The rapid growth in the adoption of cloud-based solutions is evident. We have seen organizations that utilize over 100 such solutions. What we've also noticed is that some of these solutions are often distributed across multiple platforms, with varying security levels and resource consumption.
This scenario has given rise to very harmful challenges such as identity sprawl, as evidenced by a notable 67% of organizations reporting data breaches related to identity issues. Moreover, it's noteworthy that merely 3 out of every 10 organizations are able to effectively manage and account for their cloud costs.
Does this mean we should be worried about utilizing the cloud environment? Not at all.
Despite potential apprehensions, the advantages of cloud computing make it highly promising. Notably, by 2021, a remarkable 90% of enterprise businesses had embraced cloud computing, with 48% of them planning to migrate at least 50% of their applications to the cloud.
However, it’s important that each organization is ever vigilant to face challenges such as cloud sprawl head on.
This article discusses what cloud sprawl is and how to prevent it. You will also learn what causes cloud sprawl, and the associated risks.
What is cloud sprawl?
Cloud sprawl is the uncontrolled use of cloud services, providers, or instances. It results from failing to effectively monitor and control the cloud environment.
Cloud sprawl rapidly rises with the soaring demand for subscription-based solutions and agile development. This is understandable considering that as your organization grows, you are prone to constantly adopting new applications. These could be in-house developed or even purchased.
Some of the applications may be unused yet left to consume resources. Additionally, mismanaged resource provisioning may lead to overutilization or underutilization of cloud resources by the applications.
Eventually, you end up with multiple services and different providers to meet the growing demand for cloud resources. With multiple cloud service providers, you risk having thousands of instances and accounts with data spread over various platforms.
As a result, you lack visibility into these critical aspects:
- Resource consumption
- Which data is stored, where
- Who has access to which cloud services.
When you end up here, the security of data is at high risk. The efficiency of applications starts to diminish and you start to accumulate unnecessary costs.
Assume you are a software development company subscribed to Microsoft 365 business emails. Your software development team realizes they need a visualization tool to help streamline the development process.
Hence, you subscribe to Microsoft’s specialized diagramming Visio tool for five users, paid $15/user/month.
If only two of the five team members use the tool, you will be spending an extra $540 annually, a form of cloud sprawl.
Types of cloud sprawl
There are three main types of cloud sprawl namely cloud platform sprawl, cloud data sprawl, and identity sprawl.
1. Cloud platform sprawl
Developers can easily create new roles, modify the features of existing structures, and provision unplanned resources. This random provisioning of resources and role assignment can quickly build up unneeded entities or forgotten workloads.
Cloud platform sprawl can also happen during the maintenance of a cloud application. This can happen when fixing a bug or handling change requests.
Another example of a scenario where cloud platform sprawl can occur is when migrating on-premise data to the cloud. Without considering the available resources carefully, this migration can cause platform sprawl. This happens especially when there is no visibility into the resource requirements, and no policies governing the exercise.
Not sure how to carry out effective migration from on premise to the cloud? Please check the best practices for on-premise to cloud migration.
2. Cloud data sprawl
Cloud data sprawl occurs when no policies govern the collection, processing, and storage of organizational data. This unfortunate scenario implies that anyone can upload and store data wherever and whenever they want, and in the way they want. How dangerous!
Uncontrolled data processing and storage can quickly get out of control since there is no way to determine malicious activities.
Remember that informed decisions can only be drawn from organized data with centralized management. Isolated data can cause contextual bias during analysis, leading to wrong conclusions and high costs.
3. Identity sprawl
Just as the name suggests, identity sprawl occurs when there is no clear assignment of roles and permission to cloud entities. As such, you can have a single account with multiple users and no access level control.
We have discussed cloud management best practices at length. One of the best practices is to assign user accounts and specific roles with permissions. This access-level implementation ensures the security of data and applications. It means that different entities are entitled to specific, well outlined privileges.
Besides, how do you account for changes made to cloud data when you can’t trace the changes to a specific entity?
We have a very good article covering account takeover at a broader level. Understand how to tackle it and keep critical accounts safe.
