The Shared Responsibility Model: Its Importance and Best Practices for Cloud Security
Cloud services, such as Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), have become a key enabler of IT modernization. Unsurprisingly, about 95% of businesses use some form of cloud service today. State-of-the-art IT infrastructures and sophisticated technologies, which were once limited to only large enterprises, are now available to businesses of all sizes through “as-a-service” offerings. This cloud model allows businesses to utilize cloud computing services via subscription or pay-per-use basis without investing in expensive infrastructure or hiring highly specialized IT professionals.
According to the 2023 Thales Cloud Security Study, 75% of businesses surveyed revealed that their organization stores more than 40% of sensitive data in the cloud. Despite storing large volumes of business-critical data in the cloud, many businesses are still unclear about cloud data responsibilities. Many companies operate in the cloud, falsely believing that cloud data protection is solely the cloud service provider’s (CSP) responsibility.
As businesses migrate to cloud-based environments to access groundbreaking technologies and enhance operational efficiency, understanding and implementing appropriate security measures becomes even more critical. That’s where the shared responsibility model comes in. Read on to learn what the shared responsibility model is, its importance and how to better protect your invaluable data in cloud environments.
What is a shared responsibility model?
The shared responsibility model is a security framework that outlines the roles and responsibilities shared between CSPs and their customers to ensure data security. This model defines who is responsible for what aspects of security in cloud environments. It establishes a clear division of duties between cloud providers and their customers to ensure the safety and security of data, applications and infrastructure in the cloud.
What is shared responsibility and why is it important?
The shared responsibility model is based on the principle that data protection is a mutual obligation between cloud service providers and their customers. This model clearly distinguishes the responsibilities of both parties — CSPs and customers — to ensure there are no gaps in security, which can compromise the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information stored in cloud-based systems.
CSPs are responsible for safeguarding the integrity of their infrastructure. This includes all elements associated with the security “of” the cloud, such as maintaining network devices, updating server firmware, managing virtualization hypervisors and securing physical facilities like data centers. This helps build trust among customers that their mission-critical data stored on CSPs’ servers are safe and protected against potential loss and cyberthreats.
On the other hand, customers are responsible for the safety and security of operations within their own business systems, often referred to as security “in” the cloud. Businesses should ensure critical security elements, such as user access controls, data encryption at rest and in transit, firewall configuration and endpoint protection, align with established cybersecurity guidelines. However, it’s important to note that data protection responsibilities vary depending on where the workloads are hosted — for example, on SaaS, PaaS, IaaS, or in an on-premises data center.
When it comes to security in cloud environments, the shared responsibility model is crucial. Businesses need to clearly understand their responsibilities to ensure the safety of data and systems regardless of the cloud services used.
What is an example of shared responsibility?
Understanding the shared responsibility model is not as easy as it seems, because the responsibilities vary depending on the cloud model and cloud service provider. Here are some examples of the shared responsibility model from major cloud service providers:
- Amazon Web Services (AWS): According to the AWS shared responsibility model, AWS takes complete responsibility for protecting the infrastructure — hardware, software, networking and facilities that essentially run the services in the AWS Cloud. On the other hand, customers are responsible for managing and securing their data by classifying and encrypting their assets. Additionally, businesses must use identity and access management (IAM) tools to apply appropriate permissions to protect sensitive information from security and privacy risks.
- Microsoft Azure: Similar to AWS, customer responsibility depends on the deployment type. However, the Microsoft Azure shared responsibility model clearly states that regardless of the service model, customers are responsible for protecting their data, endpoints, user accounts and access to their workloads.
- Google Cloud Platform (GCP): While Google uses the term “shared fate” in place of shared responsibility, its security model is similar to that of AWS and Microsoft Azure. Google is responsible for safeguarding the infrastructure that powers all services in GCP. This includes ensuring physical data center and network security and maintaining the safety of the underlying virtualization technology. Customers, on the other hand, take responsibility for securing their data and applications, including the configuration and management of virtual machines, storage and networks. Customers must also implement appropriate access controls and data protection measures to ensure their applications and data are well-protected.
