7 Dimensions of Cloud Security, Top 10 Risks and How to Defend

Learn about key cloud security challenges, discover the cloud solutions technology landscape, and learn best practices to secure your cloud

What is Cloud Security?

Cloud computing is becoming the default option for enterprise IT. 65% of IT decision makers say that cloud computing is the default option for new computing projects. At the same time, cloud security concerns are mounting, with 82% of all security breaches involving data stored in the cloud. In a recent survey, 27% of organizations have experienced a public cloud security incident

Cloud security consists of procedures and technology used to protect cloud systems and infrastructure against security risks and cyberattacks. In order to protect data and applications in the cloud from emerging and current threats, users must evaluate their current security measures, security best practices and compliance requirements, and develop new strategies appropriate to their specific  cloud environment. 

In this article:

Why Is Cloud Security Important?

Here are the primary reasons cloud security practices are critical for organizations transitioning to or using the cloud:

  • Data protection: Cloud platforms are becoming the de facto storage solution for many organizations. However, this makes it critical to protect cloud-based data stores. Cloud security aims to protect data from being accessed by unauthorized individuals, and mitigating risks such as data leakage, unauthorized access, and deletion.
  • Regulatory compliance: Many companies are required to comply with industry standards and government regulations. Non-compliance can result in fines, legal action, and a damaged reputation. Cloud security provides a framework for meeting compliance regulations, by maintaining integrity and confidentiality of the data, ensuring that sensitive information is stored and shared securely, and providing robust reporting and auditing tools.
  • Business continuity: By moving operations to the cloud and using cloud-based business continuity technologies, businesses can ensure their operations continue even in the face of a disaster. Cloud tools and technologies can help prevent data loss and downtime. Cloud services enable regular backups, disaster recovery, and seamless data restoration, protecting accessibility to data and workloads even when disaster strikes.

Cloud Security vs. Traditional Network Security

Cloud security and traditional network security differ fundamentally in their approach and the environments they protect. Traditional network security is designed to safeguard internal networks and systems. It focuses on securing the perimeter of the organization’s network, controlling access through firewalls, and managing internal network traffic to prevent unauthorized access and attacks.

In contrast, cloud security is designed for the dynamic and scalable nature of cloud computing environments. It not only includes securing data and applications that reside in the cloud but also involves a broader set of policies, technologies, and controls deployed to protect cloud-based systems and infrastructure. 

Another unique aspect of cloud environments is that they enable rapid scaling and provisioning of resources, requiring security measures that can automatically scale and adapt to changing configurations and workloads. Traditional security tools and practices, designed for static and well-defined network perimeters, often fall short in this dynamic and distributed environment.

How Cloud Security Works: The Shared Responsibility Model

Cloud security is based on the shared responsibility model. This means that both the cloud service provider (CSP) and the customer are accountable for different aspects of security. They must work together to ensure the comprehensive protection of data and applications in the cloud.

Generally speaking, the shared responsibility model defines that the cloud service provider is responsible for the security of the cloud, while the customer is responsible for security in the cloud. The CSP ensures that the infrastructure of the cloud is secure from threats, while the customer must ensure that their data and applications within the cloud are secure.

Cloud Service Provider Responsibilities

The CSP’s responsibilities typically include managing the security of the cloud platform, maintaining the physical security of data centers, managing network infrastructure, and handling system configuration. They also protect their systems against intrusion by implementing measures such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS), and encryption.

Furthermore, they ensure that their services are constantly available and resilient to disasters by implementing robust disaster recovery plans. They also need to provide their customers with the necessary tools and access controls to manage their own data and applications in the cloud.

Cloud Customer Responsibilities

Cloud customers are responsible for securing their data within the cloud. This includes managing and controlling user access to data and applications, encrypting sensitive data, and maintaining secure configuration for operating systems and applications.

Customers must also establish and enforce their own security policies, perform vulnerability assessments, and respond to incidents within their cloud environment. They need to ensure that they are using the cloud services securely and in compliance with relevant regulations.

Moreover, customers are responsible for understanding the privacy and compliance requirements of their specific industry and ensuring that their use of cloud services aligns with these requirements. This includes conducting regular audits and risk assessments to identify potential vulnerabilities or non-compliance issues.

