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How to Improve Your Cloud Security Posture With Policy-as-Code

open policy agent Policy as Code Security as Code
How to Improve Your Cloud Security Posture With Policy-as-Code
open policy agent Policy as Code Security as Code

“The cloud business model provides huge market incentives for cloud service providers to place a higher priority on security than is typical for end-user organizations.” 
Jay Heiser, Gartner

The Cloud Environment: Advantages and Disadvantages

The cloud-native space undeniably offers many advantages: faster deployments, increased agility and resilience, lower risk, auto-scalability, and cost-effectiveness. However, the decentralized nature of the infrastructure raises many security issues that many organizations struggle with. Some firms also don’t know how many and what type of cloud resources they are running, much less configured. Moreover, serious misconfigurations often go undetected for days or weeks, and it can be very challenging to secure cloud services and applications.

The #1 Area Of Concern: Misconfigurations!

Gartner once predicted that by 2020, 95% of cloud security issues would be the result of misconfigurations or mistakes at the customer’s end. Recent events have shown that Gartner’s early pessimism is well-founded. In 2019 and 2020, cloud misconfiguration errors related to account permissions, password storage and management, unencrypted data stores, etc., led to numerous data breaches and the exposure of billions of records. Victims included high-profile companies like Capital One, Facebook, Ford, and Netflix. So it’s unsurprising that in the 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, misconfiguration errors ranked as the second biggest cause of data breaches, behind only hacking. 

These findings are also borne out by industry sentiment. Per a recent IDC/Ermetic study, nearly 80% of companies had experienced at least one cloud data breach in the previous 18 months. This explains why 67% of the 300 surveyed CISOs cited security misconfigurations as their top concern associated with cloud production environments.

Hence, a “policy-as-code” approach within DevOps workflows can be a real game-chang to address all these issues.

The Impact of Misconfigurations and The Need for "Shifting Left"

1- The Financial Costs of Misconfiguration Errors

Security breaches due to cloud misconfigurations have a huge financial impact on organizations. According to the Ponemon Institute, globally, the average cost per lost or stolen record is $146. If it contains PII, the cost is $150. The same report also found that misconfigured cloud servers were one of the most frequent threat vectors in breaches caused by malicious attacks. And the average cost of such breaches was a staggering $4.41 million. To identify cloud-hosted misconfigurations and protect sensitive data in cloud environments, the survey recommends that organizations implement a two-pronged approach combining technology and policy.

2- Lowered Team and Organizational Productivity

Cloud misconfigurations also have a more pragmatic, on-the-floor impact. As a result of misconfigurations and the resultant breaches, DevOps, Security, and Developer teams spend (read: waste) more time and effort on firefighting - fixing infrastructure issues and adding the necessary security measures to prevent re-occurrences. Such after-the-fact security implementations also cause friction between DevOps and Security teams, which negatively impacts productivity, and may even lead to more security issues down the line.

To mitigate these challenges, “shifting left” has become essential. By doing so, organizations deliberately embrace a “security by design” philosophy, wherein they instill security measures into DevOps workflows from the ground up, rather than at the tail end of the process. This involves implementing and using the right workflows, processes, and tools such as security automation, real-time monitoring and alerts, analytics, and of course, a policy-as-code model.

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Policy-as-Code: For More Robust and Secure DevOps

Coding practices that are usually applied to infrastructure can also be effectively used to enforce and manage policies. This approach to “codify” policies reduces risk by allowing enterprises to easily detect and remediate policy violations across cloud-native infrastructure and applications.

In simplest terms, policy-as-code brings security and policy management to the DevOps workflow. It involves implementing policy checks for the enterprise cloud environment at every stage of development with rules that align with the organization's requirements. Once a policy is written, it can be automatically enforced without manual review. And if the enforcement is done in the change path, violations can be prevented rather than detected. With this framework, policies perform like an application with version control and automated tests, allowing dev teams to accelerate delivery across the enterprise while increasing security and scalability with code snippets and reusable patterns.

The policy-as-code model helps prevent costly misconfigurations and ensures continuous compliance with enterprise security policies. It also promotes a developer-centric experience.

By integrating policy-as-code within their DevOps workflows, enterprises can ensure continuous deployment for cloud-native applications. They can also automate their DevOps pipeline by building, testing, and deploying applications in parallel with code development and pushes on a daily or weekly basis.

