NordLayer - Network Security

SaaS security 101: the definitive guide


By NordLayer
10 May 2022
9 min read
SaaS Security Best Practices

Until recently, on-premises network security was dominant. Companies simply needed to secure local applications and data. Perimeter defense was the major challenge. But the rise of cloud-based SaaS apps challenges this approach.

Companies are switching to SaaS security solutions as they come to rely on cloud apps. But what does SaaS security mean? In this blog, we’ll examine cloud security and compliance options, suggesting SaaS security guidelines to secure every critical app.

What is SaaS?

SaaS applications reside on cloud-based servers. This contrasts with on-premises apps held in local data centers. With SaaS, private cloud providers store apps and data and charge users to use those services. This includes household names like Zoom, Shopify, and Salesforce.

SaaS is part of a family of cloud products. This group includes Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS):

  • IaaS involves cloud infrastructure and does not include apps, operating systems, or data storage.

  • PaaS includes cloud-based OS and data storage tools.

  • SaaS adds applications on top of those features.

SaaS offers more value than PaaS and IaaS for business users because it’s more feature rich. Users can move operations to a complete cloud stack. There is no need to make manual software upgrades. Users do not have the burden of infrastructure management. This increases the ROI of SaaS implementations.

The global SaaS market is vast, expanding from around $60 billion in 2017 to $180 billion in 2022. SaaS brands now power everything from eCommerce start-ups to public utilities. Yet SaaS can lead to serious security weaknesses.

What is SaaS security?

SaaS security protects SaaS applications and cloud data storage facilities. It locks down interfaces between on-premises networks, the wider internet, and cloud applications. This matters because cloud computing carries serious security risks.

Verizon’s 2021 DBIR Master’s Guide reports that 73% of worldwide data breaches involve cloud assets. And companies are failing to take basic measures to mitigate this risk. According to Tech Target’s Enterprise Strategy Group, 60% of SalesForce users neglect to back up their cloud data.

Vendors and clients are both partly responsible for SaaS data protection. But users are responsible when breaches occur, making strong security measures essential. Traditional perimeter defense is insufficient when guarding cloud assets. Specialist SaaS tools like cloud access security brokers enter the picture instead.

What are the main SaaS security risks?

SaaS brings many benefits but comes with several security threats. Companies often fail to consider threats when switching to Cloud environments. New security risks could include:

  • Poor vendor security practices. Companies must trust their SaaS provider. But not all vendors deliver strong security. Inadequate vetting of SaaS partners leads to lax data protection policies. Some providers fail to offer attentive customer support. Analysis of every SaaS provider is vital.

  • Accountability. Generally speaking, Saas divides responsibility between vendors and clients. But service level agreements can sometimes conceal discrepancies between the two parties. This can lead to diminished accountability for vendors.

  • Data security. Data breaches via SaaS resources have occurred often. That isn’t a surprise in a situation where 40% of SaaS data access is completely unmanaged. Poor security puts sensitive data at risk. That’s something all compliant companies need to avoid.

  • Cross-site scripting. XSS is among the most prevalent specific SaaS security risks. It can derive from something as simple as a misconfigured text form. The result can be an epidemic of stolen session cookies. This can lead to major data integrity breaches. It’s a weakness every security strategy needs to consider.

  • Configuration. Misconfiguration is another critical SaaS vulnerability. Configuration issues usually stem from the gap between vendors and clients. According to the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Office365 migrations have weakened security postures. Poor Saas implementations have resulted in lax authentication, poor auditing, and management confusion.

  • Account hijacking. Single or multi-account hijacks are always possible when migrating to Saas. This is especially true in situations involving many SaaS services and remote working. Phishers can take advantage of chaotic access policies and poor monitoring. This can lead to catastrophic breaches.

  • Poor identity management. SaaS usage adds a level of complexity to account management. Security teams can experience problems removing orphaned accounts. Problems also arise when assigning privileges across SaaS services. This makes clear sign-on and authentication procedures essential.

  • API security. SaaS services generally have their own API to interact with existing resources. But this API can be a source of cybersecurity threats. Data exposure and authentication problems make APIs an easy target for attackers.

  • Compliance. From GDPR to HIPAA, regulations now demand tight data protection policies. Saas implementations can disrupt compliance strategies. As a result, compliance strategies must adapt as Cloud resources come online.

  • Lack of a cloud security strategy. Companies can put in place SaaS without considering core risks. The proliferation of cloud resources can lead to security teams losing control and awareness.

SaaS security best practices

Here's a list of the best SaaS security practices for your business.

1. Authentication

Access management is always a core vulnerability when users or clients log onto SaaS resources. Authentication and access control systems cut the risk of illegitimate intrusions.

