cloud Security

Companies are making significant investments in their cloud infrastructure and moving sensitive data and vital applications to these cloud environments. However, cloud infrastructure is uniquely vulnerable to attacks due to various factors, including its direct accessibility from the public Internet and an organization’s lack of full control over its cloud infrastructure.

Cloud security helps an organization to address these security risks and take full advantage of their cloud environments. By implementing cloud security architectures that can be centrally monitored and managed, security teams gain vital visibility into distributed cloud architectures and the ability to more quickly and accurately detect and respond to potential threats.

How Does Cloud Security Work?

Cloud security is managed under the shared responsibility model, which describes the breakdown of ownership and control between the cloud provider and the cloud customer. This exact breakdown depends on the cloud service model in use (PaaS, IaaS, or SaaS).

The cloud provider is responsible for the security of their own systems and the underlying infrastructure they provide to their customers. However, at the point in the infrastructure stack where a cloud customer takes over control, they also assume responsibility for their own security. For example, cloud customers are responsible for their data and properly configuring their cloud-based systems. Depending on the cloud model in use, they may be accountable for securing virtual machines and virtual network infrastructure.

Common Challenges in Cloud Security

For many organizations, cloud security can be challenging at first. Cloud environments differ significantly from on-prem environments, and understanding the cloud shared responsibility model is only the first step toward implementing an effective cloud security program. These are some of the most common challenges that companies face when working to secure their cloud environments.

Expansive, Accessible Attack Surface

Many organizations have multi-cloud infrastructures that span multiple service provider environments. These environments are also accessible via the public Internet. This combination creates a large, easily accessible attack surface for attackers. 

Cybercriminals will scan an organization’s cloud infrastructure for vulnerabilities, configuration errors, and other issues and use these attack vectors to access corporate data and environments.

Complex, Distributed Infrastructure

Corporate IT infrastructures span on-prem and cloud-based environments. Additionally, the majority of cloud users have multi-cloud deployments, meaning that their corporate WANs span multiple providers’ environments.

This complex IT environment means that security teams must manage diverse environments and numerous data flows traveling between different locations. This grows increasingly challenging as cloud environments expand, and the move to the cloud raises the stakes of poor cloud security.

Limited Visibility and Control

In the cloud, an organization outsources the management of part of its infrastructure stack to a third-party provider. Depending on the service model, the company has access to, control over, and responsibility for various infrastructure layers, as defined by the cloud shared responsibility model.

Since a cloud customer doesn’t own the underlying infrastructure, they often can’t deploy the same security controls and solutions that are common in on-prem data centers. 

As a result, cloud customers’ visibility and control are often limited to vendor-provided or cloud-compatible tools, making it more difficult to monitor and manage the corporate cloud environment.

Dissolving Perimeter

Traditionally, most companies’ security strategies were based on a perimeter-centric model. Security solutions were deployed at the network perimeter to keep threats out and sensitive data in. By default, anything inside the perimeter was trusted, while outsiders were viewed as potential threats. This model no longer works as companies move their infrastructure to the cloud. Cloud environments are outside the traditional perimeter and involve infrastructure owned by and shared with third parties. 

As a result, security strategies and tools built using the perimeter-centric security model are no longer applicable, and trying to impose an outdated model on modern, distributed corporate networks often forces a tradeoff between network performance and security.

Shadow IT

The term shadow IT refers to unauthorized systems that users connect to business networks or use for business purposes. For example, a user may use unauthorized cloud applications and storage to manage and process sensitive business data. However, these unauthorized and unmanaged applications create security risks because they are not managed by the IT and security teams, and are unlikely to comply with corporate security policies.

Cloud infrastructure dramatically increases an organization’s potential risk of shadow IT. Cloud platforms and solutions are designed to be easy to set up and use, and the average user can easily open a cloud storage account or spin up a virtual machine in the cloud. If corporate data and applications are moved to unauthorized and/or unknown cloud services, the security team will lose visibility into them, and configuration errors and other security flaws could leave them vulnerable to breaches.

Security Misconfigurations

In the cloud, customers often manage their security posture by setting vendor-provided security controls. Often, these configuration settings and controls are specific to a particular cloud environment, meaning that multi-cloud infrastructure includes several sets of vendor-specific controls to manage.

