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Cloud computing has become an essential strategy for organizations looking to increase the flexibility and scalability of their operations, reduce their on-premises footprint, or minimize the cost of running complex IT infrastructures.

However, while cloud workloads can in general be more secure than legacy systems, they are still subject to threats from inside and outside of the organization.

In most cases, successful cloud breaches are the result of the cloud-service customer not understanding or properly implementing cloud security measures. To secure your cloud environment, it’s critical to understand what cloud security is in practice, how it works, and what role you play in protecting your assets.

What is cloud security, and why is it important?

Cloud security refers to the use of policies, procedures, controls, and technologies to safeguard cloud data, applications, and infrastructure from threats. These security measures work together to protect company data, ensure customer privacy, and support regulatory compliance. With the right tools and partners, organizations can configure a cybersecurity solution that meets the particular needs of their business.

Cybersecurity is now more important than ever, as most organizations have three-quarters of their employees working from home, three times as many as at the end of 2019.

The shift to remote work has revealed some significant security shortfalls. For instance, more than half of employees use their personal computers and mobile devices for work, even though three-out-of-five say their employer hasn’t provided tools to secure these devices. Further, cybercriminals have taken advantage of the situation — 63 percent of security pros say they’ve seen a rise in cyberattacks since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

At the same time, cyber threats are also growing in number, frequency, and sophistication. An attack may now unfold in multiple, incremental steps over months, making it appear as a series of isolated incidents rather than a coordinated effort. Criminals are getting smarter, targeting organizations they know haven’t implemented proper security measures, exploiting their vulnerabilities to collect handsome ransoms.

In this environment, effective cloud security is essential. It can prevent or mitigate the damage from a range of cyber threats, including DoS attacks, malware infections, vulnerability exploits, and insider threats. Without it, a single breach could shut down a business.

[Related Reading: How Secure is the Cloud?]

Why is cloud security different?

Security principles are largely the same whether your data sits on a computer hard drive, in an on-premises data center, or in the cloud. But the additional vectors, such as platform configurations and the dynamic nature of cloud environments, require new approaches to applying those principles.

With new technology, the firewall network perimeter used by most businesses has all but dissolved, as employees are able to access company data from any device or physical location. The result is an ever-increasing attack surface.

The adoption of distributed serverless architectures, function as a service models, container technology, and Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) implementations, have added even more complexity, further complicating security.

The cloud also changes the nature of data governance and stewardship. With an on-premises data center, the organization has complete control of the data, who can access it, how compliance regulations and industry standards are met, and so on. All these questions require different answers in the cloud. The organization (customer) is ultimately responsible for protecting their data, which means having definitive answers to these questions.

Firewalls, monitoring solutions, and other traditional security tools and practices weren’t designed to deal with these issues. Cloud security demands a new, cloud-native approach.

[Related Reading: On-Premises vs. Cloud: What’s the Difference?]

How does cloud security work?

Modern cloud workloads could potentially have several security risks. Data can be accidentally or intentionally leaked. Misconfigured privileges can leave an authorized user with too much access to sensitive information. Unauthorized users can gain access to company data. Attackers can take advantage of these things to slip in unnoticed and steal data or cripple the system.

Cloud security employs several technologies and techniques to mitigate these risks:

  • Data encryption: Encryption prevents data exposure by scrambling the data and making it unreadable without the decryption key. Effective cloud security strategies encrypt data both when it is moving from one point to another (in transit) and when it is stored (at rest). Taking advantage of cloud native services helps make this easier to both implement and track.
  • Cloud firewalls: Like traditional firewalls, cloud firewalls provide a boundary between malicious traffic and an organization’s network. However, they are hosted in the cloud rather than on-prem and are designed to work within online application environments. Cloud firewalls reduce the likelihood a cyberattack will disable an organization’s workload. As such, it is vital to understand how to use and configure these constructs.
  • Identity and access management (IAM): In the cloud, data access is determined by a user’s identity and access privileges. IAM is a method of managing users’ digital identities and related permissions. It allows IT administrators to create and modify user roles and track their activity, making it an effective way to deny access to unauthorized users and ensure authorized users don’t exceed their access privileges. The best process for creating/managing these is to use the concept of least privilege. This starts with a deny of everything and only adds privileges that are necessary for the user to perform appropriate tasks.
  • Security settings: Cloud servers have integrated security features and settings that prevent data from being exposed. However, these need to be configured properly to be effective and typically require the organization’s security team to work in conjunction with the cloud service provider.
  • Consistent cybersecurity policies: Cybersecurity policies explain the responsibilities and practices for protecting the organization’s IT infrastructure and data. Many company’s use a combination of on-premises data centers and the public cloud, and these policies ensure that security measures are consistent across environments to prevent creating weak links that can be exploited. Setting these policies is imperative for organization to have a good security posture. It may be beneficial to create a cloud center of excellence (COE) inside your organization to help create these policies.
  • Regular data backups: Backups provide a fail-safe when all other security measures fail. It is important that data stored in the cloud is backed up using native cloud services, another cloud, or an organization’s on-premises data center as failover to prevent business interruptions when the initial cloud service is compromised. It is equally important that there is a cadence identified to test the validity of the backed up data.

