I often get asked about privilege access management for cloud-based environments, and for the most part, the questions generally center around host-based controls. For example:

"How can we manage hosted cloud accounts with administrative privileges?"


"What can we do to delegate access such that admins are not logging in with super-user rights?"

This is all great to a point. After all, virtual hosts in the cloud need the same protective mechanisms as those I would apply in the data center, right? This is generally correct, but while the management and security requirements of these cloud-based endpoints are often no different than on-premise hosts, the administrative interfaces to these critical cloud environments are often left unmonitored. Let’s take a look at common cloud security challenges: a lack of user activity monitoring and weak passwords.

Built-in Controls Lack User Activity Monitoring

Some cloud services, such as Amazon Web Services, have granular built-in identity and access management controls to provide role-based separation of administrative control. This allows users to log in with a specific scope across a range of systems. What they don't do is tell you exactly what the users were doing when they were logged on to the session. The situation is compounded if identities are shared because identifying which user was actually logged on when activity occurred can be extremely difficult.

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Shared Account Passwords are Weak and Uncontrolled

Shared accounts can pose an even greater risk when users leave the organization. To draw a parallel, an ESX admin with shared root credentials to a server needs to be inside the corporate firewall in order to access the vSphere administrative interface. A Microsoft Azure admin, by comparison, can generally access the Azure Management Console from anywhere - all that's needed is a valid set of credentials, and a window of opportunity. These credentials may potentially control hundreds (or even tens of thousands) of virtual hosts.

Think about it. Accounts with privileges that could take down the entire virtual infrastructure for an organization are out there, often with weak and uncontrolled passwords.

Putting Mitigating Controls in Place

Step 1: Make sure that administrators never know what the actual password is

The ideal scenario is to have a tool automatically rotate the credentials with a strong, complex password according to company security policy. This password would then have to be automatically played into a web browser in order to gain access to the virtual cloud environment's administrative interface. Even without the ability to play it in, the ability to release the password to the user, then reset it after the session, ensures that the credentials are time limited.

Step 2: Centralize password rotation

Many administrative consoles lack the ability to connect to external password management systems, so a parallel step is to make sure that one person in the organization is responsible for manually changing the administrative credentials, and then making sure that they are stored in a secure password release system. This limits the risk factor and makes sure that credentials are only known to a few individuals. In these cases, playing in the credentials automatically becomes even more critical.

Step 3: Monitor and audit user’s session activity

The next step is to audit what the user actually does during their administrative session. Most cloud environments don’t track activity, so this generally falls to external mechanisms. At a minimum a video recording of privileged sessions provides accountability, and can map actions performed under a shared account to a specific individual. Adding keystroke recording enables activity to be searched, although this can become moot in a typical point-and-click administrative interface. Live privileged session monitoring is a bonus that provides dual control capabilities, often with the ability to terminate suspicious activity.

BeyondTrust's PowerBroker Password Safe enables secure credential storage, adaptive workflow control, auto-launch and session recording for administrative cloud sessions to Azure, Amazon (AWS), GoGrid, Google, Office 365, and Rackspace, as well as social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, and XING. For true dual-control, PowerBroker Password Safe allows administrative activities to be monitored in real-time. Password Safe not only enables the remote termination of these sessions, but also has the ability to pause (or lock) a session that is already in progress.

With capabilities such as these from Password Safe, organizations can reduce cloud security risk, enabling greater cloud adoption. If you would like to learn more about how Password Safe can help, download this tech brief, “Protecting and Enabling the Cloud.”