Cloud customers may lack familiarity with cloud configurations and security controls, making misconfigurations common and dangerous. Multi-cloud environments exacerbate this problem and increase the complexity of enforcing consistent security policies across an organization’s entire IT infrastructure, increasing the probability that misconfigurations will introduce exploitable security gaps.

Account Security and Access Management

Account security is always a challenge for organizations. Poor password security practices, phishing attacks, excessive permissions, and the increased accessibility of corporate systems due to remote work all contribute to this problem.

The cloud presents a perfect opportunity for attackers to exploit account security and access management vulnerabilities. The rise of cloud-based solutions means that employees are storing more data in the cloud and managing numerous SaaS accounts. Also, employees granted excessive permissions on cloud services may inadvertently weaken the security of cloud environments, or their accounts can be exploited in attacks against an organization’s cloud infrastructure.

Cloud-Native Application Security

Cloud environments incentivize the use of microservices, containers, serverless, and other cloud-native applications.

However, while developers may have embraced the capabilities of the cloud, security may not be keeping up. All of these new technologies introduce new security challenges and potential attack vectors. As companies adopt more cloud-native solutions, security teams will struggle to achieve the visibility and control that they need to keep abreast of their evolving threat landscape.

Compliance Challenges

Most organizations are subject to numerous regulations, and these responsibilities don’t go away when the company’s infrastructure is moved to the cloud. Companies moving regulated data and applications to cloud environments still need to be able to demonstrate compliance with applicable regulations.

The limited visibility and control over cloud environments and the nature of cloud-native applications can make achieving and demonstrating compliance more difficult than in on-prem, company-owned environments. 

Cloud compliance requires relying on the cloud provider to remain compliant and provide access to the tools and data needed to maintain and prove compliance. Additionally, cloud-native applications,which can be ephemeral, are difficult to monitor, secure, and track for compliance purposes.

Best Practices of Cloud Security

Cloud security can be complicated due to the complexity of cloud environments and the wide range of potential threats that an organization can face. The following best practices can help to reduce an organization’s threat exposure and improve visibility and security in cloud environments.

Implement Microsegmentation and Granular Security Management

The cloud lacks the traditional perimeter that defined security for on-prem environments. Cloud infrastructure is outside the perimeter, and data flows between on-prem and cloud environments, and between different multi-cloud locations exist outside the controls of the organization. 

Effective security visibility and management in the cloud requires shrinking the traditional perimeter. Instead of securing the network as a whole, microsegmentation should be used to monitor and secure network traffic to individual applications. This not only enables an organization to see and manage how a particular application is being used, it also provides protection against lateral movement from a compromised system to the rest of an organization’s IT infrastructure.

Secure East-West Data Flows

In a traditional data center, east-west data flows were largely inside an organization’s security perimeter. However, in the cloud, these data flows travel over an untrusted infrastructure and move between on-prem, cloud-based, or multiple cloud environments.

If corporate traffic is flowing over the public Internet, it should be protected against eavesdropping and inspected for potentially malicious content. East-west data flows should be encrypted, and the visibility and control provided by microsegmentation should be used to inspect traffic and block attempted exploits or data exfiltration before they reach their intended destination.

Enhance Account Security and Secure Remote Access

All access to cloud environments is remote access, whether it comes from the corporate headquarters or an employee’s home office. By making corporate applications and data accessible via the public Internet, an organization increases the ease and impact of account takeover attacks (ATOs).

Companies should implement account security best practices in the cloud and throughout their IT infrastructure. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) and single sign-on (SSO) should be used to make account takeover more difficult and provide visibility into access attempts. Users, applications, systems, and other entities should be granted least privilege access, allowing them only the rights and visibility needed to perform their jobs.

Manage Access to Cloud Data

As companies move data to the cloud, they expose it to a range of potential security risks. Flaws in the VM isolation used by cloud providers may enable data leakage in multitenant environments. Weak cloud access controls may permit an unauthorized user to access sensitive files. Insecure disposal of hard drives by a cloud provider could leak sensitive information.

If an organization is storing sensitive data in public cloud environments, it should take steps to manage access to this data. Encrypting data at rest and in transit dramatically reduces the risk of unauthorized access. Encryption keys should be stored in a hardware security module (HSM) and have strict access controls restricting access to them.

Deploy Cloud-Specific AppSec Solutions

Cloud environments encourage the development of software designed to take advantage of its capabilities. Companies are increasingly turning to cloud-native architectures to leverage cloud scalability and flexibility.