Automated Cloud Security Governance

Modern organizations function in a highly-competitive environment. To grow their business, develop a good reputation, and garner their customers’ trust, they understand that a “seat of the pants” business approach is not optimal. This is why they develop policies that span numerous categories. These include:

1- Security

These policies provide the foundation for an organization’s security program. They are adopted internally in order to protect the enterprise’s infrastructure integrity and data privacy.

Examples of security policies include:

  • Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) which stipulates the practices an employee must agree to, in order to use the organization’s IT assets
  • Access Control Policy (ACP) which covers the rules for user access, network access controls, corporate passwords, security of unattended workstations, etc.
  • Remote Access Policy which defines the acceptable methods of remotely accessing the org’s internal networks
  • Email/Communication Policy which outlines how employees can use the company’s email and other communication channels

2- Compliance

The aim of compliance policies is to ensure the organization’s compliance with standards like PCI-DSS or SOC, or laws like GDPR. Compliance with these standards communicates the organization’s commitment to doing business the right way, and in alignment with accepted benchmarks. It also imparts confidence to stakeholders like customers, suppliers, and partners, which increases trust in the business, and enhances its reputation. Compliance policies also help foster best practices, improve operations, and foster innovation.

3- Operational Excellence

The main purpose of these policies is to control or prevent service outages or degradation, maintain business continuity, and sustain growth. For instance, a policy may mandate that to deploy a microservice, developers adhere to a “multiple service instances per host” pattern by provisioning single or multiple physical or virtual hosts, and running several service instances on each. Another policy may require that all new configurations are properly validated to ensure consistency and adherence to business/technical requirements.

Historically, most policies are defined and enforced using manual, rules- and ticketing-based workflows. This process is not only slow and error-prone, it also limits scalability. Policy-as-code eliminates these issues. It helps establish automated operators within the cloud infrastructure which makes it easier to continuously monitor repositories for changes. In effect, whenever a change is discovered, the operators automatically trigger an update. This approach normalizes hybrid environments and helps organizations achieve exceptional governance levels in all cloud clusters from a single source of truth.

As enterprises provision and manage cloud-native infrastructure, they must maintain a balance between maintaining high development speeds and ensuring that security best practices and policies are continuously observed and adhered to. A policy-as-code model can help establish policy guardrails quickly and enforce them throughout the development lifecycle. This means they can detect and remediate violations as they develop, build and deploy. Policies can also be applied at runtime to continuously monitor cloud environments for risky changes.

With automated monitoring, organizations can proactively identify, measure, and mitigate violations and risks to critical infrastructure, systems, and data on an ongoing basis. Compared to periodic assessments or snapshots, continuous monitoring enables them to better understand if security controls and the configuration of deployed services continue to be effective. They can also initiate automated policy enforcement through integrations with some cloud provider services. Such automation eliminates the potential for human error that’s inherent in manual review processes and also allows a large number of policies or changes.

When determining which alerts to auto-remediate, it can be useful to look at a process that provides maximum remediation value vis-à-vis the alert’s potential for exploitability. When combined with “remediation as code”, policy-as-code can reduce alert fatigue while ensuring fast resolution of any detected violations.


A policy-as-code framework uses codified policies and automated enforcement.

Organizations that implement this approach can:

  • Quickly apply governance standards across their entire cloud infrastructure
  • Implement enterprise policy checks for cloud environments with enterprise-relevant rules
  • Validate and ensure infrastructure compliance earlier in the development lifecycle
  • Instill security measures into DevOps workflows and thus improve the infrastructure’s overall robustness

To power their policy-as-code approach, organizations can create a centralized “playbook” containing industry regulatory policies, IT standards and benchmarks, and even their own customized rules. By enforcing these policies, rules, and best practices across the entire SDLC, they can respond quickly to changes, speed up innovations, and scale up security, governance, and compliance. All in all, policy-as-code offers a powerful means for companies to leverage the advantages of the cloud while improving their cloud security posture.

Magalix empowers organizations to define, manage, and deploy custom governance policies as policy-as-code using a robust OPA policy execution engine. We also implement the right workflows and playbooks, and create compliance reporting and analytics. This enables enterprises to monitor infrastructure throughout its lifecycle, quickly detect and remediate violations, and minimize risk. Read more about Magalix

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