Cloud Native Security: Threats, Principles, and Practical Steps

Cloud native security is an approach to securing applications that are built and deployed in a cloud-native environment.

Rani Osnat
October 23, 2023

What Is Cloud Native Security? 

Cloud native security is an approach to securing applications that are built and deployed in a cloud native environment. It involves securing the software’s entire lifecycle—from the initial development stages to final deployment and ongoing operations. Cloud native security is not just about protecting the application at runtime, but also about ensuring the security of the codebase, the build and CI/CD infrastructure, and the software artifacts.

Cloud native security is not a single tool or technique, but rather a set of best practices and technologies designed to secure cloud native applications. It’s about understanding the unique challenges and opportunities that come with cloud native development, and applying the right security measures at each stage of the software lifecycle. This requires a deep understanding of the cloud native ecosystem, including its architecture, technologies, and workflows.

The primary goal of cloud native security is to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of applications and data in the cloud native environment. This is achieved by integrating security into every phase of the software lifecycle, from design and development to deployment and operations. This shift-left approach to security enables organizations to catch and fix security issues early in the software lifecycle, reducing the risk of security incidents and breaches.

In this article:

What Are the Key Areas to Secure in Cloud Native Environments? 

Securing a cloud native environment involves securing a wide range of components and processes. Here are the primary ones:

Software Supply Chain: Codebase, Build and CI/CD Infrastructure

The software supply chain is one of the most critical areas to secure in a cloud native environment. The codebase should be regularly scanned for vulnerabilities, and the build process should integrate multiple layers of automated security tests. The CI/CD infrastructure, which automates the process of building, testing, and deploying applications, should be tightly secured, because any breach can lead to catastrophic supply chain attacks affecting the organization’s customers.

Related content: Read our guide to software composition analysis

Software Artifacts and Container Images

Software artifacts and container images are another critical component to secure. These contain the actual code that runs in the cloud environment, and if compromised, can lead to serious security incidents. Even one vulnerable container image can lead to the deployment of thousands of vulnerable containers. Regular scanning of these artifacts and images for vulnerabilities and other risks is essential.

Open Source Components

Open source components are a common part of many cloud native applications. While these components can offer significant benefits, they can also pose security risks if not properly managed. This includes ensuring that all open source components are up to date, and that any known vulnerabilities have been addressed.

Multi-Cloud Infrastructure

As organizations increasingly adopt multi-cloud strategies, securing the multi-cloud infrastructure becomes a key focus area. This involves securing the network, storage, and compute resources across multiple cloud providers. This can be challenging because each cloud provider has its own architecture, uses different underlying technologies, and has different security options and configurations.


A microservices architecture breaks down the application into loosely coupled, independently deployable modules. While microservices offer agility and scalability, they also bring their own set of security concerns. For instance, each microservice may have its own data store and communicate over the network, increasing the number of potential attack vectors. 

Moreover, security policies and measures must be consistently enforced across all microservices, which can be a complex task. Thus, security solutions need to consider the independent and interconnected nature of microservices, ensuring consistent security policies, robust network segmentation, and secure communication between different services.

Container Orchestration Tools: Kubernetes

Kubernetes is the leading container orchestration platform used in cloud native deployments. It automates the deployment, scaling, and management of containerized applications. Kubernetes is a complex system with numerous resource definitions, multiple levels of permissions, and dynamic network policies. 

Misconfigurations in Kubernetes can lead to significant security risks, including unauthorized access to the Kubernetes API server, and the underlying nodes. Securing Kubernetes involves multiple aspects like Role-Based Access Control (RBAC), secure API access, pod security policies, and network segmentation within the cluster. Specialized Kubernetes security tools can offer automated checks and remediations to enforce best practices in the Kubernetes environment.

Running Workloads

Finally, securing running workloads is a critical aspect of cloud native security. This involves monitoring elements like containers, serverless functions, and storage services, ensuring they are securely configured, and that all applications running in the cloud native environment are free of vulnerabilities.

Security Challenges in Cloud Native Environments 

Cloud native environments, while offering a multitude of benefits like scalability, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness, also come with their unique set of security challenges. Let’s review some of the key challenges.

Increased Attack Surface

In a cloud native environment, there are numerous components, including containers, serverless functions, APIs, and microservices, each of which could potentially be exploited by attackers. This increase in the attack surface arises from the sheer number of elements involved in a cloud native application, each with its own unique risks.