Security tools and processes designed for on-prem environments will not effectively secure these cloud-native applications. Traditional security tools lack the crucial visibility into cloud-native applications or will rely on agents that are ineffective for ephemeral applications. 

Web security focused on traditional web applications may miss vulnerabilities specific to the application programming interfaces (APIs) that proliferate in a microservice architecture. Securing cloud environments requires application security (AppSec) solutions tailored to the unique infrastructure of the cloud and the solutions that are deployed within it.

Enforce Consistent Security Policies

Configuration and policy management are essential in cloud environments and often involve configuring provider-specific settings. With multi-cloud environments, this requires configurations for multiple providers and results in inconsistent configurations across on-prem and multiple cloud environments.

Inconsistent security policies can create vulnerabilities where attackers target the weakest link. To ensure that security policies are consistent across all of the corporate WAN, organizations should use configuration management solutions that integrate with various platforms and enable configurations and policies to be monitored and managed from a single, centralized platform.

Automate When Possible

One of the main advantages of cloud environments is their flexibility and scalability. With cloud infrastructures, it’s easy to spin up additional resources or expand an organization’s cloud footprint to new provider platforms.

However, the speed of change in the cloud can mean that the security teams’ responsibilities will quickly outpace their capabilities. The strategic use of automation and AI can help with this by enabling security personnel to roll out changes at scale or by focusing their attention on configuration settings, events, or alerts that are most likely to indicate a true threat to the organization. Also, by enabling configuration updates or other rapid remediation actions, automation reduces the attacker’s window of opportunity to exploit vulnerabilities, thus reducing the risk to the organization’s environment.

Educate Employees

Often, the most significant threats to an organization’s cloud security are posed by its own employees. Something as simple as sharing cloud links to documents can result in the breach of sensitive corporate data.

Often, lack of awareness, not malice, causes internal threats. Educating employees about potential cloud security threats, best practices, and corporate policies can help them to avoid these mistakes and respond appropriately to potential threats.

The move to the cloud represents a major transformation in companies’ IT environments. This change is ongoing, and it has a significant impact on corporate cybersecurity programs as well. 

Zero Trust for the Cloud

The zero trust security model was designed to address the limitations of the traditional, perimeter-focused security model. Zero Trust dictates that you trust no one, and every access request is interrogated, authenticated, and continuously validated. Least-privilege access controls are used to manage access, ensuring that users can only access resources that they have a legitimate business need for.

Many organizations are transitioning to a zero-trust security strategy. As they do so, their cloud environments and solutions are a core part of that transition. Zero-trust network access (ZTNA) and similar security solutions are replacing legacy solutions such as virtual private networks (VPNs). With software-defined networking (SDN) solutions, companies can effectively implement micro-segmentation and the granular access control needed for effective zero trust security.

Supplementing Provided Security Tools with Third-Party Solutions

Most major cloud providers offer built-in security tools and solutions for their cloud environments. These solutions provide a reasonable level of visibility and control over cloud environments, enabling customers to secure their cloud-based solutions.

However, these solutions are provider-specific and may not provide the level of security that enterprises need or that companies have deployed in their on-prem environments. Organizations are increasingly augmenting these vendor-provided solutions with third-party tools designed to make security management in multi-cloud environments easier and more effective.

Security Convergence for Efficient, Effective Security

Security teams often suffer from alert fatigue. With multiple point solutions creating numerous alerts and events for security analysts to weed through, this results in missed detections and delayed threat responses. Additionally, managing multiple dashboards reduces security efficiency and increases the complexity of maintaining a consistent security posture across the entire environment.

The adoption of cloud infrastructure only exacerbates this problem. So, many companies are focusing on security convergence as they transition to multi-cloud environments. Security platforms that provide a range of capabilities in a single solution and that work for both on-prem and cloud-based environments simplify, streamline, and enhance security efforts.

Cato Networks and Cloud Security

Securing cloud environments can be a complex problem, especially in multi-cloud environments. Converged security solutions simplifies security architectures. Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) provides converged security designed for the cloud. It combines Secure Service Edge (SSE) with SD-WAN capabilities in a single, cloud-native solution.
Cato Networks is a pioneer in the SASE space, and its managed SASE network is supported by dedicated Tier-1 links for enhanced performance and security. Learn more about enhancing your organization’s cloud security with Cato SASE Cloud.