A Secure Multi-cloud: A Real Possibility or Just a Pipe Dream?

The adoption of a multi-cloud environment has skyrocketed, offering organizations flexibility, scalability, and cost efficiency to operate competitively in the age of digital transformation. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, however. With all good things comes risk. As organizations spread workloads across multiple cloud providers, they also increase their attack surface and face a greater risk of security flaws and vulnerabilities.

To ensure the security of multi-cloud environments, organizations must become proactive in identifying and mitigating potential threats — easier said than done. Typical advice, even targeted at multi-cloud security doesn’t quite cover all the bases. Let’s take it a little further.

The typical advice for securing a multi-cloud environment

More companies are adopting a multi-cloud strategy attempting to maximize flexibility, and there’s quite a bit of advice out there for handling security in such a complex environment. You probably know this song already. It goes like this:

  • Develop a strategy: Define your organization’s security requirements and goals. Consider factors like data sensitivity and risk tolerance. Create a framework.
  • Understand shared responsibility: The service provider is responsible for the underlying infrastructure, but it’s the company itself that’s responsible for the data, applications, and user access. Clarify and understand the division of responsibilities.
  • Implement strong access controls: Strong authentication ensures that only the right individuals can access cloud resources. This includes strong passwords, multi-factor authentication, and regular review of access privileges.
  • Don’t forget encryption: This includes encryption for data at rest and in transit and secure communication protocols for data transmission. 
  • Monitor and log activities: Robust logging and monitoring mechanisms provide a front-line defense against anomalies. Security information and event management (SIEM) tools help.
  • Update regularly: It goes without saying but implementing prompt security patches mitigates potential risks.
  • Conduct vulnerability assessments: Scanning cloud infrastructure and performing penetration tests identifies security gaps and helps companies stay ahead of threats.
  • Educate and train employees: The human factor in cybersecurity is a critical consideration. Security awareness and training ensures employees understand best practices and their roles and responsibilities in the fight against threats.

And there’s nothing wrong with this list. It’s a good list of things to consider when implementing a multi-cloud security strategy. But it’s too broad and leaves a few gaps. 

Can the multi-cloud be secure?

There are a few key threats facing multi-cloud environments.

Can we see our entire cloud infrastructure?

One of the biggest challenges in multi-cloud environments is the lack of visibility. While cloud providers offer access management and control capabilities, companies have to go further to prevent unauthorized access. This includes exploring the passwordless future, conditional access, role-based controls, and granular governance. But keeping up with these methods takes a lot of work.

Are we ready for more effective Distributed Denial of Service attacks? 

DDoS aims to deny access to services through sheer overwhelm. While the multi-cloud may seem like a great way to avoid this, thanks to scalability, the reality is that you’ve expanded your attack service and make securing them more complex. Again, combating this reality requires a lot of work tracking down different policies from cloud service providers and building solutions that can encompass the mitigation and recovery process.

Are we utilizing API best practices?

Applications and APIs play a crucial role in scalability and integration, but APIs are also a significant part of the visibility/observability issue. Extending security protections to runtime environments in the cloud is vital for maintaining usability while mitigating API risks.

Are we ready to take insider threats seriously?

Your own teams pose significant risks to multi-cloud environments. Employees need to know common attack vectors and understand security best practices. However, going beyond simple training incentivizes employees to prioritize continuous security training and foster a culture of vigilance. Additionally, companies need to understand how implementing tools like AI can help uncover suspicious and anomalous behavior from employees putting the company at risk on purpose.

Making visibility a priority

Lack of visibility (and therefore control) is a serious challenge for businesses securing multi-cloud environments. When organizations leverage multiple cloud providers, it becomes difficult to track and monitor all the data, applications, user access, and permissions across all clouds. Gaps in security monitoring and detection leave organizations vulnerable to unauthorized access and security breaches.

Comprehensive understanding and awareness of the entire environment help IT teams and tools powered by AI identify potential security flaws, vulnerabilities, and anomalies faster. However, the problems businesses are trying to solve by allocating resources to different locations make this visibility challenging. Add in the proliferation of APIs and web applications, and companies add to their attack surface.

Visibility is a key challenge in the pursuit of comprehensive security solutions. Companies must expand their security checklist to include policies that prevent these gaps. While the initial checklist covers important strategies for securing a multi-cloud environment, there are a few key aspects companies may overlook.

  • Cloud provider due diligence: Of course, organizations consider security policies of potential cloud providers, but thorough due diligence is necessary. Evaluate more than simply data breach history. How did they address the breach? What are their current incident response capabilities? Do they have certifications for specific challenges? 
  • Regular assessment of third-party integrations: Companies often solve integration issues with third-party services and applications. Regular security assessments of all third-party integrations and services ensures they meet the latest security standards—their security posture, data handling, and potential vulnerabilities they may introduce to the environment.
  • Comprehensive incident response and security planning: Prevention and mitigation are only part of the equation. A detailed incident response and recovery plan outlines the steps necessary in the event of an incident, assigns roles and responsibilities, and establishes communication channels. Companies should regularly review this plan to ensure it covers the most up-to-date situation.
  • Continuous monitoring and threat intelligence: Basic logging and monitoring won’t cover a complex multi-cloud environment. Advanced threat intelligence capabilities like machine learning-based anomaly detection and security information and event management (SIEM) tools move companies from reactive to proactive response strategies.
  • Cloud provider exit strategy: It’s crucial to have a plan in place for transitioning between cloud providers or bringing services back in-house so that companies don’t accidentally create vulnerabilities during the change. This strategy should address data migration, vendor lock-in considerations, and security controls during transition.

Security in the multi-cloud must evolve

Managing security within a multi-cloud environment requires an evolution in security practices. 

