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What is the meaning of SaaS?
Software as a Service, also known as SaaS, is a cloud-based service model where a subscriber uses the software via an internet browser. This software could be anything from a simple application such as MS Word to complex business applications such as SAP. All the software tech stack or backend components are located on external servers maintained by the SaaS provider. Before diving into security in SaaS applications, let’s go through basics.
Software as a Service (SaaS) applications differs from traditional software delivery model in two ways:
- Hardware, software setup and maintenance headache is gone. Most of the IT responsibilities are SaaS providers responsibility.
- Costs are subscription model, usually priced on monthly, quarterly or annual basis.
In 1961, Professor John McCarthy said at MIT’s centennial celebration “Computing may someday be organized as a public utility just as the telephone system is a public utility. Each subscriber needs to pay only for the capacity he actually uses,….”.
The year was 1961. How true is that!
What are the examples of SaaS?
- Zendesk – Online customer support platform allows you to set up your customer support desk with all standard customer service features.
- Shopify – You can set up an eCommerce store and start your online shop in no time.
- Microsoft Office 365 – Microsoft offers its standard software online without worrying about setups, installation and maintenance.
Thousands more such software have moved to SaaS offerings.
SaaS vs PaaS vs IaaS
Cloud computing operates in three main ways, i.e. SaaS, PaaS and IaaS. Cloud providers often price their cloud computing model around these three ways:
- SaaS: Software as a Service (SaaS) is software available via third-party over the internet. SaaS covers about 24% of all enterprise networks.
- PaaS: Platform as a Service model provides hardware as well as software tools via cloud offerings. PaaS is the most popular model.
- IaaS: Infrastructure as a Service includes cloud-based services such as networking, virtualisation, storage, etc., mainly offered as a pay-as-you-go model.
Here is a cloud shared responsibility model diagram showing differences in the SaaS, PaaS and IaaS architecture.
SaaS vs PaaS vs IaaS Examples
It is easier to understand with examples of how various cloud models differ in terms of usage and flexibility. It is common to see the combined use of Saas and IaaS computing models in an enterprise. Here are some of the SaaS vs PaaS vs IaaS examples:
- SaaS examples: Salesforce, Slack, Dropbox, DocuSign
- PaaS examples: Windows Azure (mostly PaaS), Magento Commerce Cloud, AWS Lambda, Heroku
- IaaS examples: AWS EC2, Digital Ocean, IBM Cloud, Oracle Cloud, Azure
What is SaaS security?
Security in the SaaS model relates to securing sensitive data and ensuring the privacy of a cloud-based application. Saas applications process gazillions of bytes of sensitive data making it accessible at any corner of the globe. Privacy and data protection are the two biggest SaaS security threats. Without sounding like causing any fear and doubt factor here, some enterprise-level SaaS cloud providers ensure that their applications and the underlying information are as secure as banks. SaaS businesses often opt for third party security assurance against their solutions. It offers multiple benefits:
- Identification, classification and remediation of SaaS security risks uncovered by security experts
- Attestation for regulatory, commercial requirements where third-party validation proof is required
Cloud security risks
The leading cloud security threats observed across the internet are:
- Data breaches (due to many reasons including the below risks)
- Human error
- Data loss due to no backup
- Insider threats
- Insecure APIs
- User account compromises
- Other attacks (Advanced Persistent Attacks, Phishing, shares services exploitation, etc.)
How do you assess SaaS security?
A secure application in the traditional sense is more about how best you can configure, tweak and change code aspects to add security. You may follow the OWASP checklist of top risks and should be good to go against most common types of cyberattacks. Similarly, to find an extensive list of security issues in SaaS applications and underlying data, you should consider SaaS security testing. It identifies gaps in your security controls and provides advice on remediating the security risks affecting your applications.
It is essential to investigate cybersecurity aspect before buying SaaS services. Multiple elements such as cloud, application, API and infrastructure security practices are at play when considering security-minded SaaS vendors.
SaaS Security Checklist
Several SaaS security principles should be followed to answer if SaaS provider is doing enough to protect user data. Be careful this list doesn’t apply to the product at the code level, for which you should look into OWASP top 10 risks for applications and APIs. This SaaS security checklist is also usable as internal guidance or extended to include best security practices in each area to avoid any pitfalls when considering marketing your SaaS product.
Cyber security ‘in letter and spirit’
It should do what it exactly says on the tin.
