What is Cloud-native Application Security, and How Does It Work?

Cloud-native applications are different in manyways from traditional apps. Cloud-native apps use microservices architectures that are much more complex than their monolithic counterparts. They typically run in distributed environments. They rely on hosting stacks that often include components – such as orchestrators and service meshes – that you wouldn’t encounter when working with a traditional monolith.

For these reasons and more, cloud-native applications require a different approach to security – which is why cloud-native application security has evolved into a distinct discipline. As this article explains, any organization that deploys cloud-native apps should embrace cloud-native application security as a key pillar of their overall cybersecurity strategy.

What is cloud-native application security?

Cloud-native application security is the practice of integrating security into the development and deployment of cloud-native apps.

What is a cloud-native application?

To understand fully what that means, let’s step back and discuss what cloud-native apps are and where they came from.

Until about a decade ago, most applications ran as monoliths. That meant that the entire application operated as a single process. In addition, each monolith was typically deployed on a single server – distributed application deployment strategies, which involved hosting applications across a cluster of servers, were rare.

This changed starting around 2013 with the appearance of Docker, an open source framework for deploying applications using containers. Docker made it easy to break an application into a series of discrete parts – called microservices – and run each one in its own container, with internal APIs enabling communication between the microservices. Docker also allows containers to run across a cluster of servers, which means containerized apps can operate easily using a distributed model.

Combined with other tools – like Kubernetes, an orchestrator that helps manage containers running across a cluster of servers – Docker and other container frameworks helped organizations shift to a cloud-native application development and deployment strategy. Cloud-native meant that their applications were designed from the start to take full advantage of highly scalable, distributed cloud infrastructure. Rather than running as monoliths on individual servers, cloud-native apps run as sets of microservices that are distributed across many servers. Using this approach, businesses can build and deploy apps that are more scalable and agile than monoliths.

It’s worth noting, too, that cloud-native applications have converged with other innovations in the realm of software development over the past decade, such as the adoption of the DevOps philosophy (which encourages close collaboration between developers and IT operations teams as a means of maximizing efficiency and lowering risk) and the implementation of Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) pipelines (which allow organizations to build and update software by making frequent changes).

Although DevOps and CI/CD aren’t strictly bound to cloud-native applications (you can practice DevOps or use CI/CD even with monoliths), combining these innovations with cloud-native application architectures and deployment patterns allows organizations to double down on the efficiency and agility of their application strategies.

The end result of all of these changes is that many of today’s applications involve more complex architectures and deployment strategies than their predecessors. In addition, the processes used to develop cloud-native apps involve a faster rate of change and more moving pieces than traditional approaches to application development.

Why is cloud-native application security important?

The complexity surrounding cloud-native applications is the main reason why cloud-native application security is so important.

Compared to cloud-native application security, securing traditional applications is relatively simple because there are fewer moving pieces to worry about. Traditional AppSec basically boils down to securing the code in your monolith and the endpoint that hosts it.

With cloud-native apps, however, you have to manage a much broader set of risks, including:

  • Vulnerabilities that could exist in each of the microservices within your application.
  • Risks in container images, which serve as the blueprints for launching microservices inside containerized environments.
  • Threats against the APIs that microservices use to talk to each other.
  • Attacks against orchestrators, service meshes, API gateways, and the various other components that exist in a typical cloud-native application hosting stack (but which would usually not be part of a monolithic hosting stack).
  • Risks or vulnerabilities that may emerge within the fast-moving CI/CD pipelines used to develop cloud-native apps.

Cloud-native security addresses these challenges by providing security protections purpose-built for the unique needs of cloud-native apps. It detects and assesses risks that conventional security solutions just don’t cover because those risks aren’t relevant for monolithic applications.

How does cloud-native security work?

Cloud-native security works by integrating security protections into all stages of the cloud-native application development lifecycle, as well as assessing and mitigating threats at all layers of cloud-native environments.

To deliver maximum value, a cloud-native application security platform should:

  • Scan for risks in microservices source code, binaries, and container images, in order to identify vulnerabilities early in the software development lifecycle.
  • Scan running applications to identify risks that would not be evident from testing individual microservices.
  • Assess access control configurations within CI/CD pipelines, container orchestrators, and cloud hosting environments to identify oversights that could enable an attack.
  • Monitor runtime environments for signs of malicious activity, such as attempts to exploit API security risks or vulnerabilities in container runtime software.

This comprehensive approach to security protects cloud-native apps against all of the risks that could emerge across the many stages of the application lifecycle.

Cloud-native application security vs. CNAPP

A security solution that delivers the capabilities described above is called a Cloud-native Application Security Platform, or CNAPP. Thus, whereas cloud-native application security is the practice of securing modern applications, a CNAPP is an integrated set of tools that makes cloud-native application security possible.

In theory, you could secure modern apps without a CNAPP. You could deploy different tools to protect against each of the various risks that affect cloud-native apps. However, that would be tedious and time-consuming. It would also leave you at risk of missing critical protections due to gaps in the types of risks that your various tools cover.

In contrast, a CNAPP provides end-to-end cloud-native security protections in a single, centralized platform.

Risks and limitations of cloud-native AppSec

While cloud-native application security is a key practice for organizations that deploy modern apps, it can prove challenging due to risks and limitations like the following:

  • Inefficiency and delays: The high volume of cloud-native security threats that teams must manage can slow down application development and deployment if processes for finding and investigating risks are slow or inefficient.
  • Multiple stakeholders: Cloud-native security is a collective responsibility that requires participation not just from security teams, but also from developers, software testers, IT operations teams, and everyone else who plays a role in helping to find and fix vulnerabilities. For this reason, building processes that bring all stakeholders together to protect cloud-native apps can be complex.
  • Ever-increasing complexity: Cloud-native apps tend to become more complex over time as developers add new microservices, application hosting environments scale up, and so on. This means that excelling at cloud-native security today doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to meet the cloud-native security threats that you may face tomorrow.

Cloud-native security best practices

The following best practices can help mitigate cloud-native security challenges like those described above:

  • Integrate security into software development: Cloud-native security scans and tests should be tightly coupled with the software development lifecycle, rather than being performed as siloed processes. Integrating security into the SDLC increases efficiency and reduces the risk of delays.
  • Shift security “everywhere”: Performing security checks at all stages of the SDLC – which means checking for risks not just early-on or post-deployment, but shifting security everywhere – maximizes the chances of identifying risks in complex cloud-native apps.
  • Automate security: The complexity of cloud-native apps and development processes means that the ability to automate security is critical. Automation should extend not just to risk detection, but also to risk mitigation, which can be automated in some cases.

Managing cloud-native application security with Checkmarx

As a comprehensive enterprise application security platform, Checkmarx delivers the full set of capabilities that businesses need to secure cloud-native apps efficiently and at scale. No matter how you develop your applications or which technologies you use to deploy them, Checkmarx empowers you to detect, assess, and remediate risks in source code, live application environments, APIs, containers, cloud infrastructure, and all of the other components that factor into modern application development and deployment.
See for yourself by requesting a demo.

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