By: IBM Cloud Education

This guide looks at the concepts and components of cloud security and how businesses can apply them to create a secure and sustainable cloud computing environment.

What is cloud security?

Cloud security refers to an array of policies, technological procedures, services, and solutions designed to support safe functionality when building, deploying, and managing cloud-based applications and associated data. Whether operating in public, private, or hybrid cloud environments, cloud security creates and maintains preventative strategies and actions to combat any threat to networked systems and applications.

As IT managers know, security is a critical component to successful cloud adoption, and enterprises need to put adequate countermeasures in place when fending off increasingly complex attacks. However, cloud security is much more than a list of defensive protocols put in place to restrict network usage. Rather, it’s designed to create greater cloud agility and facilitate organizational growth while securing business applications.

Given the agility in which cloud applications are being developed, the traditional operational processes are moving toward more of an integrated development-security-operational (DevSecOps) process, with a security-first mindset.

In the following video, Nataraj Nagaratnam gives a closer look at cloud security:

Risks and threats

Today, cloud computing is a very approachable topic for both small and large enterprises alike. However, while cloud computing affords businesses near-limitless opportunities for scale and sustainability, it also comes with risks. Establishing successful cloud security processes is about understanding the common threats experienced by businesses operating in the cloud. These threats originate from both inside and outside sources and vary in severity and complexity.

The following are some common cloud security threats:

  • Data breaches: With so many organizations now operating in cloud-based environments, information accessibility has never been higher. As enterprises expand their digital footprint, cybercriminals can locate new access points to exploit, gaining access to private records and other sensitive data.
  • Malware injections: Malware injection is a common risk. Attackers upload these malicious scripts of code to a cloud server that hosts various applications and services. Successfully deployed, these scripts can cause any number of security issues to enterprises operating on those same servers.
  • Regulatory compliance: Fines and penalties for regulatory non-compliance can be steep. The cloud shared-responsibility model for security (see below)—where the cloud provider is responsible for the security of the cloud and the cloud customer is responsible for security in the cloud—must be properly and diligently managed to demonstrate and maintain compliance.
  • Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS): DDoS attacks can prevent users or customers from accessing mission-critical data and applications, which often causes significant or even irreparable financial damage to the business. See the following video for more information on DDoS attacks:
  • Malicious insiders: Current or former employees, business partners, contractors, or anyone who has had allowed access to systems or networks in the past could be considered an insider threat if they intentionally abuse their access permissions.
  • Advanced persistent threats (APTs): APTs are a form of cyber attack where an intruder or group of intruders successfully infiltrate a system and remain undetected for an extended period. These stealthy attacks operate silently, leaving networks and systems intact so that the intruder can spy on business activity and steal sensitive data while avoiding the activation of defensive countermeasures.
  • Insecure APIs: Cloud service providers commonly use Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) as a way for customers to access and extract information from their cloud-based services. If not configured properly, these APIs can leak data and open the door for intrusions and attacks from outside sources.
  • Account hijacking: Stolen and compromised account login credentials are a common threat to cloud computing. Hackers use sophisticated tools and phishing schemes to hijack cloud accounts, impersonate authorized users, and gain access to sensitive business data.

Best practices

Prior to deploying any cloud-based service, be sure to recognize best practices every organization should follow when protecting their systems:

  • Shared-responsibility model: Operating applications and services in cloud environments demands understanding the shared accountabilities for data security and compliance. Generally, the cloud provider is responsible for the security of the cloud infrastructure and the customer is responsible for protecting its data within the cloud. But the devil is in the details, and it's vitally important to clearly define data ownership between private and public third parties when operating in the cloud and to deploy appropriate protection procedures accordingly.
  • Operations management: Establishing a collaborative interdepartmental culture is key to planning and executing effective cloud security initiatives. Proper communication and clear, understandable processes between IT, Operations, and security teams will ensure seamless cloud integrations that are secure and sustainable.
  • Building controls and processes: Cloud deployments are not created equal, and neither are the controls and processes put in place to keep them secure. Proactive planning of your controls and processes will not only help you build the right tools and solutions from the outset but will also ensure your teams stay focused when managing and maintaining your cloud security posture.
  • Data encryption: Data encryption is a must for enterprises using multilayer cloud integrations and for ensuring your data stays protected while at rest, in transit, and when in use. Organizations need to maintain full control over their encryption keys and hardware security modules, ensuring a constant state of hardened network security across all endpoints.
  • User identity and access management: IT administrators need to have a full understanding and visibility of each level of network access and enforce access permissions accordingly. Identity and Access Management solutions enable IT teams to maintain control over all connections on a network and ensure appropriate authentication protocols are followed.
  • Security and compliance monitoring: To ensure long-term stability and enforcement of compliance standards and business continuity, enterprises need to adopt the right tools and processes. This begins with understanding all regulatory compliance standards applicable to your industry and setting up active monitoring of all connected systems and cloud-based services to maintain visibility of all data exchanges between public, private, and hybrid cloud environments. Depending on the scale of your enterprise, this may also include incorporating SIEM (security information and event management) solutions to regularly collect and audit data access logs while looking for noncompliant activity.

Cloud security framework

A cloud security framework provides a list of key functions necessary to manage cybersecurity-related risks in a cloud-based environment. This includes referencing security standards and guidelines put in place to list specific requirements when identifying and responding to network threats.

The NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) designed a policy framework that many companies follow when establishing their own cloud security infrastructures. This framework has five critical pillars:

  • Identify: Understand organizational requirements and complete security risk assessments.
  • Protect: Implement safeguards to ensure your infrastructure can self-sustain during an attack.
  • Detect: Deploy solutions to monitor networks and identify security-related events.
  • Respond: Launch countermeasures to combat potential or active threats to business security.
  • Recover: Develop and activate necessary procedures to restore system capabilities and network services in the event of a disruption.

Each of these pillars helps define actionable areas of cloud security an organization should prioritize and provides a solid foundation for your cloud security architecture.

Architecture

In connection with a cloud security framework, an architecture gives you a model with both written and visual references on how to properly configure your secure cloud development, deployment, and operations.

When migrating workloads to the cloud, a security architecture will clearly define how an organization should do the following:

  1. Identify its users and manage their access.
  2. Protect applications and data, with appropriate security controls across network, data, and application access.
  3. Gain visibility and insights into security, compliance, and threat posture.
  4. Inject security-based principles into the development and operation of cloud-based services.
  5. Maintain strict security policies and governances to meet compliance standards.
  6. Establish physical infrastructure security precautions.

Capabilities and solutions

When adopting cloud, you can use a variety of capabilities and tools to build and meet your responsibilities to achieve better security for your cloud workloads, applications, and data. These tools can perform multiple functions and provide applications and services with the extra layer of protection they need to create a more secure computing environment.

These capabilities may span the following:

  • Network protection
  • Identity and access management
  • Data security
  • Workload protection, integrated with DevSecOps
  • Security posture and compliance management
  • Threat management

Cloud Security-as-a-Service (CSaaS)

These capabilities and solutions can be deployed as software, or consumed “as-a-service”: Cloud Security-as-a-Service.

For companies wishing to benefit from a more hands-off approach to cloud security, Cloud Security-as-a-Service (CSaaS) is an affordable way to minimize internal bandwidth expenditures by outsourcing cloud security processes to a managed service company.

A CSaaS model removes the need for businesses to develop and implement their own security strategies when operating in cloud environments. This can lead to significant cost savings when compared to the upfront expense of establishing your own security infrastructure and managing multiple administrative and IT staff members. Adopting a CSaaS model also allows organizations to benefit from a much more agile approach to security, letting them adapt and scale their operational needs faster and with more efficiency.

CSaaS models also offer a variety of full-scale solutions to help improve your cybersecurity posture, including the following:

  • Cloud monitoring solutions: Cloud monitoring solutions and platforms help security teams make better decisions about the integrity of their systems and help expose potentially dangerous inconsistencies in their cloud security processes. These tools give you better transparency into cloud activity and allow you to view, manage, and edit processes to meet compliance standards.
  • Network security services: CSaaS solutions provide a suite of network security services to help harden your applications and services. Firewalls and security groups provide instance-level security, letting you effectively manage traffic in multiple cloud networks, helping to avoid DDoS attacks and data theft. encryption key managers are other valuable network tools that allow you to generate and store data encryption keys in one secure cloud-based management solution.
  • Identity and access managers: Keeping your systems and networks secure all begins by strengthening compliance verification and user validation. Identity and access managers help administrators take back control of their access management, mitigating risks associated with compromised login credentials and unauthorized system access. Certificate managers are also helpful tools that help administrators quickly detect and manage SSL/TLS certificates currently in use while helping them to configure access controls and avoid service disruptions.

Professional expertise and services

Cloud security services are offered by a wide variety of providers and give businesses opportunities to benefit from the skills and expertise of dedicated cloud security professionals. Services can range from consulting on cloud security strategies to providing a fully managed security solution by a team of IT specialists.

A major benefit of investing in cloud security services is the ability to utilize next-generation security technology in the deployment of your cloud-based services and applications. These technologies can range from intelligent log management systems to state-of-the-art intrusion detection and prevention management controls, allowing your business to stay ahead of new emerging threats in cloud computing environments.

Assessment checklist

Before deploying workloads and integrating systems in a cloud-based environment, be sure to assess your current business needs to ensure you’re able to create a secure and sustainable cloud computing business model. Below is a cloud security assessment checklist you can follow to help mitigate security risks:

  • Policy, standards, and guidelines: Develop documented security policies that clearly define mandatory actions to follow when implementing new cloud-based tools and services.
  • Data ownership: Be sure to understand the governing policies and standards of cloud providers and managed service companies to ensure they are in proper alignment with your own. Most importantly, recognize who is responsible for meeting compliance regulations.
  • Personnel access: Establish a policy explaining the steps required to evaluate new and current employees’ data access provisions and restrictions.
  • Resource provisioning: Create controls and procedures to manage resource allocations that can adapt to unforeseen network congestion or storage restrictions as needed.
  • Software assurance: Implement services or solutions such that they maintain the integrity of operating systems, applications, and other essential software at all times.
  • Log management: Establish automated or manual log management protocols in order to facilitate adequate data exchange transparency between users, networked devices, applications, tools, and services.
  • Network security: Adopt specific protocols to monitor for and avoid network disruptions. This is especially important for isolating DDoS events and data usage anomalies from both external and internal sources.
  • Compliance and evidence: Your business should be able to generate, prepare, and present thorough evidence of compliance.
  • Business continuity: Formalize and document a disaster recovery plan to avoid potential disruption in the event of unplanned outages or data breaches.

Cloud security and IBM Cloud

To learn more about establishing a secure cloud environment for your business, explore IBM’s suite of cloud security products and solutions.

Sign up for an IBMid and create your IBM Cloud account.

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