Microsoft Azure is a dominant cloud hosting platform, serving around 70 percent of organizations worldwide. A popular hosting environment for SQL databases, Azure also provides a flexible way to run up to 200 cloud applications.
This flexibility is a game-changer for many businesses. But there’s a catch. To function properly, it’s essential to create a secure Azure environment. Otherwise, cloud apps and databases can leak sensitive data. Credentials may be at risk, and companies can suffer huge compliance penalties.
Fortunately, solutions exist. This blog will explain how to secure your cloud environment with Azure security best practices. And we will look at how to create a layered security strategy that goes beyond Microsoft’s controls.
Why is securing access to Azure so important?
Azure security matters because Microsoft’s cloud platform hosts a range of critical assets. Companies use Azure to host .Net apps for web applications or gaming DevOps. Azure storage accounts host SQL databases containing client data, while Kubernetes clusters support private cloud infrastructure.
Whatever Azure services companies rely on, security is a priority. Insecure Azure apps can leak data and provide an entry point for cyber attackers. And you cannot rely on Microsoft to cover every security challenge.
Azure clients have wide areas of responsibility to secure their cloud configuration. Clients need to restrict access to sensitive data. Users must manage access and exclude malicious actors. They also have to manage how data flows between cloud apps. The need for an Azure security policy is obvious when you put these tasks together.
Microsoft Azure security best practices
Any companies that rely on Microsoft’s cloud services should get to know Azure security best practices.
The best approach is adopting a layered strategy. Users should exploit security tools provided by Microsoft. But they should add additional security controls where necessary. These Azure security best practices will explain how the layered security approach works.
1. Map Azure assets and create a compliance strategy
The first step in layering Azure security is understanding the cloud environment. Before applying any of the best practices below, you must understand what assets need to be protected.
Map the cloud assets on your Azure platform. Include all apps and data stores, and classify data according to importance. You should know exactly where client data is stored and who has access to that data.
It is also advisable to create a clear compliance strategy for Azure environments. Define your core goals, including HIPAA, DCI-PSS, or GDPR compliance. Use these data security frameworks as a baseline to improve Azure security and meet regulatory requirements.
Track your compliance progress with the scoring tools in the Azure Security Center. The compliance dashboard provides detailed information about security levels and required actions.
2. Encrypt critical data
Data security on Azure apps is the responsibility of clients, not Microsoft. So take action to encrypt data and hide it from malicious actors.
Encrypt sensitive data at rest using Microsoft’s server-side symmetric key encryption tools. You can use these tools to segment data by importance. This ensures that operational data is available to employees. But financial or personal information is only accessible to users with specific encryption keys.
Azure Disk Encryption works alongside Microsoft’s SSE. It creates another layer of data security for virtual machines and data containers. This reduces the risk of attackers exploiting Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) files. Attackers will find it much harder to create virtual machines within Azure environments.
When you apply Azure encryption, key storage is your responsibility. Secure encryption keys in IAM controls in place to prevent unauthorized access. The Azure Key Vault is a good key management solution and integrates well with Azure app environments.
Users should also encrypt sensitive data in transit. Data constantly flows between Azure apps, remote devices, and on-premises workstations. VPN encryption provides a solution, adding another layer of protection above Azure security controls.
3. Create a backup and disaster recovery plan
A strong Azure security posture features a fall-back plan when systems fail, or attackers succeed. Microsoft offers an end-to-end DR service via Azure Site Recovery (ASR). Combine this with Azure Backup to create tailored data backup plans.
With an ASR failover plan, you can recover application states with minimal information loss. You might also add Azure Storage Replication, which regularly generates multiple copies of important files.
4. Secure sensitive data with robust controls
Encryption is not the only data security control for Azure users. Consider a range of additional tools and find a mix that secures sensitive data without compromising user experience. Options to think about include:
Activate auditing tools. Users can instruct Azure to audit databases. This creates a data stream that tracks database changes. Data visibility makes it easier for security teams to detect anomalies and unsafe user activity.
Add Azure SQL threat detection. Many Azure apps rely on SQL, but SQL presents critical security threats. Using SQL databases, turn on SQL threat detection to isolate security weaknesses and secure the threat surface.
Use Azure Firewall. Azure Firewall adds another layer of data security protection for Azure-hosted apps. You can manage firewall settings centrally, and coverage can increase as new apps come online. Cloud-native TLS inspection provides valuable protection against malware attacks.
Enable Azure Monitor alerts. Gain additional awareness by engaging Azure Monitor alerts. Users can target alerts at single resources and use many metrics to identify vulnerabilities. Azure Monitor Action Groups make it easy to automate alerts and deliver precise information when threats arise.
