Digital businesses depend on the cloud. Cloud platforms host apps and store data. They host infrastructure for eCommerce stores, and remove the burden of maintaining on-premises hardware. But while the benefits are huge, moving to the cloud brings new risks and threats. A robust cloud security setup is essential.

Ensuring cloud security is challenging. But by taking the right steps and following cloud security best practices, it is a manageable task. This article will explain the practices companies should follow when designing a secure cloud environment. And it will also include a useful checklist to guide cloud security policy creation.

12 Cloud security best practices

Cloud security is not a one-size-fits-all domain. Precise security controls and policies vary between companies. However, some principles are common to virtually every setting. These cloud security best practices should help you create policies that lock down core resources.

1. Be clear about your security responsibilities

Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) and clients have specific security responsibilities under the Shared Responsibility Model. But not all cloud computing users are aware of where their security role ends and that of cloud services begins. This can lead to security gaps and vulnerabilities for cyberattackers to exploit.

Generally, CSPs are responsible for the infrastructure that hosts cloud assets. But clients must secure the data held on apps and control access to those apps. Cloud services provide security tools such as encryption. Clients are responsible for using those tools.

When attacks take place, both providers and clients must respond. This makes it vital to communicate with your provider. Understand what information they will provide about security breaches, and how much help the CSP provides.

Cloud operators like AWS and Microsoft Entra ID provide guidance about responsibilities and threat responses. Refer to that guidance and stay in touch with CSP security teams. That way, you can clearly define the actions your team needs to take.

2. Be careful when commissioning new cloud services

Cloud security begins at the planning stage. Assess any new cloud services carefully on the basis of security criteria.

Key issues to consider when choosing cloud computing partners include:

  • Does the CSP have a record of allowing data breaches?
  • Does the CSP provide transparent information about compliance audits and penetration testing?
  • What physical security controls are in place to guard servers?
  • How does the provider respond to security concerns from clients?
  • Does the cloud partner have a clear post-incident recovery plan?
  • Where are the provider's servers located?
  • What encryption options does the provider offer?
  • Does the CSP offer assistance with access management and authentication?
  • Can the cloud provider's tools function in multi-cloud environments with a Cloud Access Security Broker?
  • Does the provider respond to information requests quickly and helpfully?
  • Will your cloud data be available to multiple individuals employed by the provider?

3. Use cloud security frameworks and standards

Creating cloud security policies is complex. Simplify the task by selecting and using the correct security frameworks.

Frameworks are documents produced by expert organizations in the public or private sector. Examples include NIST and the ISO, but there are many standards organizations. This includes bodies dedicated to specific sectors such as healthcare or credit data processing.

Use frameworks to build a cloud security solution that complies with industry recommendations. Frameworks help you select applications and providers. They include recommendations to manage threats, carry out audits, and meet regulatory compliance goals.

4. Plan for decommissioning cloud service providers

When building cloud deployments, always factor in the CSP lifecycle. Companies often need to off-board service providers. CSPs could cease operating or take down apps. In those situations users require secure ways to change services and protect data.

Before commissioning services, audit the decommissioning process. How difficult will it be to move data when services become unavailable? Can you move data securely between providers? As many apps are unique to CSPs, decommissioning is time-consuming and complex. But planning for provider transitions eases the burden.

5. Implement Access Management controls

Access Management is the most important client-side cloud security task. Cloud users must be aware of all endpoints to ensure total visibility. Access management tools should apply wherever users can access cloud assets.

Use Identity and Access Management (IAM) systems to create user groups and assign role-based privileges. Employees should be granted sufficient permissions to access the assets they need. But clients should never trust cloud users completely. Access to other cloud resources should follow the "principle of least privilege".

Multi-cloud environments present IAM challenges. In these cases, users require an IAM solution that functions across all cloud platforms. Access management systems may also cover on-premises data centers. Security teams need the ability to extend security policies across all network assets. Nothing can be omitted.

Cloud users must also implement authentication as part of access management setups. Protect cloud infrastructure with 2-factor authentication (2FA) tools that demand more than just password credentials. This limits the ability of attackers to breach cloud perimeters.

6. Implement cloud security training

Staff must know how to use cloud assets securely. All companies using cloud resources must create training programs tailored to the cloud. Existing security courses based around remote access and on-premises networks are insufficient. Cloud computing must be a separate module on all internal training courses.