As these components are often interconnected, a breach in one could lead to a compromise in others. This increased complexity requires a more robust security strategy, one that can identify and address vulnerabilities across the entire system.

Complexity and Dynamic Nature of Cloud Native Environments

The complexity and dynamic nature of cloud native environments present another significant security challenge. The ephemeral nature of containers and serverless functions, coupled with the use of microservices architecture, means that the environment is continually changing. This dynamism can make it difficult to maintain a clear and up-to-date understanding of the system’s architecture and its associated vulnerabilities.

Furthermore, traditional security tools and methodologies often fall short in these environments due to their inability to handle this level of complexity and dynamism. This necessitates the use of specialized tools and approaches that are specifically designed for cloud native environments.

Prevalence of Open Source

The prevalence of open source in cloud native environments also poses a unique security challenge. Many enterprise projects use thousands of open source components. Open source code is publicly available, making it easier for attackers to identify and exploit any weaknesses present. 

Moreover, many organizations lack the resources and expertise necessary to thoroughly vet and secure the open source components they use. This can leave them exposed to potential security threats.

High Volume of Alerts

Another challenge associated with cloud native security is the high volume of alerts. The complexity and scale of cloud native environments can generate a vast amount of security alerts, making it difficult for security teams to keep up. This can result in important alerts being overlooked or dismissed, potentially leading to security incidents.

Furthermore, the high volume of alerts can lead to alert fatigue, where security teams become desensitized to the constant stream of warnings, potentially missing vital signs of a security breach.

Fragmented Visibility and Missing Context

With the distributed nature of cloud native applications, gaining a comprehensive view of the system can be difficult. This lack of visibility can make it harder to identify and address potential security threats.

Missing context is also a common issue, as traditional security tools often fail to provide the necessary context around security alerts, which might need to be collected from different parts of the cloud native environment. This can make it difficult to determine the severity of an alert and decide on the appropriate response.

Principles of Cloud Native Security 

In light of the complex environment and security challenges we discussed above, let’s define the core principles of effective cloud native security.

1. Full Lifecycle Security

The principle of full lifecycle security is all about ensuring that security is an integral part of every phase of the application lifecycle. This includes the planning, development, deployment, and maintenance stages. 

An important part of full lifecycle security is the concept of “shift left”. By integrating security measures right from the start, potential vulnerabilities can be identified and rectified early on, minimizing the risk of security breaches down the line.

In the planning phase, this means incorporating security considerations into the architectural design of the application. During the development stage, it involves implementing secure coding practices and conducting regular security testing and vulnerability scanning. Post-deployment, it requires continuous monitoring and updating of security measures to address evolving threats.

2. Prevention at the Build Stage

One of the most effective ways to secure cloud native workloads is to prevent vulnerabilities from creeping into the application in the first place. This is where prevention at the build stage comes in. By implementing security checks and controls during the development process, potential security loopholes can be identified and fixed before the application goes live.

This involves practices such as static code analysis, where the application code is scanned for potential vulnerabilities, and dynamic testing, where the application is tested in a staging environment to identify any security issues.

3. Enforcing Immutability

Immutability is a fundamental principle in cloud native security. It refers to the concept that once a component of an application is deployed, it cannot be changed. Instead, any updates or modifications are made by deploying a new version of the component. This approach helps to minimize the potential attack surface and reduce the risk of unauthorized changes.

By enforcing immutability, teams can ensure that their applications remain consistent and stable, reducing the likelihood of errors and security vulnerabilities. This approach also simplifies the process of managing and updating applications, as each version of a component is a self-contained entity that can be independently tested and validated.

4. Automating Security Measures

Automation is a key aspect of cloud native security. By automating security measures, teams can ensure that they are consistently applied across all applications and environments, reducing the risk of human error and improving the overall effectiveness of security controls.

This includes automating tasks such as vulnerability scanning, patch management, and incident response. For example, automated vulnerability scanning tools can continuously monitor applications for potential security issues, alerting the security team to any problems so they can be addressed promptly. Similarly, automated patch management systems can ensure that all applications are up-to-date with the latest security patches, reducing the risk of exploitation by malicious actors.

5. Applying Zero Trust and Least Privilege Principles

Finally, the principles of zero trust and least privilege are fundamental to cloud native security. Zero trust is the idea that no user, system, or service should be automatically trusted, regardless of their location or relationship with the organization. Instead, every access request should be verified and validated before access is granted.

