Application Security on the Cloud: Challenges and Technologies

Learn about the top 5 challenges of application security on the cloud, and technology solutions that can help, including CASB, CWPP, and CSPM.

What is Cloud Application Security?

The goal of the application security is to prevent common threats like code injections, supply chain attacks and session hijacking, to ensure application uptime, protect users and stop data theft. Application security involves the implementation of several security measures and tools that protect applications during the entire development lifecycle, including design, testing, and deployment.

Application security in the cloud differs from securing on-premises applications, and introduces new challenges, over and above traditional application security concerns. 

Cloud environments are distributed and shared by nature, and the cloud provider is typically responsible for the security and maintenance of the underlying infrastructure. Teams developing and operating cloud native applications must address security challenges including secure access and authorization across multiple devices and users, misconfiguration of cloud resources, securing data in transit, and more.

In this article, you will learn:

Top 5 Cloud Application Security Issues

Cloud native applications can be more difficult to secure than on-premise applications. Here are some of the top challenges facing application security on the cloud.

Related content: read our guide to cloud native infrastructure ›

Hypervisor and Shared Tenancy Vulnerabilities

Cloud infrastructure is characterized by sharing of hardware and software resources between multiple “tenants”, each of which can be a separate organization. 

Cloud provider infrastructure could have vulnerabilities, which can be exploited by advanced attackers. These vulnerabilities can be highly severe due to the central role of hypervisors in cloud systems. Cloud providers regularly scan hypervisor code, subject hypervisors to fuzz testing, and closely monitor hypervisor logs to prevent exploitation.

Another concern is potential points of weakness in the network, and imperfect logical isolation between tenants. This may allow attackers who compromise one tenant’s cloud environment to move laterally and gain access to other tenants.

Misconfiguration 

A common cause of cloud breaches is inadvertent configuration errors, oversights, or misconfiguration intentionally performed by malicious insiders. Cloud-based applications, cloud resources such as compute instances or storage buckets, and supporting systems such as access controls, secrets management, network policies and data encryption, are all at risk of misconfiguration. 

In many cases, applications may have the appropriate security controls, but operators or administrators can fail to implement them correctly—for example, failing to turn on authentication, or using default or weak passwords. 

There are several reasons misconfiguration is a major concern in cloud environments:

  • Cloud infrastructure is often, by default, exposed to public networks
  • It is easy to grant access, intentionally or accidentally, to external users and authorized parties
  • Teams can overlook security best practices for least privilege access if they are not consistently enforced
  • Multi-cloud deployments make security management more difficult, because each cloud has its own security controls and options
  • Customers may not have the tools in place to ensure visibility and control over cloud-based infrastructure

Many organizations are using cloud security posture management (CSPM) tools to identify and remediate security misconfigurations across their cloud environment (read more about CSPM below).

Learn more about cloud misconfiguration in our white papers:

Exposure of Secrets

Applications, scripts, automated tools, and other machine identities rely on privileged credentials to access other tools, applications, and data. These credentials are called “secrets”. The most common types of secrets are usernames and passwords, certificates, API keys, SSH keys, and private encryption keys. 

Secrets can unlock protected resources and sensitive information in tools, applications, containers, DevOps, and cloud-native environments. Once secrets are exposed, attackers or unauthorized users can gain access to protected services and resources, as well as sensitive information in tools, applications, or other resources.. 

Cyber attackers understand the value of secrets, and make special efforts to compromise them. The broader the scope of permissions and privilege associated with a credential, the more attackers can exploit exposure to move laterally between services, containers and hosts and further compromise the cloud environment.

The risk is particularly acute for hard-coded credentials that are not regularly rotated. These are often found in containerized applications, automated configuration management processes, and may be present in any integration point between business applications, in the form of API tokens. 

Unsecured APIs 

Cloud environments provide extensive APIs, which allow organizations to easily integrate services and automate application processes in the cloud. For this reason, unsecured APIs represent a major risk, because they can allow attackers to shut down resources, turn off security measures like encryption, and grant access to unauthorized parties. 

While all APIs are vulnerable to attack, there are special security concerns about cloud APIs, because they are commonly exposed to public networks, and cloud provider APIs are publicly documented and available to attackers.

Known and Unknown Vulnerabilities 

Modern software applications can have thousands of components and dependencies, many of them open source. Developers use libraries, frameworks and other software modules, often without testing them for security issues. Software with untested components may contain severe vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers. 

Often, supply chains for cloud native applications include third-party or open-source components, with vulnerabilities that have not yet been identified by security researchers – these are known as zero day vulnerabilities. In other cases, components may incorporate malware, or executables supporting processes like privilege escalation, incorporated by malicious actors. These risks can be addressed by ongoing vulnerability scanning of open source components and container images.

Related content: read our guide to microservices security

What Cloud Application Security Options Are Available?

Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB)

The downside of using cloud services is that you cannot gain access to all infrastructure layers. This means you do not have visibility or control over all of your assets. A CASB, which is a software component that enforces policies, helps solve this problem.

CASBs sit between the infrastructure of the cloud vendor and the cloud consumer, and enforce policies for access and data permissions. You can deploy CASBs in the cloud or on-premises or both, and enforce multiple types of policies. 

For example, you can enforce security policies such as authorization and authentication, encryption and tokenization, logging and credential mapping, as well as malware detection and prevention.