Cloud security courses should reinforce data security basics like password hygiene and avoiding phishing attacks. But cloud-specific issues also feature. Employees should read and understand the company's cloud security policy. They may also require extra training in risk assessment when adding cloud apps or changing providers.

Shadow IT is another critical training topic. Employees may be able to install apps without the knowledge of security managers. Every user needs clear rules about the risks of making such changes. Training should lay out the penalties for staff that breach security rules.

7. Ensure visibility to monitor security

Security managers should always be aware of user activity, threat identification, and the status of cloud assets. Because of this, it is essential to create security architecture that maximizes awareness.

CSPs often provide information about how clients use cloud assets. This data should always form part of security strategies. For instance, your provider could deliver alerts about suspicious behavior or application changes.

Combine this information with data collected on-premises. By bringing together in-cloud and local data, companies can approach full cloud security awareness.

8. Draft and implement a robust cloud security policy

Cloud Security Policies are documents that explain how employees should use cloud resources. Policies include information about who can use cloud assets, how cloud resources should be used, and how to move sensitive data into the cloud. Policies document security controls like encryption or access management. They also include guidelines about event logging and security audits.

After reading a cloud security policy, an employee should know exactly how to access the cloud securely. And they should be aware of the consequences of unsafe cloud computing.

Implementing security policies is a critical aspect of cloud security. Companies can use automation tools to ensure staff follow policies properly. But regular auditing and reporting is vital. Security teams should check that policies are up-to-date. Periodic reviews should fine-tune policy documents and account for any new security developments.

Cloud users are not always alone when implementing security policies. Take advantage of policy enforcement tools offered by cloud providers. These controls can often handle much of the enforcement workload. Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASBs) may also include enforcement systems to track multi-cloud environments.

9. Use controls to secure vulnerable endpoints

Access controls and authentication are not enough to protect cloud endpoints. Companies should also adopt Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) configurations. EDR combines anti-malware tools, firewall tools, threat detection systems, and network segmentation. The result is defense-in-depth against potential cloud threats.

EDR monitors endpoint activity constantly. Detection tools flag up any suspicious access requests. Automated logging and alerts inform security teams when action is needed. Automation tools can also track security updates, ensuring critical security tools are up-to-date.

10. Create a robust cloud backup plan

Backing up critical data held on the cloud should be routine. CSPs generally offer backup policies of their own, allowing clients to store secure copies of sensitive data or export data as needed. Make sure every CSP provides this service, and that backup systems accord with your own security policy.

11. Secure data on the cloud and in transit

Encryption is another cloud security best practice. Companies using the cloud should encrypt data both at rest in cloud containers, and in transit. Data in transit is vulnerable to interception by malicious outsiders, making it a critical security risk.

CSPs tend to offer encryption as standard for data resident on their servers. Key management usually takes place via hardware security modules (HSMs). However, they may offer flexible key management options that allow clients to manage their encryption keys.

Native encryption offered by CSPs may be incompatible with workloads. Self-management can also be more secure, allowing clients to apply specialist authentication processes. Find a seamless encryption process that minimizes the steps required by cloud users.

12. Manage threats inside the cloud

Sometimes, attackers will breach cloud assets, posing a risk to apps and data. Security teams must have the ability to respond when attacks take place. Intrusion detection and threat prevention tools (IDPS) provide this ability.

IDPS software detects threats across the entire network, including cloud deployments and related on-premises assets. Detection triggers quarantine processes. IDPS tools also report immediately to security teams, providing information about the scale and nature of the threat.

13. Make compliance a central aspect of cloud security strategies

All cloud deployments must comply with relevant data security regulations. This applies to all companies dealing with client data, including personally identifiable information (PII).

Different regulations apply depending on your sector. For instance, HIPAA is relevant to healthcare companies, while PCI-DSS applies to credit handling businesses. Most businesses face more than one regulatory compliance challenge. Each regulation requires its own risk assessment and compliance strategy.

Create compliance checklists for relevant regulations. Apply them when adding new cloud providers. Build compliance audits into your security policy, and make employees aware of their legal responsibilities.

Penetration testing is another compliance best practice. Test cloud assets to make sure access control and authentication functions properly. Document any issues and fixes on the client side. And regularly audit the security performance of cloud partners as well.

It is important to remember that auditing is not purely a compliance task. Audits should inform everyday security practices. For example, security teams should audit permissions and user behavior to ensure resources are being used safely.

14. Stay informed with targeted logging

Cloud providers usually provide the option of enabling automated logging features. These features provide numerous benefits.