On the other hand, the principle of least privilege means that users and systems should only be granted the minimum level of access necessary to perform their tasks. This helps to minimize the potential damage that can be caused if an account is compromised, as the attacker will have limited access to resources.

Implementing Cloud Native Security 

Here are the main steps involved in implementing cloud security in your organization:

Shift Left and Empower Developers

“Shifting left” refers to the practice of integrating security measures early in the development process, rather than waiting until the end. By doing so, developers can detect and fix vulnerabilities as they arise, rather than discovering them after the application is deployed.

Empowering developers plays a critical role in this strategy. By equipping them with the necessary tools and training, you can ensure that they are capable of identifying and mitigating security risks. This not only enhances the security of your applications but also reduces the burden on your security team, allowing them to focus on more complex threats.

Deploy Container Security Solutions

Container security solutions can perform multiple functions, from regular vulnerability scanning of container images, to enforcing network segmentation and Role-Based Access Control (RBAC), which minimize the risk of lateral movement, to real-time monitoring of container behavior. Runtime protection measures help in blocking unauthorized or suspicious activities. Security tools can also help test containerized applications for compliance with standards like the CIS Benchmarks, GDPR, or HIPAA.

In addition to these preventative measures, organizations must employ monitoring and logging mechanisms specifically designed for containerized environments. These tools help in tracking critical metrics and activities such as API calls and resource utilization, providing a holistic view of the security posture. By implementing a multi-faceted approach to container security, organizations can effectively reduce risks, enabling early detection and rapid response to any security threats that may arise.

Harden the Cloud Native Environment

Hardening the cloud native environment is a crucial step for enhancing security. This involves minimizing the attack surface by reducing unnecessary functionalities and access privileges, and configuring systems and services to operate securely by default. 

Hardening includes tasks like disabling unnecessary ports and services, implementing robust firewall rules, and ensuring proper logging and monitoring are in place. Because cloud native environments are inherently dynamic, automated tools are often employed to continuously check for drift from the hardened configurations, alerting administrators to any changes that could introduce vulnerabilities.

Deploy Configuration Management

Configuration management is the process of maintaining and managing the configuration of a system. In the context of cloud native security, it involves ensuring that your cloud environment and applications are configured in a secure manner. 

Because every component of a cloud native environment might have different configuration and security risks, and because workloads are highly dynamic, configuration management typically involves dedicated security solutions such as cloud security posture management (CSPM).

Use Encryption and Secrets Management

Encryption ensures that your data is unreadable to unauthorized users, while secrets management helps you manage and protect sensitive information, such as passwords, keys, and tokens.

It’s crucial to implement strong encryption protocols to protect your data, both at rest and in transit. Additionally, you should use a secrets management tool to securely store and manage your sensitive information.

Move Towards a Unified Platform: CNAPP

Finally, to implement cloud native security effectively, it’s beneficial to move towards a unified platform. CNAPP, or Cloud Native Application Protection Platform, is a comprehensive solution that brings together several cloud native security tools:

  • Container scanning, infrastructure-as-code (IaC) scanning, and vulnerability scanning
  • Cloud infrastructure entitlement management (CIEM)
  • Cloud security posture management (CSPM)
  • Cloud workload protection (CWPP) and runtime configuration scanning

By using a unified platform, you can manage your security measures more efficiently, ensuring that nothing slips through the cracks. Additionally, a unified platform can provide a holistic view of your security posture, making it easier to detect and respond to threats.

CNAPP with Aqua Security

Aqua Security enables organizations to unify cloud native application protection and detect, prioritize, and reduce risks across every phase of their software development life cycle.

The Aqua Cloud Native Security Platform is a Cloud Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP) solution that secures your cloud native applications from day one and protects them in real time. With its fully integrated set of security and compliance capabilities, you can discover, assess, prioritize, and reduce risk in minutes across the full software development life cycle while automating prevention, detection, and response.

Rani Osnat
Rani is the SVP of Strategy at Aqua. Rani has worked in enterprise software companies more than 25 years, spanning project management, product management and marketing, including a decade as VP of marketing for innovative startups in the cyber-security and cloud arenas. Previously Rani was also a management consultant in the London office of Booz & Co. He holds an MBA from INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. Rani is an avid wine geek, and a slightly less avid painter and electronic music composer.