Cyber security should not be limited to marketing fluff but adopted as a proactive measure by the SaaS providers. Security-aware cloud providers and SaaS vendors often share their annual security validation results and explain security features on their websites or customer portals. If you haven’t come across this documentation, you should prompt the potential vendor during the product demo. It may act as an excellent opportunity to learn about the security features of cloud service in action. Overall, SaaS provider’s business portal or vendor section should have an exact process in dealing with the following areas:
- Security advisories around publicly reported flaws.
- Patching availability, status and updates
- Resources around cyber security practices for SaaS users
- Regulatory assessments and security decisions around cloud services (based on sector)
In our experience with SaaS market, many vendors are still climbing the security maturity ladder. Small and medium-sized organisations often tend to forget security during design and development. Now, in a flash, a big tender has a mandatory requirement – third-party security assurance. Running around to find a security service provider to give you a quote and deliver a service is not the end of it all. You need to consider timelines for a SaaS security assessment, liaison with third-party if involved in the development and maintenance, risk remediation of findings from security assessment and then a revalidation to ensure there are no residual risks.
Use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) on privileged accounts is a no brainer. It decreases the risk as a threat actor would need to perform more complex attacks to target MFA tokens. Many data breaches occurred due to easy compromise of highly privileged accounts using phishing attacks. Although certain MFA implementations could be susceptible too, the likelihood of such attacks is relatively lower than not using MFA at all.
Authentication and Authorisation
Authentication and authorisation are amongst the top two most important aspects of an application. At a higher level, this phase is mainly Identity and Access Management (IAM). These security practices determine if a user should or should not have legitimate access (authentication) followed by access levels and roles (authorisation). Broken authentication and session management are the main security risks related to login mechanisms, access controls, keys, session tokens or implementation flaws that may allow an attacker to compromise accounts. The exploitation of authentication and access control vulnerabilities occurs in many ways such as brute force attacks, take over user sessions, enumerate legitimate user data and related implications.
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Secure encryption configuration
Data at rest should utilise strong encryption measures, including strong cloud security measures for backup data. It is similar to data encryption of your laptop hard drive. Similarly, to protect information such as client sensitive data is the crucial factor for most businesses out there. Lack of seriousness around data protection alone could be a red flag while selecting SaaS solutions.
Data in transit between the clients and service vendor should be protected. Secure encryption configuration provides the needed privacy and protection from eavesdropping, tampering or other interferences. Use of TLS protocol is the de-facto standard for securing data in transit over the web. Although TLS 1.3 is the current version, TLS 1.2 is the most popular version in use. Any predecessors such as TLS 1.1, TLS 1.0 and SSL versions are considered insecure. Similarly, sensitive data in transit between microservices, whether within the same cloud or multiple cloud services, must be protected similar to client/service protection levels.
API security vulnerabilities are an ignored area, receiving much love from threat actors. This is often due to the misconception that they are hidden. Although hidden from user view, APIs are not hidden from the browsers in complete control of an internet-based threat actor. Insecure or missing protection mechanisms for API endpoints causes broken user authentication flaws. All internal and external APIs dealing with sensitive or customer data must use an authentication mechanism. To mitigate insecure API risks, OWASP top 10 API security checklist should be followed to secure all communication endpoints.
Privilege levels act as checks against controlled used of application functionality on the need to know basis. Your SaaS product (applications and infrastructure) should implement multiple levels of privilege (based on functionality) to enforce separation of privileges between different user accounts, groups or customer bases of an organisation. It should also be acted at the network level, e.g. Network Security Groups (NSG) changes should not be available to large groups without a change approval process.
Logging and auditing
Logging and auditing is a critical element of a good security strategy. You should ensure that the SaaS provider implements useful logging and auditing policy, providing a granular view of resource logs and audit logs. These applications and network logs should be available to customers, especially since security event logs access is essential to customers for their security and confidence in the cloud provider. Cloud services generate a lot of data. It is necessary to consider which cloud services and their properties are worth logging in because log storage and analysis are resource-consuming tasks.
Preparation is vital when it comes to cyber-attacks. Apologies in advance but I have to include this famous saying it’s no longer a question of ‘if’; it’s a matter of ‘when’. Questioning the vendor over how they dealt with incident response matters in case of a past event or their process would be a useful metric. SaaS vendor should have a well-defined incident response policy dealing with cloud security incidents.
The above listed SaaS security checklist contains practices that are sure to help assess security properties. It’s worth pointing out that this is not the extensive list to rely on because ultimately, your organisations’ risk management identifies more and precise security requirements. Network and infrastructure security components also play an essential role in protecting SaaS applications’ supporting infrastructure and services. For instance, PCI DSS, GDPR and any other organisations’ requirements may add another dimension to ensure your providers adhere to a minimum set of requirements.
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