Automated logging is a powerful tool for protecting against shadow IT and app changes by malicious outsiders. Managers can set baselines and track any changes in real-time. Cloud apps may be poorly configured and vulnerable as a result. Logs supply information to rectify any faulty configurations. Security staff can then easily restore apps to a safe state.

Security checklist for cloud customers

Following the cloud security best practices outlined above is a good basis for threat protection and data security. Putting security recommendations into practice can be difficult. But this cloud security checklist covers the most important security issues.

1. Can you trust your cloud provider(s)?

Carry out risk assessments on every cloud partner thoroughly before engaging any services. Part of this risk assessment should investigate whether the provider is completely trustworthy. Does the company have a proven record of maintaining data security? Does it assess all staff before providing clearance to handle client data?

Check that providers meet local screening standards such as the I-9 form. This provides evidence that each employee is authorized to deal with sensitive data. Without screening, the risk of insider threats will be much higher.

2. Establish watertight data encryption

All data passing through cloud endpoints should be encrypted. Use VPN encryption to cloak network traffic and prevent interception by malicious actors.

Data at rest should also be encrypted at all times. Only commission cloud providers that offer encryption and the tools required to encrypt different classes of data. Make sure encryption features in your cloud security policy, and all users are aware of how to protect sensitive data.

3. Maintain visibility

Cloud assets should be visible at all times. Security teams require the ability to track user activity and log behavior. Monitoring should also track any code or configuration changes to cloud applications.

Make sure cloud providers offer data monitoring, and that all data flows are compatible with centralized security software. Put in place systems that report any alerts record activity for compliance purposes.

4. Focus on physical protection

CSPs should be transparent regarding physical security measures. All cloud servers must be secure from physical damage and interference. Clients should be able to access information about security controls and threat responses to lock down private data centers.

Cloud providers should also provide information about secure hardware disposal. Cloud servers containing sensitive information can be stolen after deactivation. CSPs should be clear about how they decommission servers and protect client data throughout the hardware lifecycle.

5. Access management

Access management is at the heart of implementing cloud security. All cloud partners should accommodate third-party IAM tools or offer access management systems of their own.

These tools prevent unauthorized entry and manage permissions. Security managers can assign role-based privileges to different workgroups, and prevent access to resources users do not require.

Combine IAM systems with 2FA or Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) tools. These tools guard against credential theft and provide an extra line of defense against external attackers.

6. Check compliance certifications

Your cloud service provider should meet internationally recognized compliance standards. If these standards are not met, continue your search and choose a partner that implements security best practices.

For instance, cloud services fall under the Security, Trust, and Assurance Registry (STAR) program managed by the Cloud Security Alliance. The CSA maintains a registry of STAR compliant companies.

Alternatively, look for partners with ISO 27017 certification - a global gold standard in cloud security. Companies with either certification should be prioritized when commissioning cloud services.

But don't stop there.The best cloud providers go further than meeting CSA or ISO standards. They provide ways to harmonize their cloud services with client compliance strategies.

7. Cybersecurity policies

Cloud service providers should offer operational security controls to neutralize common cloud threats. Look for policy documents explaining how the provider detects threats and prevents data breaches.

OpSec policies should cover four core principles:

  • Protection during configuration changes and digital transitions
  • Managing vulnerabilities
  • Tracking activity and monitoring threats
  • Responding to attacks and limiting damage

8. Areas of responsibility

When selecting a cloud partner, be aware of the shared responsibility model. It is vital to understand areas of client responsibility, and areas handled by the cloud provider.

Responsibilities vary depending on your cloud environment. SaaS users will need to protect sensitive data on individual apps. But IaaS users need to secure their entire cloud infrastructure. This may include a cloud-based OS, security controls, and all apps used on that platform.

Agree areas of responsibility in person if possible. Document this agreement in your cloud security policy and disseminate this information to all stakeholders. There should be no ambiguity. Everyone must know their security responsibilities.

Cloud security emerges from planning and knowledge

The cloud security best practices and checklist above provides a solid foundation when commissioning cloud services. But the basis for secure cloud computing can be simplified even further:

  • Cloud security is the product of careful planning, understanding the threat environment, and making use of all available tools.

Clients should investigate potential cloud providers and the services they offer. Use tools provided by CSPs, and integrate them into enterprise-wide cloud security policies. Control access, encrypt data, authenticate every user, and maintain visibility. By following these practices, you can benefit from the cloud, while avoiding catastrophic data leaks and cyberattacks.