Implement Azure Defender. Defender is a subscription-based security service that leverages extended threat detection and response (XDR) and contextual security. It covers hybrid and multi-cloud environments, delivering threat protection and remediation advice. Azure Defender may well be a sensible addition when securing complex cloud environments,
Use Shared Access Signatures. Created via Active Directory, Shared Access Signatures let you manage access to Azure resources to third parties and employees for limited periods. Best practices include creating a SAS for all short-term network users, as it allows admins to set granular controls.
5. Manage access with IAM
Preventing illegitimate access to cloud infrastructure is one of the most important Azure security best practices. The best way to manage user access is by adding Identity and Access Management (IAM) to your security arsenal.
Microsoft provides a cloud-native IAM system called Azure Active Directory (AAD). AAD authenticates logins and compares user credentials to a secure Active Directory database.
IAM best practices for Azure include using AAD to set role-based access controls (RBAC). With RBAC, admins can put the Zero Trust ‘principle of least privilege’ into action. Every user has very limited privileges. Privileges only apply after users supply multiple credentials.
Role-based privileges have big practical benefits. Developers will not retain access to resources when their project involvement ends. Attackers obtaining their credentials will be relatively powerless. They will struggle to achieve Virtual Machine access. Breaching Azure SQL databases will be much harder.
Add another layer to your security posture by combining AAD with Single-Sign-On (SSO). SSO combines all cloud and on-premises assets. Remote workers can log in to the apps they need via a single sign-on portal.
Users can apply Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) at this stage. This requests an extra authentication factor for each login, such as biometric data or one-time codes delivered to smartphones.
IP allowlisting also features in recommended Azure security best practices. Allowlisting lets you specify trusted IP addresses. You can add remote work devices or employee smartphones and exclude every other device until it passes MFA and IAM controls.
6. Add workload and VM protection
Azure security best practices include securing virtual machines via specialist controls. For instance, Azure includes the option of applying just-in-time controls for VMs. These Azure security controls allow users to access VMs for limited periods, removing the possibility of accessing assets after sessions expire.
VM controls also allow administrators to lock vulnerable ports and limit access to authorized users. Restrict access to RDP, WinRM, and SSH ports commonly used by VMs. Access should only be available when absolutely required.
You can apply controls easily by assigning workloads and VMs to Network Security Groups (NSGs). These groups define security procedures for each asset and add another protective layer via the Azure Firewall.
Additionally, remember to keep workload patches up to date. Unpatched Azure apps can be vulnerable to exploits. Automate software updates where possible and audit unpatched tools to minimize your exploit vulnerability.
7. Control the cloud perimeter with network security
Internal Azure cloud security works alongside general network security. Attackers can steal credentials from devices outside the cloud or launch attacks via internet-facing endpoints. This is why Azure’s best practices include measures to harden on-premises security. These measures can protect the whole network perimeter:
Track internet-facing cloud endpoints and minimize the contact between the wider web and company resources.
Use a Security Information and Event Management solution. SIEM tracks network traffic and identifies potential threats. Integrate it with Azure Defender to cover external and cloud-based vulnerabilities.
Apply network segmentation. Separate cloud endpoints from data centers and workstations with internet access.
Install a VPN or similar security tool to encrypt data and conceal user identities.
8. Audit user identities and access policies
Your Azure cloud security posture can weaken over time. What works now may degrade and create new vulnerabilities.
Azure security teams must audit every cloud security control and ensure continuing app and data protection. Audit app ownership regularly to ensure only active users have administrative privileges. Clean up Azure platforms by removing obsolete services, groups, and users.
Use the Azure Security Center to improve auditing procedures. The ASC includes machine learning analysis tools that provide feedback and suggest security posture improvements. Real-time monitoring and audit logs provide evidence to fine-tune your security setup.
How can NordLayer secure your access to Microsoft Azure?
Microsoft Azure cloud security requires a layered mix of internal cloud-based controls and solid external security. Users must protect data at the app level, followed by workgroups, platforms, and the entire company network.
The best practices listed above provide a roadmap to achieve security at the cloud level. Encrypt data and manage Active Directory identities. Leverage the Security Center to track user activity and run regular audits. And target virtual machines and apps with specific protection.
But that’s not enough. Add an extra security layer for rock-solid SaaS access control by safeguarding the network edge and protecting credentials outside the cloud.
NordLayer will help you achieve this. Encrypt in-transit data, apply for SSO, and screen access with IP allowlisting. Limit access to trusted IP addresses and exclude everything else - an important step towards a Zero Trust security posture.
Prevent data leaks by blending NordLayer’s network security tools with Microsoft Azure’s internal controls. To find out more, get in touch with our team today.