Common causes of cloud sprawl
It’s critical to understand the root causes of this phenomenon as a first step towards mitigation. And while there can always be many nuanced factors, the following five causes are the most common:
1. Cloud environment mismanagement
In pursuit of the key business functions that bring revenue, most organizations put cloud management at the backburner. The general oversight of resources is completely ineffective.
If you are using a cloud provider, it’s easy to assume that the providers have everything in good management. But this is not normally the case. While most providers offer cloud management as part of their services, these services are often specific to the service provider’s platform. What if you are leveraging multi-platform services?
Organizations with multiple cloud platforms may lack a way to manage cloud deployments and operations across the vast environments. As such, you will easily create unneeded instances and exceed budgets.
2. Cloud misconfiguration
Cloud configuration involves the following activities, among others:
- Securing cloud backups
- Managing passwords and encryptions
- Implementing access-level permissions.
Any gaps in any of these processes create vulnerabilities for cyber attackers to gain unauthorized access to organizational data.
Here are the five most common cloud misconfigurations and associated risks:
- Subdomain hijacking: Occurs when you delete a subdomain from its virtual host yet forget to delete all associated records from the DNS (Domain Name Server). Attackers can re-register the unused sub-domain and redirect users to malicious websites.
- Overly permissive access controls: Failure to disable legacy protocols such as FTP and insecure protocols may lead to unauthorized access to virtual machines, hosts, and containers.
- Uncontrolled access to HTTP and non-HTTPS ports: You must limit these ports to accept traffic from specific addresses when opening them to the web. Else, attackers can exploit authentication and gain unauthorized access to your cloud infrastructure.
- Open ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol): ICMP protocol helps indicate whether a server is online and responsive, and if attackers can use it to flood ICMP messages. Hence, your cloud configuration should be set to block ICMP.
- Insecure backups: When migrating to the cloud, you must ensure backups are encrypted and verify their access permissions. Be sure to use the right type of backup and consider embracing Backup as a Service.
3. Inefficient cloud monitoring strategies
You might have a couple of shortcomings in the methods and tools that are employed to manage cloud resources.
Imagine a company that has migrated several applications to a cloud environment to leverage scalability and flexibility. However, the IT team lacks real-time visibility into the performance and resource utilization of these applications. Without robust monitoring tools in place, the team is unaware of important events such as spikes in demand or inefficient resource allocation. Consequently, some instances may be underutilized, while others may experience performance bottlenecks during peak times.
This lack of proactive monitoring hampers the team's ability to optimize resource allocation. In an efficiently monitored cloud environment, the team would be promptly alerted to performance issues and could adjust resources dynamically.
4. Poor policy enforcement
Most organizations have strict policies governing cloud deployment, resource provisioning and data storage. However, the policies are only good on paper for a good number of entities. Operationalization of these policies is often negligible to none.
The failure to enforce the policies overlooks cloud management best practices. This will definitely invite cloud sprawl.
5. Unapproved cloud services (Shadow IT)
It’s not uncommon to find your staff utilizing unapproved cloud services. Often, the organization lacks a clear policy dictating the cloud service utilization. And if the policies are in place, the teams are unaware of them.
As a result, they bypass the IT procedures and use formally unapproved services - Shadow IT. These services remain hidden from the IT team, challenging resource management.
Risks associated with cloud sprawl
Cloud sprawl can expose your organization to these risks:
1. Unnecessary costs
Cloud sprawl accumulates a wide range of unnecessary costs. These costs emanate from underutilized resources and poorly informed decisions due to scattered data.
Examples of areas where such costs can arise:
- Provisioned virtual machines that are not in active use
- Allocating more storage space than necessary
- Duplicate data scattered across various cloud platforms and services
- Ineffective load balancing
- Lack of centralized cost tracking and reporting
- Inefficient data transfer
- Cloud Cost Management Best Practices
- Cloud vs. On-Premise Cost Comparison
- IT Cost Reduction: A Strategic Guide to IT Budgeting
2. Security vulnerabilities
Security vulnerabilities resulting from cloud sprawl include overly permissive access controls and unsecure backups.
Attackers can exploit these vulnerabilities through methods such as brute force attacks, authentication bypass, and malware injections.
- Key Vulnerability Management Metrics
- Types of Vulnerability Assessment, Methodology and Best Practices
- What is Vulnerability Management Program and How to Build It?