Active Control (AC) combined with Single Sign-On (SSO) is a strong foundation. Users can add third-party Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) providers over the top. This combination demands more than one credential from all sign-ons. AC policies sign-on portals and apply encryption. It also confirms that access systems correlate with SaaS software.

2. Encryption

Protecting sensitive data is one of the most important SaaS best practices. It’s essential to encrypt sensitive data in-flight and at rest on SaaS servers.

Saas providers usually set up a form of Transport Layer Security (TLS). This applies to data in movement between client servers and the cloud. That’s a necessary starting point for effective security, but it isn’t enough.

Make sure employees access SaaS services securely. Software-defined perimeters are an effective solution.

Software-defined perimeters apply cloud-optimized encryption for every user. Security tools reside close to SaaS resources, while systems grant permissions based on tightly defined user privileges. There is no need for separate VPN tools on every device — everything can be managed centrally.

3. Monitoring

SaaS services need oversight to guarantee strong security at all times. Monitoring can be a challenge if organizations use 6-10 SaaS services. But there is scope to track user behavior even with complex setups.

A good SaaS provider will offer usage pattern monitoring and security breach alerts. Ensure teams plan specific security protocols for each service before implementing any solutions.

Automation is often an option and can reduce security workloads. Partial automation is generally the wisest move. This gives security teams the fine-grained control required to carry out audits. Staff can intervene when needed but keep their workloads under control.

It’s also essential to carry out regular inventories of all Cloud resources. SaaS landscapes change as new tools come online. Vendors can also change their setups. Stay informed with auditing and assessment so that changes don’t take you by surprise.

4. CASB

Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB) tools are core parts of business SaaS configurations. CASB tools can be API or proxy-based, depending on the SaaS setup. They provide an extra level of security control for every SaaS tool.

Many SaaS providers design their products to include or function with CASB software. These tools act as policy enforcement centers. Security functions include access control, authentication, monitoring, encryption, and anti-virus checking.

A good CASB makes it easy to extend security from on-premises contexts to the Cloud. Scaling up SaaS implementations will be simpler, while CASB also boosts security compliance strategies.

5. Awareness and logging

Security never rests when implementing SaaS (or platform or infrastructure-as-a-service). Teams need the capability to log events for monitoring and historical analysis. Choose a SaaS provider with the ability to generate in-depth reports and logs.

Look for solid transparency commitments as well. Be sure to assign a security team member to maintain full situational awareness at all times.

6. SaaS Security Posture Management (SSPM)

Situational awareness combines with Posture Management to create a dynamic security backdrop. Posture Management entails minimizing gaps between security documents and actual day-to-day posture. This ensures robust and consistent security management continuously.

Security teams can automate SSPM once they have created the correct setup. A good SSPM setup will act as a constant shield against cyberattacks. It protects against insider threats, misconfigurations, and changes in vendor security practices.

7. Staff training

The SaaS security best practices outlined above mean little without proper staff knowledge. Companies must cultivate a SaaS-relevant business culture.

Before implementing SaaS security solutions, train staff in cybersecurity basics. This includes avoiding shared accounts, phishing awareness, VPN use, and password security. Transitioning to SaaS presents new threats. This is especially true when staff migrate from offices to remote or hybrid work.

Training and cultural campaigns within organizations can mitigate SaaS-related threats. That way, companies can ensure that staff takes full advantage of SaaS’s benefits.

SaaS security checklist: how to protect your data

SaaS Security Checklist on How to Protect your Data

1. Make a register of all SaaS resources in use on the network and create a security policy for each service. This policy documents how to secure data and authenticate users.

2. Carry out a full SaaS risk assessment for each vendor. When sourcing new SaaS services, check feedback from customers. Contact vendors to discuss security if needed.

3. Consult regulatory databases to check that vendors meet industry standards. Solid vendors should meet ISO 27000 standards and SOC2 auditing thresholds.

4. Check vendors provide core security functions. Look for end-to-end encryption. Read privacy policies to ensure vendors do not have access to sensitive data.

5. Ensure SaaS applications feature MFA authentication or have the ability to integrate MFA. Optimize SSO systems for remote working.

6. Assign user privileges to access SaaS apps. Create work groups of relevant employees. Only allow access to those with a clear business need.

7. Use a Secure Deployment (SD) strategy when implementing SaaS. SD monitors the code base of apps. It ensures rapid detection and response to unauthorized changes.

8. Put in place a robust backup and disaster recovery process. Store three copies of core data. 2 copies should be on-site in different mediums and one stored in a secure offsite location.