  • Emphasize visibility and centralized control: Security solutions must have a holistic view of the environment, including applications, data, user access, and network traffic. Centralized control enables unified security, giving organizations the capability to enforce consistent security policies, monitor activity, and better detect anomalies.
  • Adapt identity and access management (IAM): IAM strategies must also evolve. For example, identity federation and single sign-on solutions can enable seamless authentication across the environment. Role-based access control and the principle of least privilege ensure that users only have the necessary permissions while still enabling them to do their jobs.
  • Leverage cloud-native security tools and automation: Security tools designed for on-premises environments may not suit the dynamic nature of multi-cloud. Security needs to evolve to enable automation, threat detection, and incident response capabilities tailored to the specific cloud platform used.
  • Enable network security and segmentation: Multi-cloud environments require robust network security measures. Security needs to evolve by implementing network segmentation and isolating workloads and data within each cloud provider. This prevents lateral movement and limits the impact of potential breaches. Organizations can also employ virtual private clouds (VPCs), network security groups (NSGs), and next-generation firewalls (NGFWs) to enforce network security policies and control traffic between cloud environments.
  • Implement continuous monitoring and threat intelligence: Multi-cloud environments demand continuous monitoring and proactive threat intelligence capabilities. Security needs to evolve by implementing advanced monitoring solutions that detect and respond to security events in real time. This includes leveraging security information and event management (SIEM) systems, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS), and security analytics tools. Integration with threat intelligence feeds and leveraging machine learning algorithms enables organizations to identify and respond to emerging threats more effectively.
  • Remember compliance and data governance: Multi-cloud environments introduce additional complexities regarding compliance and data governance. Security must evolve by ensuring appropriate security controls and compliance frameworks are in place across all cloud providers. Organizations must clearly understand the regulatory requirements applicable to their industry and region and implement controls to meet those requirements consistently across their multi-cloud environment.
  • Minimize point solutions: Security solutions designed for specific functions or individual components may work in the short term but don’t address the long-term strategy. They lack centralized visibility, experience limitations in scale, and may be incompatible with cloud environments. Multi-cloud demands a holistic, interoperable approach capable of adapting to the environment instead of forcing the environment to fit a series of point solutions. This is different than simply “working” in a multi-cloud. Instead, it must be a single policy distributed across the entire environment.

The role of artificial intelligence in securing a multi-cloud environment

Artificial intelligence will never replace humans in the security role, but it will play a critical part in supporting human efforts to keep a multi-cloud environment secure. It will extend human capabilities and reach, offering guidance and recognizing patterns humans may miss (or notice too late).

  • Threat detection and prevention: The sheer volume of data across the multi-cloud environment can make detection challenging. AI can process large data volumes from sources such as logs, network traffic, and user behavior to find patterns indicative of potential security threats. Machine learning algorithms learn and adapt, helping improve detection and prevention.
  • Intelligent security analytics: Jumping off from the previous point, AI automates the analysis of security events and provides actionable insights for human teams. Sifting through massive data to identify patterns and correlate events allows AI to detect sophisticated attacks and unusual behavior, even spanning across different cloud providers. Security teams can prioritize and respond more effectively to reduce response times and minimize the impact of any breaches.
  • User behavior analytics: AI-powered UBA systems can monitor user activities, access patterns, and understand behaviors across multiple platforms. By establishing baselines for normal user behavior, AI can identify anomalous activities that may indicate insider threats or compromised accounts. UBA helps detect unauthorized access attempts, privilege misuse, or unusual data exfiltration behaviors, enhancing overall security in multi-cloud environments. This reduces false positives and allows teams to get work done largely unhindered by accidental flags.
  • Automated incident response: AI can automate incident response processes in multi-cloud environments. Security incidents can be automatically identified, categorized, and remediated through predefined rules and AI algorithms. This includes actions such as isolating compromised systems, blocking suspicious traffic, or triggering alerts to security teams. Automated incident response powered by AI reduces response times, enhances consistency, and minimizes the impact of security incidents.
  • Vulnerability management and patching: AI can assist in vulnerability management by automatically scanning multi-cloud environments for vulnerabilities and prioritizing remediation efforts based on risk levels. AI-powered systems can analyze vulnerability data, threat intelligence feeds, and contextual information to recommend appropriate patches and configurations. This helps organizations stay on top of security updates and reduces the window of exposure to potential threats.
  • Adaptive access controls: AI can enhance access control mechanisms in multi-cloud environments by dynamically adjusting access privileges based on user behavior, context, and risk scores. AI systems can analyze user activities, location, device information, and other contextual data to make real-time access control decisions. This adaptive approach strengthens security by dynamically granting or revoking access privileges, reducing the risk of unauthorized access or privilege abuse.
  • Threat intelligence and proactive defense: AI can leverage threat intelligence feeds, including indicators of compromise (IOCs) and behavior-based threat models, to proactively identify emerging threats and potential attack vectors. AI systems can analyze real-time threat data, correlate it with internal security information, and provide proactive recommendations for strengthening security controls. By harnessing AI-powered threat intelligence, organizations can stay ahead of evolving threats and proactively defend their multi-cloud environments.

Visibility, automation, and holistic security solutions in a multi-cloud world

Securing a multi-cloud environment may be more challenging than traditional on-premises environments or even a single cloud. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a futile effort. Companies that have run all the possibilities and decided to embark on a multi-cloud solution for its flexibility can still take strong measures to ensure loopholes don’t exist. They will need to step away from point solutions or any approach that treats the multi-cloud as separate systems and create one holistic policy designed to create visibility. Then, human teams, in conjunction with AI, can deploy holistic security solutions to reduce vulnerabilities and enable the multi-cloud to reach its full potential.

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