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Cloud Security

Application Security Challenges in Cloud-First Architectures

We explore some of the technical challenges of cloud application security, and look at how they can be addressed in the context of cloud-based software architecture.

Christina Harker, PhD

Christina Harker, PhD


Web application security can be one of the most complex and technically demanding security challenges in modern software development. Securing the entire Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) is already a difficult ask; with the ubiquity of cloud-first architecture, organizations are now faced with even more intricate and multifaceted security concerns. Ensuring robust security in a cloud-first architecture requires a deep understanding of these challenges, and a strategy for every stage of the SDLC. This article explores some of the technical challenges of AppSec, and the strategies needed to meet them.

Application Security in Design

Translating business requirements into technical design is often a complex and challenging task. In traditional legacy environments, operations and security teams usually became involved after the design phase was nearly complete. However, the shift to cloud environments necessitates the adoption of more Agile and DevOps-focused methodologies, where security and operations objectives must be integrated much earlier into the development lifecycle.

One of the crucial questions to consider is whether your organization has the collective human capital to properly address the unique challenges that cloud environments present during the design phase. Being pragmatic about the availability of engineering staff and their experience with the cloud can save a costly, failed implementation down the road. Several key design considerations must be taken into account when developing applications for the cloud:

  1. Shared Responsibility Model: In the cloud, security responsibilities are divided between the cloud provider and the customer. Understanding this demarcation is critical to maintaining a strong security posture.

  2. Multi-Tenancy: As cloud environments often involve multiple tenants sharing the same infrastructure, designing secure isolation mechanisms between tenants is essential to prevent potential security incidents. This builds on the shared security model; the provider is generally responsible for isolating its own customers, but what about different platforms or systems within the same environment? Different software products may have wholly separate user bases that demand strict isolation.

  3. Data Storage and Sovereignty: Cloud-based data storage introduces concerns about data sovereignty and compliance with regional data protection regulations. Addressing these concerns while ensuring data security requires a deep understanding of data residency and encryption requirements during the design phase. Are your customers in the EU? Do your servers live in the US? The answers could have significant ramifications for architecture design.

  4. Securing APIs: Cloud applications are usually built as distributed systems that rely on APIs to communicate, as well as integrate with other services and platforms. Ensuring the security of these APIs, both those provided by the cloud provider and those developed in-house, is essential to limit potential attack vectors.

  5. Elasticity and Scalability: Cloud environments enable rapid scaling of resources, which introduces a whole new class of security challenges. Legacy monitoring and security tooling was designed to work with a relatively static, unchanging environment. Thousands of compute nodes may be provisioned and destroyed in a matter of hours. Good design has to account for dynamic resources at scale.

  6. Identity and Access Management: Managing user identities and access controls in a cloud environment can be more complex than in traditional environments. Implementing robust and secure IAM solutions during the design phase is essential for maintaining application security. Too often IAM is treated as an afterthought; implemented ad-hoc during development. This leads to over-permissioning and a poor security posture.

Good design is the foundation on which a software product is built. A shaky foundation is going to lead to a collapsed or condemned building. In this case, it means an insecure software product that is likely to get compromised, expose customer data, and put the business at risk.

Application Security in Development

Developing software for cloud environments requires fundamental technological shifts to cater to the unique security challenges and operational demands of the cloud. The ideal goal is to achieve faster deployment velocity, which necessitates focusing on fast-feedback mechanisms and ensuring homogeneity between development and production environments.

Development teams must adopt a defensive approach, as applications will be deployed in a zero-trust environment. Secure coding practices are essential to mitigate potential risks and vulnerabilities. Some key points to consider during the development phase include:

  1. Automated Testing and Security Tooling: Implementing tools such as Static Application Security Testing (SAST), Software Bill of Materials (SBOM), dependency scanning, linting, and pre-commit checks can help identify and resolve security issues early in the development process.

  2. Containers and Immutable Build Artifacts: Developers need to adapt to developing applications using containers or other immutable build artifacts, which ensure consistency and security across different environments in the cloud.

  3. Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC): Development teams may also need to integrate IaC as part of the application code, which expands the technical surface area to consider. This approach allows for the management and provisioning of cloud resources through code, improving automation and consistency across environments.

  4. Platform or Managed Services: To alleviate some overhead associated with managing cloud infrastructure and security, organizations can leverage platform or managed services, which provide pre-built solutions and take care of many operational aspects.

By adopting these patterns, application security posture can be significantly improved. However, emphasizing secure coding practices, integrating automated testing and security scanning, and adopting tools like IaC and containers requires a fundamental shift in technology choices, culture, and process. Development teams that are familiar with more traditional models like Waterfall may struggle to adapt to Agile and DevOps-focused methodologies, particularly if their time to adapt is limited by delivery deadlines.

Application Security in Deployment

Successful deployment in a cloud environment entails continuous iteration and feature releases, which cannot be achieved through manual processes and back-and-forth reviews. Organizations must possess the acumen to implement Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) and DevOps methodologies effectively.

Once the application is deployed, it is essential to focus on monitoring and ensuring the ongoing security of the production environment. Adopting a DevSecOps approach and shifting security left to the design and development phases does not guarantee that deployment and production environments will remain safe. Key aspects to consider during the deployment phase include:

  1. Continuous Monitoring: Implement real-time monitoring solutions to detect and respond to security threats and vulnerabilities as they emerge. This proactive approach helps maintain the security posture of your application throughout its lifecycle.

  2. Logging and Event Management: Establish comprehensive logging and event management processes to track and analyze application activity. This information is vital for identifying security incidents and potential breaches, as well as for conducting post-mortem analyses.

  3. Incident Response: Develop robust operational processes for event management and incident response. A well-defined and practiced incident response plan ensures that your organization can quickly react to security events and minimize their impact.

  4. Frontend Protection: Protect the frontend of your application from common web attack vectors, such as SQL injection, Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF), and other threats listed in the OWASP Top 10. Implementing security controls and best practices can help safeguard your application from some of the most common security risks and attack vectors.

  5. Platform or Managed Services: To alleviate the burden of managing security in the deployment phase, consider moving towards platform or managed services. This approach allows you to offload security ownership to the provider, who can help ensure the ongoing protection of your application.

Actively securing a cloud-based software application serving live user traffic requires a multi-layered, defense-in-depth approach with a strong focus on cloud-first tools and a strong operational culture. One of the most difficult chasms to cross for any engineer team is adapting to the operational footing required to properly monitor and triage a dynamic and fully scaled cloud environment; not every team is ready.

Application Security Happens in Phases

Good application security doesn’t come from a single tool or process: it requires a team of capable, experienced engineers and project managers who maintain a consistent focus on secure development practices and delivering high quality, bug-free software. Engineering organizations that want to develop and ship cloud-based applications need to make an honest assessment of their timelines and available resources. Small or inexperienced teams don’t have to compromise on security: find a platform provider that lets your developers offload more of the security burden and focus on developing software.