AWS security best practices

AWS Security Best Practices blog cover

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is Amazon’s cloud computing platform. AWS is the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure, serving more than one million companies seeking easy-to-scale web services.

Every user must be aware of security concerns when using AWS. Companies can suffer malware attacks and data breaches without proper security controls and policies. But this is an area where many companies struggle.

Securing AWS-hosted apps and databases is not the same as guarding on-premises or remote working networks. Cloud computing has specific challenges and requires specialist techniques to safeguard data. This blog will introduce some AWS security best practices to help you use cloud infrastructure safely and productively.

Challenges of working with AWS

Making a digital transition from on-premises networks to cloud computing requires a complete change in how companies manage security. Security teams need to look beyond traditional perimeter and endpoint protection. And users that overlook cloud-specific security challenges can leave data completely exposed to attackers.

Core cloud security challenges related to Amazon Web Services include:

Knowing the security responsibilities of AWS clients

Most importantly, companies using AWS must clearly understand the shared security model.

Under this model, the cloud provider and the service user have different security roles. But many businesses fail to grasp this fact due to low awareness of cloud security. Lacking awareness of their security role, firms regularly assume that their IaaS or SaaS partners will cover data security and threat protection. That’s not the case.

When using AWS, Amazon is responsible for securing cloud apps and any global cloud infrastructure used to deliver them. This leaves a massive area of responsibility for users.

AWS clients need to handle access management, client-side encryption, password security, network segmentation, and compliance. Most data breaches involving cloud resources are caused by users failing to master these security challenges.

Ensuring visibility on AWS services

You cannot protect cloud resources without complete awareness of which resources are in use and who needs to use them. But visibility can be challenging in hybrid and multi-cloud settings. Security teams may lose track of the services they maintain, and Shadow IT may also expose app security weaknesses.

These problems are particularly challenging in rapidly changing cloud environments. Apps and storage solutions come online regularly and at scale. Security managers may not even know when departments create new AWS containers or add extra services.

Without a strategy to make cloud services transparent and visible, companies can lose control over AWS security – a recipe for data breaches.

AWS compliance

Companies using AWS must ensure cloud deployments meet relevant data protection regulations. But hybrid clouds and large-scale AWS setups can make managing compliance strategies problematic.

As a result, compliance is a core aspect of mainstreaming AWS services. Security teams must assess every app and storage solution according to compliance goals. Security teams must be able to show compliance and provide audits of every cloud asset.

Consistent security policy management

Consistency is an over-arching challenge for companies operating in the cloud. An organization’s cloud-based assets could include multiple IaaS platforms and large portfolios of apps.

Security teams also need to manage extensive user communities comprising local staff, remote workers, and external partners. Applying uniform security controls and monitoring across complex AWS deployments is highly complex.

Fortunately, security management systems make it possible to apply policies consistently. AWS also provides native tools to assist in this regard.

Understanding the AWS shared responsibility model

Amazon describes the AWS security landscape as a “shared responsibility model.” Shared responsibility means that security is divided between client and AWS domains. AWS itself handles some aspects of cybersecurity. But other core areas are the responsibility of cloud users.

AWS provides security for the hosting infrastructure containing cloud applications. Anything that happens inside the cloud is the responsibility of AWS. This includes regional data centers and the cloud infrastructure needed to access them worldwide.

Inside the cloud, AWS cloud security covers the operating system and virtualization layer of the AWS environment. The foundations of IaaS platforms are solid, with active threat monitoring, logging, and constant software updates.

What does this leave for clients to secure? Everything else. 

For starters, AWS users must secure customer data. This includes data at rest locally, as it passes through cloud portals, and on the AWS environment itself. If a data breach happens, it’s the AWS user’s fault.

Customers are also totally responsible for access management. AWS provides guidance about excluding malicious actors. However, clients must implement user access controls at AWS endpoints.

Clients who choose an IaaS solution based on Amazon EC2 will have greater security responsibilities. In this case, clients must also manage cloud apps and ensure code integrity. Any guest apps added to an AWS cloud must be secured on the client side.

Additionally, AWS users must protect their operating systems, network infrastructure, and firewall configurations. They need to apply encryption and network traffic monitoring. And clients must handle threat neutralization outside the cloud.

These AWS cloud security responsibilities may sound intimidating. But by following AWS security best practices, companies can stage digital transformations and minimize security risks.

Best security practices for AWS

AWS cloud security brings some unfamiliar challenges. Companies must discard trusted security systems, while cloud-native alternatives require careful implementation. And they need to integrate the shared responsibility model into everyday planning. Here are some AWS security best practices to guide your strategy:

1. Use Amazon’s learning tools to build a knowledge foundation

Amazon is aware that AWS clients need assurance and robust security. That’s why the company has created its AWS Well-Architected Framework. As the name suggests, this framework features a wealth of information to guide cloud security architects navigating AWS services.

