‘Secure’ Data Is King: Essential Security Considerations for a SaaS Architecture
Sep 14, 2022
Editorial Content Writer
8 minutes to read
The security of the SaaS architecture is becoming a fundamental consideration for businesses that use third-party cloud providers to store their data. A secure software stack protects your customers’ data and your business itself.
As SaaS usage continues to grow, businesses face new security risks such as misconfiguration, regulatory compliance and data retention. If they remain unattended, these threats will lead to data breaches with serious financial and reputational consequences for a brand.
What are the core capabilities of a secure SaaS architecture? Are there any industry-standard security principles for SaaS platforms? What is Cloud Security Posture Management? These are some common security-related questions asked by a growing number of businesses that use or want to use a SaaS architecture. This blogpost aims to answer these questions. But first, let’s see why embracing SaaS architecture is a popular trend.
Understanding SaaS architecture
SaaS (Software as a Service) systems are fundamentally different from conventional monolithic business software platforms in their underlying architecture.
Enterprise software companies increasingly use the SaaS delivery model because of the wide-ranging benefits it offers over conventional, on-site systems:
Reduced setup and operation costs for the customer
Increased scalability as business demands grow
Increased customizability and flexibility for individual business use cases
Reduced integration time/go-live delay — quicker to feel the benefit
Easier to deploy, update and maintain
These benefits are a direct result of SaaS software architecture. In its simplest form it consists of two layers:
The database layer (servers that store client and end-user data)
The application layer (nodes/servers that host the application frontend and backend)
On top of these two layers sits the delivery layer, which is where the software and functions meet the user (e.g. an app or web page).
A key part of a business’ decision to embrace SaaS architecture is considering the security aspect of sharing data with a cloud provider. Implementing effective SaaS security solutions enables businesses to accelerate their growth by having more visibility and control over their data.
What is SaaS security?
SaaS security refers to different practices and policies that aim to secure user privacy and corporate data in a cloud-based architecture.
A secure SaaS architecture should have three core capabilities:
Confidentiality: Confidentiality refers to the capability of an architecture to define different permissions and access levels to data for users of a system. This is crucial for businesses because they want to ensure their customers’ data is always protected.
Uniformity: A secure cloud architecture should be capable of categorizing components in different levels and managing them in a uniform and efficient manner.
Availability: In terms of cloud security, availability refers to the capability of a system to stand against denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. An attacker may bombard your system with requests until it crashes and is no longer available. Using network compliance standards to block out repeated requests, a secure architecture is able to deflect these DoS attacks.
Below are some key industry-standard security principles for SaaS platforms:
Data in transit protection
Data sent between a web application and a client, or between SaaS microservices (data in transit) is vulnerable unless secured. The standard protocol for encrypting data in transit is Transport Layer Security version 1.3 (TLS 1.3). It’s responsible for securing HTTPS communications and it’s essential for all SaaS platforms and web applications.
Multi-factor authentication helps protect against brute force attacks and third-party data theft. It does this by requiring users to provide two forms of identity verification when logging in.
SaaS platforms should employ a hierarchy of privilege/privilege separation for user accounts, applications, API clients, etc. This ensures that each user or component in a system only receives the minimum software functions or permissions needed to do their job. An example would be standard user accounts lacking editing privileges.
Without privilege separation, unauthorized users may be able to access sensitive data and exploit software for malicious purposes.
Detailed activity, security and event logs
Detailed logs help establish clear trails of accountability among users and other stakeholders. They’re an essential tool for analyzing security breaches and other cases of software misuse.
SaaS providers should have a priority software patching process in place to respond to security breaches and other incidents. The quicker the response time, the easier it is to mitigate potential damage. Regular software updates are another essential practice for application security.
As these principles show, constant monitoring is key to having a secure SaaS architecture.
Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) is the continuous process of monitoring and improving a cloud to reduce the possibility of data breaches.
CSPM allows enterprises to evaluate cloud security risk posture against compliance and security best practices in the cloud composting environment.
Using CSPM, businesses are able to minimize security risks such as data storage exposure, permission errors and misconfigurations – which expose a company to cyber threats such as phishing attacks, malware and external hackers.
CSPM is usually associated with IaaS (Interface as a Service). However, it can be utilized to minimize configuration threats and compliance risks in SaaS and PaaS (Platform as a Service) environments.
The question here is who is responsible for implementing the monitoring process. Is it all the responsibility of the cloud provider or it’s a shared responsibility?