- Common Types of Network Vulnerabilities
- The Major Types of Software Vulnerabilities
3. Operational inefficiency
Cloud sprawl renders the day-to-day management and maintenance of the cloud less effective. It’s like running a business where things are all over the place. Imagine you have different tools and equipment scattered across multiple rooms, and you need to keep track of everything.
With cloud sprawl, it's similar — your systems and data are spread out in different places online, making it tough to manage.
This scattered setup means it takes longer to find what you need, fix problems, and make sure everything is working smoothly.
So, cloud sprawl leads to having a messy workspace for your company’s digital stuff. With this, you risk resource unavailability, which may lead to downtimes.
This inefficiency can also cause strain within the IT team and have a negative effect on their productivity.
Ways to prevent cloud sprawl
These fundamental approaches should help you deal a blow to cloud sprawl. Please be strict in implementation and make sure all teams understand why this is important.
1. Develop a cloud management strategy
A cloud management strategy is essential in controlling the thousands of servers and applications in your cloud environment.
An effective cloud management strategy outlines the organization’s approach to migration, deployment, and management of cloud applications and data.
Here is a brief run through the functionalities of an effective cloud management strategy.
i. Orchestration, automation and provisioning
Like in a customer journey map, spell out the interdependencies and connections for both on-premise and cloud applications. You can use a service blueprint to identify and visualize entities, processes and interactions.
ii. Data access management
Determine who should access which data, their privileges, and when they should access it. Match entities with roles and privileges. For instance, match workgroups and departments to the services and applications they should access.
Develop a vendor SLA detailing key and single sign-on management, roles and responsibilities, as well as risk management.
iii. Cost optimization and transparency
Determine the cloud service consumption budget for every particular cycle so you can track and align the costs. This makes it easy to remain accountable and predict future spending. Please check out our cloud cost managementarticle.
iv. Resource and capacity planning
Identify how much of every cloud service is needed, and when it’s needed. Always do this before paying for a subscription. Only pay for what is needed.
2. Embrace cloud management tools
Cloud management tools are the best for identifying unnecessary instances and terminating them while optimally allocating the available resources.
Here are the must-have features for a good cloud management tool:
- Scalability with growing business needs
- Root cause analysis and reporting
- Data encryption, compliance certifications, and access controls
- Compatibility with existing infrastructure and systems
- Interoperability across multiple platforms
- Policy-based workflows, intelligent alerting, real time anomaly detection and automated provisioning
- Performance monitoring and optimization.
3. Work with cloud management professionals
In a nutshell, this involves engaging managed cloud providers. These experts specialize in overseeing cloud environments. These professionals possess in-depth knowledge and skills around the cloud.
They basically smooth out the intricacies of cloud management. We already have a huge pool of cloud service providers in our directory.
4. Adopt centralized cloud management
Consolidate the control and oversight of all cloud resources under a unified platform. This makes it easier to establish and enforce standardized policies. The goal is to have a cohesive approach to resource allocation across the entire cloud infrastructure.
Centralized cloud management provides a holistic view of the organization's cloud ecosystem. This proactive visibility allows for prompt identification and mitigation of underutilized resources.
Moreover, centralized management facilitates better coordination among different teams. It promotes collaboration in a shared platform where various stakeholders can access relevant information and contribute to decision-making processes.
5. Create awareness around cloud sprawl
Initiate targeted training sessions and workshops to educate employees, IT teams, and decision-makers about the impact of cloud sprawl.
Utilize real-world examples to illustrate the consequences and emphasize the importance of responsible cloud resource management.
One important element of awareness training that many organizations tend to forget is to establish clear documentation and guidelines outlining company policies for cloud usage. Employees need to understand their role in preventing sprawl.
Please use internal communication channels, such as newsletters and intranet platforms, to regularly share updates and success cases.
Developing a cloud management strategy lays the strongest foundation for a solid defense against cloud sprawl.
However, due to the expertise and experience required in developing an effective strategy, many organizations adopt a cloud center of excellence (CCoE).
A CCoE is a centralized governance (team) that offers consultation on cloud management strategy development and implementation, including policies and best practices. Gartner has a great resource on how to build an effective CCoE. Please check it out.