Focus on the Security Pillar of the WAF as a starting point. This paper outlines fundamental recommendations for securing AWS apps, including basic security controls, incident response, and threat management. It also introduces the shared responsibility model, explaining what Amazon provides and what users need to do themselves.

2. Create a visibility plan for your AWS assets

AWS users must have a map of their apps and storage containers before considering security controls or encryption. A thorough visibility plan that maps out your AWS assets is absolutely essential.

This plan should include the purpose of each asset. It helps to create categories of cloud assets linked to workgroups and functions. Give each asset a security classification. Take into account the value of the data it processes or stores. And factor in the importance of the asset to everyday workflows.

A good visibility plan makes it easy to assign security controls and secure cloud endpoints. It also makes it easier to expand cloud deployments in the future without adding extra security vulnerabilities.

3. Plan an overall AWS cybersecurity strategy

You now know what needs to be protected. The next step is creating a cloud security architecture to secure cloud resources.

This strategy aims to provide consistent security policies across all cloud resources. Assess every cloud asset and assign appropriate security controls. Users must have sufficient privileges to access critical workloads they require, but nothing more.

At this stage, security teams must think beyond traditional cybersecurity. Source cloud-native security tools and management systems that cover every endpoint and enable simple expansion when new services come online.

If you intend to apply Continuous Integration or Continuous Delivery for AWS infrastructure, this needs to be part of the security strategy. DevOps teams must be aware of their security responsibilities, and security teams must have a strategy to handle Shadow IT.

4. Apply cloud security controls

Of all the AWS security best practices, this is the most important. Some applicable AWS security controls include:

  • Securing every cloud portal from unauthorized attackers and managing AWS accounts with user-friendly Identity and Access Management (IAM) tools. IAM tools assign role-based and temporary privileges to each AWS user. When you use IAM, users should have access to the resources they need during single projects or periods of employment.

  • Protecting access to AWS resources by multi-factor authentication (MFA). Your security strategy must also include a password hygiene component. Users should only use complex passwords, and these passwords should be time-limited. Permission timeouts can also prevent extended access outside project timeframes. They are useful tools to use when managing third-party access.

  • Ensuring user accounts are revoked and rendered unusable when employees leave the organization or contractor partnerships end. Scheduled privilege audits are a reliable way to ensure this happens routinely and efficiently.

  • Exercising extreme caution when assigning root access privileges to AWS users. Guard root access keys with an extra degree of care. Make sure they are only accessible to security personnel. If you lose control of access keys, attackers can easily compromise your entire AWS deployment.

  • Consider using network micro-segmentation to separate cloud access portals. Keep each AWS application in its compartment to limit east-west movement. If one access portal is breached, attackers should not be able to roam across your network and access other AWS services.

  • Controlling access to EC2 services on the AWS cloud, such as virtual servers. EC2 breaches are a common source of malware infection, and security teams must tightly protect login credentials. Limit access based on the principle of least privilege to ensure minimal exposure.

5. Encrypt data outside the cloud

AWS includes the option of adding an encryption layer for data resting in cloud containers and apps. Users can assign key management to Amazon or manage keys themselves, and APIs make managing on-cloud encryption simple.

However, AWS customers need to encrypt data outside the cloud. Apply client-side encryption on local WANs and secure remote connections via Virtual Private Networks. Unencrypted data flows expose information to outsiders. Attackers can harvest credentials and use them to access cloud assets rendering on-cloud encryption worthless.

6. Train staff and make security policies accessible

AWS security policies must be visible to all stakeholders. This includes employees, third parties, management tier users, and regulatory authorities. Create a centralized repository for AWS security documentation stored on a secure internal server.

Documents might include encryption rules, back-ups, DevOps protocols, and access management processes. Make sure every base is covered, resulting in consistent security policies for every cloud asset.

This security documentation should be adaptive. Security needs to change with cloud environments. For instance, you may want to add new AWS services to security documents when they come online. Or IAM users may need guidance about multi-factor authentication. That way, every user knows how to use the cloud safely.

Provide fresh cybersecurity training for staff when staging transitions to AWS. Include reminders of password hygiene and phishing awareness. And provide the information users need to access their core workloads without compromising security.

7. Stage regular backups of critical data

Regular backups are a vital insurance policy against data loss and application failure. Amazon’s own AWS Backup service is a good starting point. It allows users to schedule backups of storage containers, databases, and even file systems resident in their cloud environment. AWS Backup also includes a useful compliance tool that compares your current practices to relevant data protection regulations.