How does the cloud improve security?

In addition to the various technologies and procedures used to protect data in the cloud, cloud systems themselves increase the security of an organization’s IT assets due to a few inherent features:

  • There is a persistent myth that moving data offsite makes it less secure, but the opposite is true. Just as an office blocks outsiders’ physical access to legacy IT systems, physical security defenses also protect cloud systems. Cloud service providers’ data centers are often in unidentifiable buildings protected by high fences, barbed wire, guard patrols, and security cameras.
  • Moving data offsite also increases control over access to that data. With business-critical information stored in undisclosed locations, employees, vendors, and other parties can’t physically get ahold of it and misuse it.
  • Cloud service providers have dedicated teams of IT and security professionals with cloud-specific knowledge managing the security of their data centers. Their infrastructures are monitored at all times and they provide rapid failover, integrated backup, and disaster recovery. Most organizations don’t have the expertise or resources to provide the same level of security in-house.
  • Cloud service providers undergo annual audits to ensure the integrity of their security systems. Organizations’ legacy systems rarely undergo the same scrutiny and are difficult to upgrade to the latest security technologies.
  • Cloud platforms natively include centralized constructs that record all activity. This makes visibility, auditability and forensics easier than it typically is in an ‘on-premise’ environment.

Cloud security is a shared responsibility.

Cloud security providers have invested in robust security capabilities. These companies employ dedicated teams to secure their products and infrastructures. For their clients, taking on this undifferentiated heavy lifting is one of the most attractive features of the cloud.

However, organizations can’t just abdicate their security responsibilities when they adopt a cloud solution. Security in the cloud operates on the shared responsibility model. Developed by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and adopted by other cloud security providers, the model stipulates that the cloud service provider is responsible for the security of the cloud, and the customer is responsible for security in the cloud.

Under the shared responsibility model, most aspects of security are the exclusive responsibility of either the provider or the customer (some areas, such as compliance requirements, are shared by both parties). Though details may vary slightly depending on the provider, the areas of responsibility generally break down like this:

Provider’s responsibilities

Cloud service providers bear full responsibility for the security of their infrastructure. That includes the data center, physical hosts, network, and virtualization layer. They ensure their environment is free of cloud security vulnerabilities, prevent unauthorized physical access to the IT environment, and handle disaster and incident response.

Customer’s responsibilities

Simply put, customers are responsible for securing anything that is under their direct control. This includes their data, applications, operating environments, and all aspects of identity and access management. They’re also responsible for ensuring everyone in their organization follows basic security best practices.

Understanding the shared responsibility model is critical because history has shown the majority of cloud breaches are due to customer oversight rather than caused by the provider. Knowing exactly what responsibilities fall under the organization’s purview is key to ensuring a secure cloud environment.

The future of cloud security 

With the growing complexity of modern workloads and the rise of sophisticated attacks, an understanding of cloud security is crucial, but it’s also important to understand that no security investment can provide complete immunity from attacks.

This reality has pushed companies to give more attention to rapid detection of and response to threats to minimize their impact. Partnering with a Managed Detection and Response (MDR) provider is often the best way to introduce these capabilities into your current security practices.

By understanding what threats your organization is vulnerable to and how to respond effectively when you’re being actively targeted, you can mount a quicker, more effective response and mitigate the damage of a breach.

Jeremy Breland
About the Author
Jeremy Breland
Jeremy Breland is a Senior Sales Engineer at Alert Logic with 15+ years of professional experience in the IT industry. Throughout his various technical expert roles within small and large-scale business environments, Jeremy has developed, delivered, and supported reliable, scalable, and secure technology solutions. His specialties include Internet Technologies, Virtualization/Cloud, E-Commerce, and Technical Sales.

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