While security in the cloud is a collaborative effort, it is ultimately up to the customer to ensure that their data is adequately protected and only accessible to authorized individuals.
How shared responsibility applies to different cloud service models
The shared responsibility model for cloud security is based on two critical aspects: the type of cloud service model and the responsibility structure. Let’s look at some of the most popular cloud service models and how responsibilities under each model are structured.
IaaS is a cloud service where the service provider offers essential computing resources, such as servers, storage, networking and virtualization over the Internet on a pay-per-use basis. This model allows businesses to access advanced IT infrastructure without owning or managing resources like physical spaces, servers or underlying infrastructure.
Under this model, CSPs are responsible for the security of the data centers, services, storage and networks. At the same time, customers are responsible for classification, configuration and protection of the data stored and transmitted.
In a typical business environment, an organization would be required to build and maintain a cloud infrastructure, or in other words, create a platform to develop, test and deploy an application. However, with PaaS, a cloud computing model, businesses can access all necessary development tools and resources, like servers, networking, storage, operating systems, middleware (for example, database middleware or application server middleware), database management systems and more on a pay-per-use basis.
In a PaaS model, CSPs are responsible for securing the platform, its applications and operating systems (OSs). On the other hand, customers are responsible for protecting their software codes and other assets developed on the platform.
SaaS is another cloud service delivery model where cloud service providers like Google, Microsoft and Salesforce offer their software solutions to customers via the internet. Like in IaaS and PaaS, customers subscribe to software services developed, hosted and managed by the cloud service provider in the SaaS model.
Compared with IaaS and PaaS, CSPs hold greater responsibility when it comes to SaaS security. CSPs are responsible for the security of the application, guest OS, virtualization, network, infrastructure, data centers and more. On the other hand, customers are liable for data protection and user and access management.
Shared responsibility pros and cons
The shared responsibility model may seem simple at first glance; however, complexities often arise when end users don’t understand these responsibilities clearly. While the shared responsibility model offers several benefits, some potential disadvantages must be considered as well.
Some of the key benefits of the shared responsibility model include:
- Reduced workloads: When an organization migrates to cloud environments, some responsibilities get transferred to the cloud service provider. In a typical on-premises model, businesses are responsible for the overall security of the infrastructure, hardware, network and storage. However, in a shared responsibility model, these responsibilities fall on the shoulders of CSPs, reducing the burden on end users. This model also saves businesses a significant amount of time, effort and resources.
- Ease of use: The shared responsibility model makes working in the cloud easily manageable, less resource intensive and highly efficient.
- Enhanced security: CSPs have the necessary resources and skilled IT professionals to ensure the security of the infrastructure and services they provide. Cloud vendors regularly monitor and test their cloud environments and ensure patches and updates are released on time. This is especially beneficial for small and midsize businesses that often lack the budget and expertise to manage a robust IT infrastructure or security in-house.
Although the shared responsibility model is a solid security framework, it does have some potential drawbacks, which include:
- Wrong assumptions regarding cloud security: One of the major disadvantages of the shared responsibility model is the failure to understand security in the cloud. Many businesses operate with the false belief that once they migrate their workloads to the cloud, CSPs are automatically responsible for their data security. However, that’s not entirely true. There are many aspects of cloud security that customers are responsible for, such as data protection, identity and access management and configuration settings.
- Over-reliance or distrust in CSPs: As discussed in the previous section, many organizations tend to think cloud security is entirely the CSPs’ responsibility and that they are exempt from such obligations. As a result, they may not patch or update their applications, assuming CSPs will do it for them. On the other hand, there are cloud users that are insecure. They tend to distrust the cloud vendor’s capability to protect their sensitive digital assets. In doing so, they lose out on the many benefits cloud computing offers, such as reduced costs, flexibility, scalability, automation and access to advanced technologies.
