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What is Cloud Compliance? Best Practises and More

Explore the importance of cloud compliance in the age of digital transformation. Learn about security, audits, and best practices for data protection.

Christina Harker, PhD

Christina Harker, PhD


In the age of digital transformation, the need for businesses to navigate the complex terrain of cloud compliance is more critical than ever. CTOs and Engineering leaders face unique challenges ensuring that their organization's applications and IT infrastructure in the cloud are secure, performant, and compliant with relevant regulations.

This article explores the facets of cloud compliance, including its definition, its relationship with security, the process of cloud compliance audits, and the best practices for maintaining compliance. The goal is to equip decision-makers with a comprehensive understanding of cloud compliance, enabling them to make informed decisions that enhance their organization's cloud security posture.

What is Cloud Compliance?

Cloud compliance refers to the adherence of cloud-hosted applications and infrastructure to a set of guidelines, standards, and laws designed to protect data and privacy. These regulations are designed to protect the vast amounts of data flowing through cloud-based systems, and to safeguard customer data and intellectual property.

There are a range of regulatory frameworks that are potentially relevant to cloud compliance efforts, depending on the nature of the data and the region of operation. Among the commonly recognized frameworks are the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States, and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) for businesses dealing with card payments globally.

Compliance in cloud computing isn't just about ticking off a checklist to avoid legal repercussions. It's a strategic approach to managing risks associated with digital operations and upholding the trust placed in an organization by its customers and users. In an era where data breaches seem more rule than exception, compliance isn’t just a security measure, it’s a selling point too.

Why is Cloud Compliance Essential for Security?

Security in the context of cloud services is not just about installing the latest firewall or the most robust antivirus. It's much more nuanced and intertwined with cloud compliance. When an organization is compliant with cloud standards and regulations, it implies that they've implemented a comprehensive set of security measures.

Take, for example, compliance with GDPR or HIPAA regulations. These necessitate data protection measures like anonymization, encryption, and establishing user rights over their data. Each of these measures serves a dual role – meeting regulatory requirements and adding another layer to the security structure. The end result? A significantly reduced risk of data breaches and other security incidents.

However, non-compliance carries repercussions beyond just regulatory penalties. The tangible impact comes in the form of fines and legal consequences, but there is also an intangible impact – the loss of trust. Trust from customers, stakeholders, and the market at large. A data breach can cause irreparable damage to a company's reputation, leading to loss of business and customer churn.

So, the importance of cloud compliance for security can't be overstated. The journey of compliance, while it might seem cumbersome, offers a strategic roadmap to stronger security and greater customer trust. The process of becoming and remaining compliant is an opportunity to reinforce security, not just a regulatory hurdle to be cleared. Compliance, when done right, is good security.

Decoding Cloud Compliance Audits

A cloud compliance audit is a thorough review conducted to ensure that a company's cloud infrastructure and operations adhere to the required regulatory standards. The audit process typically involves evaluating security policies, inspecting system configurations, and checking access controls and encryption measures.

Preparing for and participating in an audit is often seen as an arduous, time-consuming task. Unfortunately, in many cases this isn’t far from the truth. Companies are often unprepared for not just the regulatory and governance aspects of an audit, but the operational ones as well. Fortunately, there are a variety of third-party consulting and service firms that organizations often engage for specific expertise in preparing for and navigating an audit successfully. 

To effectively prepare for an audit, organizations should maintain comprehensive documentation of their compliance efforts, regularly review and update security measures, and conduct internal audits to identify and rectify potential issues before the actual audit, as well as engaging 3rd-party consultants to assist. Operationalizing as much of this effort as possible will require investment up front, but the payoff for future audits will be immense, reducing the time and resources needed and vastly improving the chances of success.

Best Practices for Ensuring Cloud Compliance

Cloud compliance isn't a milestone to be crossed, but rather an ongoing challenge that requires consistent effort and buy-in across a software organization. Whether or not an audit is a quick, efficient process or an arduous, back-and-forth exercise in tedium depends heavily on the preparation and investment in compliance efforts by an organization throughout the year and not just in the days leading up to an audit.

