This is the second post in a new series I’m posting for public feedback, licensed by Algosec. Well, that is if they like it – we are sticking to our Totally Transparent Research policy. I’m also live-writing the content on GitHub if you want to provide any feedback or suggestions. Click here for the first post in the series, and here for post two.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of cloud networks, it’s time to focus on the available security controls. Keep in mind that all of this varies between providers and that cloud computing is rapidly evolving and new capabilities are constantly appearing. These fundamentals give you the background to get started, but you will still need to learn the ins and outs of whatever platforms you work with.

What Cloud Providers Give You

Not to sound like a broken record (those round things your parents listened to… no, not the small shiny ones with lasers), but all providers are different. The following options are relatively common across providers, but not necessarily ubiquitous.

  • Perimeter security is traditional network security that the provider totally manages, invisibly to the customers. Firewalls, IPS, etc. are used to protect the provider’s infrastructure. The customer doesn’t control any of it.PRO: It’s free, effective, and always there. CON: You don’t control any of it, and it’s only useful for stopping background attacks.
  • Security groups – Think of this is a tag you can apply to a network interface/instance (or certain other cloud objects, like a database or load balancer) that applies an associated set of network security rules. Security groups combine the best of network and host firewalls, since you get policies that can follow individual servers (or even network interfaces) like a host firewall but you manage them like a network firewall and protection is applied no matter what is running inside. You get the granularity of a host firewall with the manageability of a network firewall. These are critical to auto scaling – since you are now spreading your assets all over your virtual network – and, because instances appear and disappear on demand, you can’t rely on IP addresses to build your security rules. Here’s an example: You can create a “database” security group that only allows access to one specific database port and only from instances inside a “web server” security group, and only those web servers in that group can talk to the database servers in that group. Unlike a network firewall the database servers can’t talk to each other since they aren’t in the web server group (remember, the rules get applied on a per-server basis, not a subnet, although some providers support both). As new databases pop up, the right security is applied as long as they have the tag. Unlike host firewalls, you don’t need to log into servers to make changes, everything is much easier to manage. Not all providers use this term, but the concept of security rules as a policy set you can apply to instances is relatively consistent.Security groups do vary between providers. Amazon, for example, is default deny and only allows allow rules. Microsoft Azure, however, allows rules that more-closely resemble those of a traditional firewall, with both allow and block options.PRO: It’s free and it works hand in hand with auto scaling and default deny. It’s very granular but also very easy to manage. It’s the core of cloud network security. CON: They are usually allow rules only (you can’t explicitly deny), basic firewalling only and you can’t manage them using tools you are already used to.
  • ACLs (Access Control Lists) – While security groups work on a per instance (or object) level, ACLs restrict communications between subnets in your virtual network. Not all providers offer them and they are more to handle legacy network configurations (when you need a restriction that matches what you might have in your existing data center) than “modern” cloud architectures (which typically ignore or avoid them). In some cases you can use them to get around the limitations of security groups, depending on your provider.PRO: ACLs can isolate traffic between virtual network segments and can create both allow or deny rules CON: They’re not great for auto scaling and don’t apply to specific instances. You also lose some powerful granularity.By default nearly all cloud providers launch your assets with default-deny on all inbound traffic. Some might automatically open a management port from your current location (based on IP address), but that’s about it. Some providers may use the term ACL to describe what we called a security group. Sorry, it’s confusing, but blame the vendors, not your friendly neighborhood analysts.

Commercial Options

There are a number of add-ons you can buy through your cloud provider, or buy and run yourself.

  • Physical security appliances: The provider will provision an old-school piece of hardware to protect your assets. These are mostly just seen in VLAN-based providers and are considered pretty antiquated. They may also be used in private (on premise) clouds where you control and run the network yourself, which is out of scope for this research.PRO: They’re expensive, but they’re something you are used to managing. They keep your existing vendor happy? Look, it’s really all cons on this one unless you’re a cloud provider and in that case this paper isn’t for you.
  • Virtual appliances are a virtual machine version of your friendly neighborhood security appliance and must be configured and tuned for the cloud platform you are working on. They can provide more advanced security – such as IPS, WAF, NGFW – than the cloud providers typically offer. They’re also useful for capturing network traffic, which providers tend not to support.PRO: They enable more-advanced network security and can manage the same as you do your on-premise versions of the tool. CON: Cost can be a concern, since these use resources like any other virtual server, constrains your architectures and they may not play well with auto scaling and other cloud-native features.
  • Host security agents are software agents you build into your images that run in your instances and provide network security. This could include IDS, IPS or other features that are beyond basic firewalling. We recommend lightweight agents with remote management. The agents (and management platform) need to be designed for use in cloud computing since auto scaling and portability will break traditional tools.PRO: Like virtual appliances, host security agents can offer features missing from your provider. With a good management system, they can be extremely flexible and will usually include capabilities beyond network security. They’re a great option for monitoring network traffic. CON: You need to make sure they are installed and run in all your instances and they’re not free. They also won’t work well if you don’t get one that’s designed for the cloud.

A note on monitoring: None of the major providers offer packet level network monitoring and many don’t offer any network monitoring at all. If you need that, consider using host agents or virtual appliances.

To review, your network security controls, no matter what the provider calls them, nearly always fall into 5 buckets:

  • Perimeter security the provider puts in place, that you never see or control.
  • Software firewalls built into the cloud platform (security groups) that protect cloud assets (like instances), offer basic firewalling, and are designed for auto scaling and other cloud-specific uses.
  • Lower-level Access Control Lists for controlling access into, out of, and between the subnets in your virtual cloud network.
  • Virtual appliances to add the expanded features of your familiar network security tools, such as IDS/IPS, WAF, and NGFW.
  • Host security agents to embed in your instances.

Advanced Options on the Horizon We know some niche vendors already offer more-advanced network security built into their platform like IPS, and suspect major vendors will eventually offer similar options. We don’t recommend picking a cloud provider based on these, but it does mean you may get more options in the future.