- Keeping up with CSP solutions and updates: For the shared responsibility model to be successful, both CSPs and end users must work together. This means users must thoroughly understand the cloud vendor’s solutions and configuration settings and any change made to the CSP’s cloud environment or services to ensure they do their part diligently, which can be challenging for businesses operating with limited IT staff.
Shared responsibility best practices
While understanding one’s role in ensuring data security in the cloud is critical, there are some best practices that businesses can follow to get the most out of the shared responsibility model.
- Review SLAs thoroughly: Your organization’s security responsibilities will vary depending on the cloud service model and the CSP. Therefore, it is important to have a clear understanding of your cloud provider’s service level agreements (SLAs) to know where your responsibilities start and end. It’s critical to understand what aspects of security are covered by the service provider and what security features are offered. You must also ensure the SLA covers service availability and data recovery objectives.
- Implement identity access and management: Deploy solutions to control user access and manage user identity to prevent unauthorized access to your organization’s critical resources in the cloud. Classify data and clearly define who has access to what type of resources. Ensure your employees have access to only those tools, resources and data required to accomplish their day-to-day tasks.
- Encrypt sensitive data: Make sure to encrypt data in transit and at rest to protect business-critical data from loss, leakage or corruption. While major CSPs implement robust security measures to protect their cloud environment, customers should also ensure they have appropriate security systems in place to protect their data stored in those environments.
- Monitor and examine security controls regularly: Cloud vendors regularly provide security updates and patches to minimize security gaps and vulnerabilities in their services and architecture. Customers, on their part, should ensure security controls are monitored and examined frequently to identify potential security risks before they turn into significant problems.
- Implement a reliable data backup and disaster recovery solution: Data security should be the top priority regardless of the cloud service model or CSP you choose. Data loss can occur due to several factors, from human error to misconfigurations to cyberattacks. A robust data backup and disaster recovery solution can help you overcome any data disaster and ensure your business never stops.
Secure IaaS and SaaS workloads with Unitrends
Cloud outages are not new. Disruptions in cloud environments can occur due to hardware failures, cyberattacks, human mistakes and natural disasters. In 2022, leading cloud service providers like Google, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle suffered major outages that lasted for several hours in many incidents. In today’s always-on business environment, every second matters. In such a competitive landscape, even a short period of downtime can cause significant damage to businesses of all sizes. That’s why even top cloud vendors like Microsoft, in their services agreement, recommend that you regularly back up your data and other assets stored in the cloud or store them using third-party backup solutions.
Unitrends Backup for Microsoft Azure, purpose-built for Azure-native workloads, provides reliable multicloud backup and simple, rapid restore capabilities to ensure seamless business continuity and disaster recovery for your organization. It delivers enterprise-grade protection with hourly replication where data is stored immutably in a secure and private Unitrends Cloud. This helps minimize single-cloud risk to provide rapid recovery during downtime, cyberattacks and outages.
Additionally, Unitrends Endpoint Backup for Servers combines direct-to-cloud backup, ransomware protection and robust disaster recovery (DR) capabilities to ensure continuity for critical server workloads anytime, anywhere (including VMs running in the cloud) with no hardware required. The solution automatically verifies backups to prove they are healthy and recoverable, enabling businesses like yours to recover from any disaster confidently.
Unitrends Backup for Google Workspace, Microsoft 365 and Salesforce eliminates lengthy, complex and manual backup and recovery processes, making SaaS data protection simple and hassle-free. Unitrends automatically backs up your data daily in the background, so you can focus on productivity rather than worrying about data loss. You also have the option to initiate a backup or more frequent backups at any time. Additionally, with the end-user self-service functionality, your end users can quickly find and restore lost files without any IT intervention.
Book a call today to find out how Unitrends strengthens your organization’s overall security and resilience.