What Needs to be Secured in the Cloud? 7 Dimensions of Cloud Security

1. Data

Data is the cornerstone of any business or service operating in the cloud. It includes everything from user information, company records, intellectual property, to transaction data. Securing this data is paramount because unauthorized access, data breaches, or loss can have severe consequences, including financial loss, legal implications, and damage to reputation. Data in the cloud can be exposed to threats such as credential theft, insider threats, and accidental exposure.

2. Identities

In cloud computing, identities refer to the unique information used to represent users, services, and applications that interact with cloud resources. Identity security is crucial in the cloud because it acts as the frontline defense against unauthorized access to data and resources. As organizations migrate to the cloud, managing identities becomes more complex due to the proliferation of users and services across multiple cloud platforms.

The basic tool for securing identities in the cloud is identity and access management (IAM). In addition, organizations should implement strong authentication and authorization mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA) and role-based access control (RBAC). It is also critical to perform continuous monitoring and management of permissions to ensure that they are granted according to the principle of least privilege.

3. Applications

Applications hosted in the cloud need to be secured against a wide array of attacks. This includes securing the application code, processes, and dependencies from vulnerabilities, such as injection attacks, broken authentication, and sensitive data exposure. Since applications in the cloud can be accessed globally, they are exposed to a larger attack surface. Ensuring application security involves implementing robust security measures at the development stage and maintaining them throughout the application lifecycle.

4. Networks 

Network security in the cloud encompasses the measures taken to protect the cloud infrastructure and its resources from unauthorized access and attacks over the network. This includes using secure, isolated networks such as virtual private clouds (VPC), and encrypting data in transit as well as at rest. 

With cloud services, network perimeters are no longer defined by physical locations, making traditional network security measures insufficient. Securing the network involves implementing controls to monitor and protect data as it moves across the cloud and between different services and users.

5. Infrastructure

Cloud infrastructure security involves protecting the underlying hardware and software components that support cloud services. This includes servers, storage systems, networking equipment, and the virtualization software that enables cloud computing. 

Threats to infrastructure security can come in the form of attacks on the virtualization layer, unauthorized access to physical servers, and exploitation of vulnerabilities in the infrastructure. Some aspects of infrastructure security, such as protecting hypervisors, are undertaken by cloud providers under the shared responsibility model. However, some aspects are the responsibility of cloud customers, such as virtual machine operations systems and configurations.

6. Endpoints 

Endpoint security refers to protecting the devices that access cloud services, such as computers, smartphones, and IoT devices. With the increasing use of personal devices to access cloud applications, securing these endpoints is crucial to prevent them from becoming gateways for attackers to access cloud resources. 

Endpoint security involves implementing measures such as antivirus software, firewalls, and device management policies to protect against malware, phishing attacks, and other threats.

7. Physical Security

Physical security of cloud infrastructure involves protecting the data centers and physical locations that house the cloud servers and hardware from unauthorized access, tampering, and other physical threats. This includes measures such as surveillance cameras, security personnel, access control systems, and environmental controls to prevent damage from fire, flood, or other disasters. This area of security is generally within the purview of cloud providers.

Top 10 Cloud Security Challenges and Risks

Cloud security raises major challenges for most security organizations. Here are some of the primary challenges you will need to deal with when securing cloud infrastructure.

1. Broad Attack Surface

A cloud environment can have hundreds or thousands of entities, which change on a daily basis. Entities are often short-lived and there is limited visibility over what is running, who has access to it, and how it is configured. 

In addition, there can be a huge variety of systems running in a cloud deployment, including compute instances, managed services, containers, serverless functions, and virtualized networks. Each of these has its own configuration options, security weaknesses, and best practices, and each represents a point of entry for attackers. 

Related content: read our guide to cloud infrastructure security ›

2. Unauthorized Access 

Cloud infrastructure is outside the corporate network perimeter, and can be directly accessed from the public internet. This makes cloud resources more accessible but also makes it much easier for attackers to connect to a system and gain access. It is a major challenge to ensure that all cloud resources have properly configured authentication, and that passwords for privileged roles are not shared or compromised. 

3. Lack of Visibility and Tracking

When employing an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) model, cloud providers assume full control over some aspects of the infrastructure layer, and customers have no access to it. This is even more true for platforms as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS). As a result, cloud customers find it difficult to visualize the environment, discover assets and monitor them effectively.