SaaS implementation

SaaS implementation integrates software as a service into existing networks and workflows. This is not the same process as switching on-premises apps or adding network infrastructure. It involves creating secure connections between local networks and cloud environments.

Implementation is the time to plan SaaS setups. Liaise with vendors to assess expected performance, software lifecycles, and effective SaaS cyber security. Refer to our checklist and best practices to cover every risk area. And plan for gradual transitions with testing at every stage.

SaaS implementation challenges

Software as a service brings many cost and operational benefits. But there are some core SaaS challenges as well. Things to consider include:

  • Maintaining control. Ensure security teams have ultimate control over who manages SaaS applications and who can add them to workgroups. Register all users and groups carefully. And track usage to monitor any unauthorized connections.

  • Vendor communications. Stay in touch with vendors until the SaaS application is onboarded and operational. Be clear about security rules and make sure vendors are committed to privacy and transparency.

  • Training. Staff using any SaaS application must be aware of security protocols. They must know how to use IAM and MFA tools and be aware of the most important SaaS threats.

  • Timescales. Plan project milestones and set a clear timeframe for rollout. Set aside testing dates to ensure SaaS security measures are functioning properly. Rolling out SaaS in stages is advisable.

Selecting the most suitable SaaS security solution for your business

Our security checklist and SaaS best practices should help you select appropriate SaaS vendors. But it’s still worth reiterating the core factors that mark reliable SaaS partners:

  • Customization. Off-the-shelf SaaS applications can be fully automated and relatively inflexible. These are both drawbacks from a security perspective. Choose partners providing freedom to set access and monitoring policies. Pick providers with strong reporting and backup management. The best vendors blend the benefits of automation with autonomy for clients.

  • Performance. Poor performance can compromise SaaS security. Cumbersome access portals and management consoles can lead users to roll back security measures. Slow speeds can also lead to compromises, reducing encryption and access protections. That’s why picking a provider that blends speed and security is vital.

  • Transparency. Data protection means everything in the modern business landscape. Poor data security leads to vast regulatory penalties, while the average data breach costs more than $8.6 million. Avoid providers that store more data than needed or work with third-party processors. Instead, pick providers with clear privacy and data storage policies. Choose vendors with a spotless track record with regulators and customers.

  • Edge security. Securing your network edge can be challenging when using SaaS applications. Vendors and users share responsibility for guarding perimeters. So look for a SaaS provider who takes the issue seriously. Choose partners delivering tools like firewalls, authentication, and real-time monitoring. And seek vendors willing to tailor security strategies to client needs.

  • Scale. Services may have strong Cloud SaaS security policies but lack agility. They may perform poorly as client needs change and networks expand. Look for SaaS partners adept at scaling their operations. But balance smooth scaling with robust network security.

  • Support. Never choose SaaS partners that neglect the human side of IT. The best providers pour resources into support teams. Good support helps clients onboard security tools and maintain Cloud services. Most users liaise regularly with their Cloud partners, so choose a company you trust. The cheapest solution is rarely the best, so avoid decisions based solely on cost.

FAQ

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding SaaS security.

Who is responsible for security in SaaS?

Vendors and users share responsibility for security in SaaS risk management. Vendors should update their products to meet security threats. They should be compatible with CASB software.

Clients must apply SaaS security measures of their own. When data breaches happen, the data owners are responsible. This makes it vital to crafting a strategy to lock down SaaS applications.

What should be included in a SaaS security policy?

SaaS security policies should focus on access control and encryption. MFA and Single Sign-On portals are vital to ensure safe access to the public cloud. Security tools must also apply end-to-end encryption for all data flowing to SaaS applications.

Network segmentation can protect SaaS workloads while centralized APIs track traffic and detect threats. Users should implement these functions via a CASB that is fully compatible with every SaaS app.

What is SaaS authentication?

SaaS authentication checks the sign-on credentials of every user and usually includes Single Sign On portals and MFA. Authentication techniques include biometric scanning, passwords, hardware tokens, or mobile QR codes.

How can NordLayer help?

SaaS applications are a necessity for most modern businesses. They offer affordable, efficient storage and app management, while companies can reduce their costs and scale up operations. Moreover, when implemented correctly, SaaS provides a secure software solution. Yet, as we’ve seen, SaaS and security do not always go together.

When securing SaaS applications, it’s advisable to work with reliable security partners. At NordLayer, we are experts in locking down Cloud-based systems. Our tools manage access, secure network edges, and track user behavior across every endpoint.

SaaS security can be complex. Multiple cloud services and storage locations are difficult for security teams to protect independently. But there are plenty of effective ways to solve those problems. Get in touch today, and discover how to combine the benefits of SaaS with rock-solid security.

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