Some of the best practices for enabling and maintaining cloud compliance include:

Regularly updating and auditing security policies

The landscape of potential security threats is constantly shifting. Additionally, compliance and regulatory frameworks are often updated with new rules and guidelines to address the proliferation of new systems, threats, and data. Organizations that view security policies as “fire-and-forget” will find their security posture worsening and their likelihood of a successful audit dwindling.

One of the most important steps in ensuring compliance is regularly updating and auditing security policies and procedures. This practice ensures that the organization's security posture remains robust against evolving threats and changes in compliance standards. Highly effective teams will often run operationally-focused “game-days”, running simulated scenarios that emulate a variety of threats to business-continuity, and gauging the effectiveness of prepared response plans, policies, and procedures. These game-days provide excellent feedback on the overall effectiveness and robustness of organizational policies in response to events like a data breach or hack, and the learnings can be used to make needed updates.

Implementing strong access and authorization controls

Access and authorization controls are critical to modern software systems. Almost all compliance frameworks will require organizations to demonstrate a systematic and consistent definition of:

  • Who has access

  • What they have access to

…as well as an unrestricted current and historical view of

  • When and…

  • How they accessed a resource 

Most cloud platforms provide services and tools that can help organizations implement effective access and authorization systems. However, as cloud environments grow, effectively managing authorization and access management becomes increasingly difficult. Additional 3rd-party identity solutions and platforms are often needed to help bridge this gap and provide automation that can do the heavy lifting needed.

Implementing modern encryption-at-rest schemes for all critical data

Encrypting data-at-rest plays a critical role in most compliance frameworks. It functions as the primary mechanism for securing sensitive data stored in databases, system files, or other structured data formats. If an unauthorized individual gains access to the storage media, encryption ensures the data remains unreadable and therefore secure. From GDPR to HIPAA, data encryption is an essential component of compliance, reducing the risk of data breaches and promoting user trust.

Automate and operationalize compliance outcomes

One of the biggest hidden costs in addressing compliance and audits are the operational costs associated with tasking engineering staff to help fulfill specific requirements and attestations. If an auditor requests detailed, time-specific logs around code changes to production applications, an engineer will often have to spend time manually crafting a one-off script or tool to produce the data. Often, the results of this work are undocumented, and the same effort has to be repeated needlessly year after year. Organizations that focus on providing operationalized, well-documented monitoring and automation for things like access logs and change management will realize massive time and resource savings for future audits and compliance efforts.

Invest in employee training

Investing in employee training forms an integral part of maintaining cloud compliance. It helps build a culture of compliance, ensuring that every team member understands their role in adhering to regulations and safeguarding data. Despite even the most advanced security systems and countermeasures, the human factor is still a significant source of breaches for a web application's security. Employees that fall victim to attacks are often ashamed and hesitant to report issues, potentially exacerbating the impact of a hack. Employee training can not only raise awareness and help prevent breaches, it can also help foster a culture of transparency and blameless problem solving that encourages employees to provide important, timely information if they believe they or their systems have been the victim of an attack.

Cloud Compliance is Critical for Businesses moving to the Cloud

Businesses that want to succeed in the modern cloud for the long term will need to not only focus on technology, but compliance and governance as well. Unfortunately, compliance is all-too-often an afterthought when the focus is on fast iteration and quick go-to-market strategies, and organizations are putting the entire business at risk by not making the appropriate investment.

Organizations need to understand the importance of cloud compliance, and how to arrive at audit time well-prepared and secure. Continuous, year-round effort, diligence, and investment in technology and people are required to effectively prepare for and maintain compliance requirements. While the journey towards achieving and maintaining cloud compliance may be challenging, the benefits in terms of risk management and customer trust are well worth the effort.

If you are beginning to think about the need for Cloud Compliance, you can turn to Divio for free and impartial cloud advice on cloud compliance, as well as information on our ISO-certified PaaS.