The CISO’s Guide to the Cloud: Adapting Security for Cloud Computing

By Rich

This is part three of a series. You can read part one or part two, or track the project on GitHub.

This part is split into two posts – here is the first half:

Adapting Security for Cloud Computing

If you didn’t already, you should now have a decent understanding of how cloud computing differs from traditional infrastructure. Now it’s time to switch gears to how to evolve security to address shifting risks.

These examples are far from comprehensive, but offer a good start and sample of how to think differently about cloud security.

General Principles

As we keep emphasizing, taking advantage of the cloud poses new risks, as well as both increasing and decreasing existing risks. The goal is to leverage the security advantages, freeing up resources to cover the gaps. There are a few general principles for approaching the problem that help put you in the proper state of mind:

  • You cannot rely on boxes and wires. Quite a bit of classical security relies on knowing the physical locations of systems, as well as the network cables connecting them. Network traffic in cloud computing is virtualized, which completely breaks this model. Network routing and security are instead defined by software rules. There are some advantages here, which are beyond the scope of this paper but which we will detail with future research.
  • Security should be as agile and elastic as the cloud itself. Your security tools need to account for the highly dynamic nature of the cloud, where servers might pop up automatically and run for only an hour before disappearing forever.
  • Rely more on policy-based automation. Wherever possible design your security to use the same automation as the cloud itself. For example there are techniques to automate (virtual) firewall rules based on tags associated with a server, rather than applying them manually.
  • Understand and adjust for the characteristics of the cloud. Most virtual network adapters in cloud platforms disable network sniffing, so that risk drops off the list. Security groups are essentially virtual firewalls that on individual instance, meaning you get full internal firewalls and compartmentalization by default. Security tools can be embedded in images or installation scripts to ensure they are always installed, and cloud-aware ones can self configure. SAML can be used to provide absolute device and user authentication control to external SaaS applications. All these and more are enabled by the cloud, once you understand its characteristics.
  • Integrate with DevOps. Not all organizations are using DevOps, but DevOps principles are pervasive in cloud computing. Security teams can integrate with this approach and leverage it themselves for security benefits, such as automating security configuration policy enforcement.

Defining DevOps

DevOps is an IT model that blurs the lines between development and IT operations. Developers play a stronger role in managing their own infrastructure through heavy use of programming and automation. Since cloud enables management of infrastructure using APIs, it is a major enabler of DevOps. While it is incredibly agile and powerful, lacking proper governance and policies it can also be disastrous since it condenses many of the usual application development and operations check points.

These principles will get you thinking in cloud terms, but let’s look at some specifics.

Control the Management Plane

The management plane is the administrative interfaces, web and API, used to manage your cloud. It exists in all types of cloud computing service models: IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS. Someone who compromises a cloud administrator’s credentials has the equivalent of unmonitored physical access to your entire data center, with enough spare hard drives, fork lifts, and trucks to copy the entire thing and drive away. Or blow the entire thing up.

  • We cannot overstate the importance of hardening the management plane. It literally provides absolute control over your cloud deployment – often including all disaster recovery.*

We have five recommendations for securing the management plane:

  • If you manage a private cloud, ensure you harden the web and API servers, keeping all components up to date and protecting them with the highest levels of web application security. This is no different than protecting any other critical web server.
  • Leverage the Identity and Access Management features offered by the management plane. Some providers offer very fine-grained controls. Most also integrate with your existing IAM using federated identity. Give preference to your platform/provider’s controls and…
  • Compartmentalize with IAM. No administrator should have full rights to all aspects of the cloud. Many providers and platforms support granular controls, including roles and groups, which you can leverage to restrict the damage potential of a compromised developer or workstation. For example, you can have a separate administrator for assigning IAM rights, only allow administrators to manage certain segments of your cloud, and further restrict them from terminating instances.
  • Add auditing, logging, and alerting where possible. This is one of the more difficult problems in cloud security because few cloud providers audit administrator activity – such as who launched or stopped a server using the API. For now you will likely need a third-party tool or to work with particular providers for necessary auditing.
  • Consider using security or cloud management proxies. These tools and services proxy the connection between a cloud administrator and the public or private cloud management plane. They can apply additional security rules and fill logging and auditing gaps.

Automate Host (Instance) Security

An instance is a virtual machine, which is based on a stored template called an image. When you ask the cloud for a server you specify the image to base it on, which includes an operating system and might bring a complete single-server application stack. The cloud then configures it using scripts which can embed administrator credentials, provide an IP address, attach and format storage, etc.

Instances may exist for years or minutes, are configured dynamically, and can be launched nearly anywhere in your infrastructure – public or private. You cannot rely on manually assessing and adjusting their security. This is very different than building a server in a test environment, performing a vulnerability scan, and then physically installing it behind a particular firewall and IPS. More security needs to be embedded in the host itself, and the images the instances are based on.

Fortunately, these techniques improve your ability to enforce secure configurations.

  • Embed security in images and at launch. If you use your own images, you can embed security settings and agents in the base images, and set them to activate and self-configure (after connecting to their management server) when an instance launches. Alternatively, many clouds and images support passing initialization scripts to new instances, which process them during launch using the same framework the cloud uses to configure essential settings. You can embed security settings and install security software in these scripts.
  • Integrate with configuration management. Most serious cloud administrators rely on a new breed of configuration management tools to dynamically manage their systems with automation. Security can leverage these to enforce base security configurations, even down to specific application settings, which apply to all managed systems. Set properly, these configuration management tools handle both initial configurations and maintaining state, overwriting local changes when policy pulls and pushes occur.
  • Dynamically configure security agents. When security agents are embedded into images or installed automatically on launch, default settings rarely meet a system’s particular security requirements. Thankfully, cloud platforms provide rich metadata on instances and their environment – including system configuration, network configuration, applications installed, etc. Cloud-aware security agents connect instantly to the management server on launch, and then self-configure with policies leveraging their information. They can also update settings in near real time based on new policies or changes in the cloud.
  • Security agents should be lightweight, designed for the cloud, and cloud agnostic. You shouldn’t need 8 different security agents for 12 different cloud providers, and agents shouldn’t materially increase system resource requirements or struggle to communicate in a dynamic and virtual network.
  • Host security tools should support REST APIs. This enables you to integrate your security into the cloud fabric itself when needed. Agents don’t necessarily need to communicate with the management server over a REST API, but the management server should expose key functions via (secure) API. This enables you to, for example, write scripts to pull host security information, compare it against network security information, and make adjustments or generate reports. Or integrate security alerts and status from the host tool into your SIEM without additional connectors.

REST APIs are the dominant format for APIs in web-friendly applications. They run over HTTP and are much easier to integrate and manage compared to older SOAP APIs.

We will finish with adapting security controls in a second post tomorrow…

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‘•We cannot overstate the importance of hardening the management plane. It literally provides absolute control over your cloud deployment – often including all disaster recovery.’

Great point. Information assurance is vital. Managing all the risks related to the usage, processing, storage, and transmission of data needs to be at the core of cloud services.

By Andrew - Server Space

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