Cloud Workload Protection Platform (CWPP)

A majority of organizations make some use of the cloud, often combining on-premises and cloud resources. In addition, many organizations are trying to prevent vendor lock-in and minimize costs by leveraging more than one cloud offering, resulting in hybrid or multi-cloud environments.

Cloud Workload Protection Platforms (CWPPs) help organizations protect complex cloud environments by consistently securing and managing workloads across clouds. These tools centralize management and security policy definition, maintain visibility across environments, and often provide extended security controls. Common capabilities of CWPP systems include system integrity monitoring, vulnerability management, system hardening, and host-based segmentation. 

Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM)

To effectively protect multi-cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) environments – especially cloud-hosted Kubernetes for containerized applications – organizations require consolidated visibility and the ability to enforce consistent security and compliance controls. CSPM solutions help organizations by scanning cloud configuration settings and access controls, and continuously monitoring these settings and controls for cloud security risks. 

A CSPM can log, detect, and report cloud issues, such as cloud service configurations, security settings, compliance, and cloud governance. Additionally, CSPM tools offer capabilities such as monitoring and analytics, inventory and asset classification, as well as cost management and resource organization.

Cloud Infrastructure Entitlement Management (CIEM)

CIEM is a new category introduced by Gartner in the 2020 Cloud Security Hype Cycle. CIEM solutions enable implementation, enforcement and best practices for cloud provider Identity and Access Management (IAM) tools, which are becoming increasingly complex and dynamic. 

CIEM solutions provide organizations with identity and access governance controls—designed to reduce excessive cloud infrastructure entitlement and enforce least privilege access controls. They can also streamline controls for least-privileged access implemented across dynamic and distributed cloud environments.

Cloud-Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP)

CNAPP technology is another new category introduced by Gartner. This category comprises an integrated toolset – incorporating CSPM and CWPP – to provide full data and control plane visibility. The goal here is to holistically protect cloud-native applications, including infrastructure components like virtual machines (VMs), serverless functions, and containers. CNAPPs introduce visibility into the complex ecosystem of clouds, reduce complexities, and prevent siloed enforcement.

Cloud Application Security Best Practices

Discover and Assess Cloud Apps

Every application or workload you run on the cloud increases the attack surface and represents a potential point of entry for attackers. It is critical to maintain an inventory of all cloud applications used by your organization. 

Once you have a list of cloud applications, assess them by identifying their security features and known vulnerabilities, comparing them to compliance requirements and your security policies, prioritizing and remediating issues. Follow the same process for new applications deployed in the cloud.

Implement and Benchmark a Cloud Security Framework

Cloud security frameworks provide best practices and practical tips designed to help organizations manage security risks in cloud environments. For example the Center for Internet Security (CIS) provides security benchmarks with detailed best practices for all major cloud providers, including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, IBM Cloud, Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and Alibaba Cloud.

Cloud Security Architecture

To ensure your infrastructure is secure, you can design a cloud security architecture that outlines security configurations, policies, and privileges. Ideally, you should create this design before migrating to the cloud, and it should encompass all aspects, including development, operations, deployment, and upgrades. 

Your cloud security architecture should address several critical aspects of the infrastructure, including identity and access management, data protection, monitoring and visibility, threat detection, cloud governance, compliance with relevant regulations, and security measures set in place for physical components of the infrastructure.

Apply Cloud Governance Policies

Apply consistent policies ensuring governance and security across all cloud assets: 

  • Define how cloud systems should be hardened, including virtual machines, containers and repositories
  • Define which users are allowed to access which applications and enforce these restrictions with identity and access management (IAM) services
  • Enforce the use of strong authentication
  • Monitor usage of and access to applications, detect and respond to violations of policies

Application Security on the Cloud with Aqua Security

Aqua has taken a comprehensive approach to securing applications running in cloud service provider environments, enabling modern controls that leverage the cloud-native principles of immutability, microservices and portability. 

Aqua is recognized by industry analysts as a leading CNAPP provider. 

Using dynamic threat analysis, machine-learned behavioral whitelisting, integrity controls and nano-segmentation, in conjunction with vulnerability management and multi-cloud CSPM capabilities, Aqua protects applications in runtime using a zero trust model, with granular controls that accurately detect and stop attacks. 

Aqua unifies workload protection across VMs, containers, and serverless on any cloud, orchestrator, and operating system, including cloud VM Security, serverless security, granular user permissions control, and multiple integrations across the cloud native ecosystem.

Aqua’s capabilities for cloud application security include:

Vulnerability scanning:  Find known vulnerabilities, malware, embedded secrets, OSS licensing, configuration, and permissions issues and prioritize based on potential impact 

Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM): Continuously audit cloud accounts and services for security risks and auto-remediate misconfigurations 

Dynamic Threat Analysis: Detect and mitigate hidden malware and supply chain attacks in container images using a secure sandbox. 

Container Security: Use scan results to set policies for image deployment and prevent the use of unapproved images. Mitigate known vulnerabilities with Aqua vShield, preventing exploits with no code changes. Enforce container immutability by preventing drift against their originating images 

Kubernetes Security: Kubernetes Security Posture Management (KSPM) ensures ongoing secure configuration with built-in CIS benchmarks, least privilege RBAC, pen-testing, and pod deployment policies. 

Identity-based segmentation: Establish zero-trust networking between workloads of the same application identity