Shared Responsibility Model
A shared responsibility framework is a cloud security framework that determines the responsibilities and obligations of a cloud computing provider and its users in protecting shared data. This shared responsibility approach seeks to maximize accountability.
The type of cloud computing model (IaaS, PaaS and SaaS) determines who is responsible for each given security task. Generally, in SaaS systems the provider is responsible for most security tasks. Users’ responsibilities increase as they move from SaaS to PaaS and IaaS.
For example, in SaaS systems (Dropbox, Microsoft 365, Google Workspace) the cloud provider is responsible for the security of applications, middleware and data.
In PaaS systems (Microsoft Azure App Service, Google Kubernetes), the prodiver is responsible for data security while the user is obliged to be responsible for applications and middleware security.
In IaaS systems (Microsoft Azure, AWS), the user holds responsibility for applications, middleware and data security.
What are SaaS security best practices to protect applications?
Cloud providers take on a high degree of security-related issues for their users. However, this doesn’t mean you as a business shouldn’t be concerned about the security of your data.
SaaS security best practices are the measures that businesses should take to maintain their data security as they migrate from a monolithic architecture to a microservices-based ecosystem.
Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASBs)
A cloud access security broker is an on-premises, cloud-based software service or hardware tool that acts as an intermediary between the provider and the users of a cloud. A CASB allows businesses to extend their security policies from their infrastructure to the cloud, creating additional layers of security not offered natively by the cloud provider.
The API gateway is an effective way to reduce system exposure. Without a gateway, all microservices will be exposed to the ‘external world.’ The API gateway hides microservices from malicious external threats. On top of that, the gateway protects microservices from potential breakdown during spikes of traffic.
Automatic security updates
Automatic security updates ensure you have a scalable and secure SaaS use. The more you automate your software updates, the more secure your data will be. You can also use a scanning program on your source code to detect vulnerable dependencies (shared data between you and other users)
From a developer’s perspective, one of the key benefits of SaaS use is its capacity for autonomous deployment and monitoring through what is called CI/CD (continuous integration, continuous delivery and continuous deployment).
App development becomes faster as each app has its own CI/CD cycle and teams can develop their products without having to interfere with other teams/apps.
Monitoring is also implemented for each app/service to give a better observability for each component.
What are the best security-related SaaS products?
As more businesses realize the benefits of SaaS architecture, they look for vendors that provide the most secure cloud environment for their data.
Choosing the best SaaS security products depends on the specific needs and functionalities of your business. Businesses with huge customer data need an enterprise-level SaaS provider while small businesses may rely on smaller providers.
The following products are generally considered as highly reliable in terms of cloud security:
Astra Security: Astra Security performs daily malware scans and seals up vulnerabilities automatically. You can integrate the tool with your CI/CD pipeline to ensure all application updates are scanned automatically.
Intruder: Intruder is an online vulnerability scanner that finds cyber security weaknesses in your digital infrastructure. Intruder can integrate with AWS, Microsoft Azure, Jira, etc. to give a holistic report on potential risks.
CipherBox: Cipher’s tool allows businesses to add 24/7 threat monitoring, detection and incident response capabilities to their tech stack. The solution falls within the category of Managed Detection and Response (MDR) tools that boost the security of a system.
What are the best books on Cloud Security?
The following books are valuable reads to explore current trends in and various aspects of cloud security:
“Cloud Technologies: An Overview of Cloud Computing Technologies for Managers” (2021) by Roger McHaney. The book is a step-to-step guide to cloud-based systems including their security structure and the role of cloud providers in protecting sensitive data.
“Security, Privacy, and Digital Forensics in the Cloud” (2019) edited by Lei Chen, Hassan Takabi, Nhien-An Le-Khac. A must read for those involved in SaaS security, the book systematically discusses security and privacy aspects of the cloud, as well as the digital forensics of cloud data, applications, and services.
“Cloud Computing Security: Foundations and Challenges” by John R. Vacca. The handbook presents a comprehensive study of cloud computing security technology and implementation, while investigating practical solutions to a wide range of cloud computing security issues.
To discover how prioritizing data and operational security is achieved with software features and security practices, check out our “Intro to SaaS Security and Architecture”.
Every month, I share an insights newsletter with thousands of marketers.
Content Lead at Talon.One
Wiener Strasse 10
41 Church Street
B3 2RT Birmingham
One Boston Place, Suite 2600
02108 Boston, MA
1 Scotts Road, #21-10 Shaw Centre