4. Ever-Changing Workloads

Cloud environments make it possible to provision and shut down assets in a dynamic manner, at high scale, and with velocity. Traditional security tools cannot enforce protection policies for continuously changing and transitory workloads

5. Malicious Insiders 

Malicious insiders could be users with ill intent who have privileges to access cloud resources, or benign users whose accounts were compromised by an attacker. In the cloud, it is even more difficult to prevent insider threats. Cloud-based infrastructure is accessible from the public internet, making it easier for attackers to leverage compromised accounts. Security misconfigurations can allow malicious users to escalate privileges across cloud deployments.

6. Insecure Interfaces/APIs

Cloud infrastructure uses APIs heavily for automation and integration between services and resources. These APIs tend to be well-documented, and this means they can be reverse-engineered by attackers. Attackers can use API documentation to exploit methods for gaining unauthorized access or exfiltrating data, if APIs have not been properly secured.

7. High Velocity DevOps Workflows

Many organizations are developing cloud systems using DevOps methods, with a rapid CI/CD development process. This makes it critical to build security controls into source code and deployment templates from the beginning of the development lifecycle. This approach, in which security shifts left in the process, from testing or deployment stages to early development, is known as DevSecOps.

8. Granular Privilege and Key Management

Administrators can create detailed roles for cloud users to grant other permissions that exceed their requirements and expectations. Inexperienced users can delete or save database resources. These permissions are usually granted to users who are unable to perform these operations. This major misconception poses a security risk at the application level.

9. Complex Environments

Hybrid and multicloud environments are gaining favor within many enterprises. Managing security in hybrid and multicloud deployments requires tools and methods that can operate seamlessly across on-premises deployments, branch office edge equipment, and public and private clouds.

Related content: read our guide to multi cloud security ›

10. Cloud Compliance and Governance

All major cloud providers comply with PCI 3.2, NIST 800-53, HIPAA, GDPR, and other recognized standards. Still, the customer remains responsible for making sure that their workloads and data processes are aligned with these standards. 

However, because the cloud environment offers limited visibility, compliance audits are extremely difficult without the use of specialized tools. Cloud compliance tools can perform automated, continuous compliance checks, and submit real-time alerts when they identify misconfigurations.

Defending Your Cloud: Cloud Security Solutions and Technologies 

Here are the primary security solutions used to secure cloud infrastructure:

Cloud Workload Protection Platforms (CWPP)

Cloud Workload Protection Platforms (CWPP) is an emerging technology that is designed to provide comprehensive security for workloads in the cloud. These platforms provide protection against common threats in the cloud environment, such as malware, data breaches, and unauthorized access.

CWPP solutions are designed to protect workloads across all types of cloud environments, including public, private, and hybrid clouds. They provide unified security management and automated compliance checks, significantly reducing the complexity of managing security in a multi-cloud environment.

Furthermore, CWPP solutions offer advanced features such as threat intelligence, behavioral analysis, and incident response, enabling organizations to detect and respond to threats more quickly and effectively.

Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM)

Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) is a category of cloud security solutions that identify and remediate risks in cloud configurations. CSPM solutions continuously monitor cloud environments and automatically remediate configuration issues that could potentially expose your organization to threats.

CSPM tools can also provide visibility into cloud assets, enabling organizations to better understand their cloud environments and the security risks associated with them. This allows for more effective risk management and aids in maintaining compliance with industry standards and regulations.

Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB)

Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASBs) serve as a security control point for cloud service applications and platforms, providing security policy enforcement. CASB solutions can provide visibility, data security, threat protection, and compliance for cloud services.

CASBs work by ensuring that network traffic between on-premises devices and the cloud provider complies with the organization’s security policies. They can provide a range of services such as monitoring for suspicious activities, enforcing security compliance policies, and protecting sensitive data from leakage.

Furthermore, CASBs can help organizations extend their security policies to cloud services, ensuring consistent security across both on-premises and cloud environments.

Cloud Infrastructure Entitlement Management (CIEM)

Cloud Infrastructure Entitlement Management (CIEM) is a newer category of cloud security tools that focuses on managing identities and entitlements in the cloud. CIEM solutions help organizations manage the complex and dynamic relationships between users, applications, and data in the cloud.

CIEM solutions do this by providing visibility into who has access to what resources in the cloud, identifying excessive permissions and unused identities, and enforcing least privilege policies. This helps to reduce the risk of insider threats and identity-based attacks, which are a growing concern in cloud environments.

Cloud Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP)

A Cloud Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP) is an integrated suite of security technologies designed to secure cloud-native applications throughout the development lifecycle and into production. According to Gartner, CNAPPs consolidate multiple security tools into a single platform, including CWPP, CSPM, CIEM, and vulnerability scanning. 