It may also be a good idea to enable multi-factor authentication delete. This removes the possibility of accidental bucket deletion. Any deletions require multiple authentication methods, ensuring only admin staff can remove S3 cloud assets.

8. Implement a threat response system

AWS security best practices are not limited to threat prevention. Users must also have a robust plan to manage and neutralize attacks when they occur. Attackers can compromise even the strongest perimeter protections. Planning for failure is essential.

Work with qualified security partners who provide real-time threat monitoring. Utilize global threat intelligence to identify current threats, and scan for these agents regularly. Proactive threat hunting is also advisable. This probes AWS assets for known malware, using cloud-based data analytics to detect advanced persistent threats.

Your on-cloud security systems should interact smoothly with off-cloud security. Combine audits of local network infrastructure and remote devices with cloud inspection to cover every entry point and potential weakness.

9. Choose cloud-native AWS security solutions

AWS users should adopt cloud-based security tools. Cloud-native security systems include continuous delivery and real-time workload monitoring. They can track code and data changes, monitor access requests, and provide threat alerts to kick-start neutralization processes.

Cloud-based security systems provide visibility of all storage buckets and connected applications on your AWS platform. And these tools reside next to cloud assets, covering endpoints that standard security tools may miss. The result is strong security and optimized cloud access.

10. Make sure AWS assets are up to date

AWS users should prioritize application patching. Cloud-based apps are vulnerable to exploits and novel threats, just like any other application. And the latest version should be designed to mitigate new threats.

The AWS Systems Manager Patch Manager simplifies update management. This includes Windows and macOS apps, alongside virtual machine software and Linux. Users can patch fleets of EC2 devices and run scans of existing assets to identify any necessary actions.

11. Manage devices with IP address whitelisting

IP address whitelisting is a critical client-side control that blocks potentially dangerous access requests. Whitelisting tools only admit devices with approved IP addresses. Users without approved IP addresses cannot access AWS web gateways.

Whitelisting also applies to web URLs. URL whitelisting enables admins to permit access to secure gateways and prevent access to other websites. This limits inbound traffic to AWS gateways, reducing the risk of external attacks.

Follow best practices to create a secure cloud environment

There’s no doubt that cloud security is challenging. But following the AWS security best practices outlined above should prevent cloud security incidents. Implement cloud-native security solutions, apply appropriate controls, and prepare your workforce properly. AWS offers a highly secure cloud hosting environment with the right measures in place.

Consider AWS security certification

Amazon realizes that clients have security concerns, and migrating to AWS presents a technical problem for existing security teams. Because of this, the company has introduced various certification courses targeted at AWS developers and security technicians.

Certification is recommended but not mandatory for AWS users. AWS certifications assure clients that companies take data security seriously. Security courses upskill security staff to manage threats and ensure cloud availability. And they build organizational knowledge, strengthening a company’s security foundations.

Amazon offers two main types of AWS security certification: Core and Specialty.

  • Core qualifications cover fundamental aspects of AWS usage. Modules include Architect, Operations, Developer, and Cloud Practitioner. Individuals can start any module at the entry-level (Foundational) and progress to Associate and Professional tiers. Candidates must sit examinations that tend to last a few hours. Fees apply and range from $150-300.

  • Specialty qualifications are more focused and apply to specific job roles. For instance, companies may want additional skills in securing Big Data operations or designing hybrid network architecture. There is also a targeted course on AWS Security Controls. This is highly relevant to many AWS security strategies and worth considering.

After passing the AWS examinations, candidates must recertify their skills every three years. This makes sense in a fast-moving security environment, and recertification should be added to cloud security plans.

AWS also offers very basic training materials on security best practices. This introduces potential candidates to course materials and covers a lot of valuable ground. Participants can attend virtual classes that fit neatly into work schedules, although in-person training is sometimes available.

Secure access to AWS with NordLayer

Cloud environment security is a core aspect of modern cybersecurity. Vast amounts of confidential data reside in the cloud, creating new data security risks. DevOps teams collaborate via cloud resources, while companies communicate via SaaS tools. Both cloud resources offer tempting targets for attackers.

NordLayer offers cloud-based tools that go beyond traditional security solutions. Customers can create site-to-site VPN connections with AWS Transit. This encrypts traffic from end to end, protecting data locally and on the cloud.

Our IP allowlisting (whitelisting) tools let you approve authenticated devices and block everything else. Create a dedicated secure connection for a NordLayer private gateway, with minimal access for outsiders.

Encryption and allowlisting combine with threat detection, segmentation, and access controls. The result is comprehensive AWS security protection for single SaaS apps or hybrid multi-cloud deployments.

Resolve your cloud security issues and enjoy secure AWS hosting. Get in touch with the NordLayer team and explore our cloud-based products today.

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