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Nuke It from Orbit

By Rich

I had a call today, that went pretty much like all my other calls.

An organization wants to move to the cloud. Scratch that – they are moving, quickly. The team on the phone was working hard to figure out their architectures and security requirements. These weren’t ostriches sticking their heads in the sand, they were very cognizant of many of the changes cloud computing forces, and were working hard to enable their organization to move as quickly and safely as possible. They were not blockers. The company was big.

I take a lot of these calls now.

The problem was, as much as they’ve learned, as open minded as they were, the team was both getting horrible advice (mostly from their security vendors) and facing internal pressure taking them down the wrong path.

This wasn’t a complete lift and shift, but it wasn’t really cloud-native, and it’s the sort of thing I now see frequently. The organization was setting up a few cloud environments at their provider, directly connecting everything to extend their network, and each one was at a different security level. Think Dev/Test/Prod, but using their own classification.

The problem is, this really isn’t a best practice. You cannot segregate out privileged users well at the cloud management level. It adds a bunch of security weaknesses and has a very large blast radius if an attacker gets into anything. Even network security controls become quite complex. Especially since their existing vendors were promising they could just drop virtual appliances in and everything would work like just it does on-premise – no, it really doesn’t. This is before we even get into using PaaS, serverless architectures, application-specific requirements, tag and security group limitations, and so on.

It doesn’t work. Not at scale. And by the time you notice, you are very deep inside a very expensive hole.

I used to say the cloud doesn’t really change security. That the fundamentals are the same and only the implementation changes. Since about 2-3 years ago, that is no longer true. New capabilities started to upend existing approaches.

Many security principles are the same, but all the implementation changes. Process and technology. It isn’t just security – all architectures and operations change.

You need to take what you know about securing your existing infrastructure, and throw it away. You cannot draw useful parallels to existing constructs. You need to take the cloud on its own terms – actually, on your particular providers’ terms – and design around that. Get creative. Learn the new best practices and patterns. Your skills and knowledge are still incredibly important, but you need to apply them in new ways.

If someone tells you to build out a big virtual network and plug it into your existing network, and just run stuff in there, run away. That’s one of the biggest signs they don’t know what the f— they are talking about, and it will cripple you. If someone tells you to take all your existing security stuff and just virtualize it, run faster.

How the hell can you pull this off? Start small. Pick one project, set it up in its own isolated area, rework the architecture and security, and learn. I’m no better than any of you (well, maybe some of you – this is an election year), but I have had more time to adapt.

It’s okay if you don’t believe me. But only because your pain doesn’t affect me. We all live in the gravity well of the cloud. It’s just that some of us crossed the event horizon a bit earlier, that’s all.

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