By integrating these solutions, CNAPPs provide comprehensive visibility and control over cloud resources and cloud-native applications. CNAPP solutions are particularly valuable in environments where DevOps practices are prevalent, as they support rapid application development and deployment without compromising security. They facilitate a “shift left” approach, where security is integrated early in the software development cycle, and provide continuous security assessment and protection throughout the application lifecycle.

Learn more in our detailed guide to cloud security solutions ›

Mitigating Cloud Security Risks: The Cloud Security Pillars

Follow these best practices to improve security for your cloud environments.

Perform Due Diligence

When using cloud services, software as a service (SaaS), or other development components, review security features and test resources for security, just like you would test your own systems. While software provided by cloud providers is typically of high quality and secure, it is very common to use third-party software on the cloud, for example, marketplace images, container images, or other third-party services. 

Ensure Hygiene and Visibility

Cloud deployments have many transient components, including compute instances, containers, data volumes, serverless functions, and managed databases or data stores. Make sure you have an accurate inventory of cloud assets, who deployed them, what they are doing, and whether they exhibit any security risks or vulnerabilities.

Adopt a Zero Trust Approach

The Zero Trust model operates on the principle that trust is never assumed and must be continually verified. Implementing Zero Trust in cloud environments involves using technologies such as identity and access management (IAM), multi-factor authentication (MFA), and encryption to secure data and applications. It also requires granular access controls and the ability to dynamically adjust permissions based on the user’s context, such as location, device security posture, and the sensitivity of the accessed data.

Use Identity and Access Management (IAM)

IAM solutions are especially important in defending cloud systems, because users can access cloud resources from any location or device. IAM provides visibility into which users have what roles and permissions in the cloud environment. You can monitor user behavior and set alerts for suspicious behavior. Most IAM systems also provide multi-factor authentication (MFA) and single sign on (SSO) capabilities. 

Secure Credentials to Prevent Social Engineering

To prevent phishing and similar social engineering attacks, use security measures like:

  • Educating users not to share credentials with others
  • Implement email and endpoint protection
  • Create alerts when logins are attempted from different locations or multiple IPs
  • Set session timeouts and require regular rotation of passwords
  • Enforce use of multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Update Services and Cloud Systems

Remember that the cloud provider does not take responsibility over workloads. Except with specific managed services (such as DBaaS), your organization is responsible for patching and updating software like operating systems, databases, and content management systems. Use automated tools to detect cloud systems that have vulnerabilities, and try to automate security updates, to ensure fast remediation. 

Audit and Optimize Configurations

It is not enough to secure configurations once. Cloud environments are constantly changing, and there is a need to continually monitor and verify that configurations are still safe. Every time a new compute instance or data volume is created, scaled, or replicated, there is a potential for misconfiguration that can have security implications.

Cloud Security with Aqua

With Aqua Security, you get a complete security platform, which secures cloud native applications from start to finish, at any scale. The Aqua platform protects your entire stack, on any cloud, across VMs, containers, and serverless.

Aqua can help you secure your cloud by:

  • Protecting the build with a “shift left” approach to cloud native security that stops threats and vulnerabilities in their tracks — empowering DevOps to detect issues early and fix them fast. Aqua uses a combination of static and dynamic scanning to find vulnerabilities, malware, secrets, and other risks during development and staging. It also allows you to set flexible, dynamic policies to control deployment in your runtime environments.
  • Securing infrastructure, automating compliance and the security posture of your public cloud services, Infrastructure-as-Code templates, and Kubernetes against best practices and standards. This ensures that the infrastructure you run your applications on are securely configured and in compliance.
  • Protect workloads, including VMs, containers, and serverless functions, using granular controls that provide instant visibility and real-time detection and response. Aqua leverages modern micro-services concepts to enforce immutability of your applications in runtime, establishing zero-trust networking, and detecting and stopping suspicious activities, including zero-day attacks.
  • Secure hybrid cloud infrastructure with cloud native security over hybrid-cloud and multi-cloud deployments, with persistent controls that follow your workloads wherever they run.
The Cloud Native Experts
"The Cloud Native Experts" at Aqua Security specialize in cloud technology and cybersecurity. They focus on advancing cloud-native applications, offering insights into containers, Kubernetes, and cloud infrastructure. Their work revolves around enhancing security in cloud environments and developing solutions to new challenges.