If you’re familiar with the Zero Trust framework, its principles may seem simple enough in the context of network security. Nobody — not even your most senior leaders — can be granted user access without first being checked at the gate.

Here’s the problem: Traditional perimeters are a thing of the past. Today, with remote access and hybrid work a mainstay of the modern enterprise, cyber threats are challenging your organization like never before. That’s why the most forward-thinking businesses are implementing Zero Trust.

However, two questions remain. How do Zero Trust principles work in a cloud environment? And, more importantly, how can they help you safeguard your sensitive data?

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the convergence of Zero Trust and cloud security. From why it’s important to how it works, we’ll help you identify all the tools and technologies you need to create a Zero Trust cloud for safe and secure access.

What is Zero Trust for the cloud?

IT professionals are well-versed in the art of Zero Trust security. Since its inception in 2010, this innovative approach has quickly ushered in a wave of support for modern network access.

However, what’s not so crystal clear is how this security policy will translate to an increasingly cloud-first landscape. What does “Zero Trust for the cloud” even mean and how does it work? Let’s connect the dots.

According to Forrester, a Zero Trust architecture is built upon three fundamental concepts:

  1. Explicit authentication: The security team must leverage all available data points—context, device, user identity, location, data classification, and so on — to continuously verify, authenticate, and authorize a user or entity.
  2. Least privileged access: User access is limited based on a just-enough and just-in-time security policy. In other words, least privileged access ensures only the right people are authorized to use the specific resources they need to do their job — no more, no less.
  3. Assume breach: All entities are potential threats and must be treated as such. It’s no longer a matter of “if” an organization will be breached, but a question of “when.” So, businesses must put controls and safeguards in place to minimize the impact of a data breach when one inevitably occurs.

These tenets form the core of the Zero Trust framework and can be applied to any cloud environment — whether it’s a public, private, hybrid, or multi-cloud infrastructure.

Advantages of Zero Trust for cloud security

Contrary to a traditional security posture, which assumes a condition of implicit trust, the Zero Trust model believes all endpoints, users, and applications are potential cyber threats. Organizations that embrace the Zero Trust approach — especially in the cloud — can unlock a host of significant benefits:

  • Better visibility into data, assets, and risks: Zero Trust requires you to implement tools that continuously monitor your cloud environment. This affords your security team an early line of sight into emerging threats, allowing them to thwart any in their path.
  • Enterprise-wide secure access: Empower internal and external users and devices to leverage critical applications with confidence — whenever and wherever they need them. Enabling a safer approach to remote access allows you to maximize productivity without sacrificing security or interrupting the user experience.
  • Reduced financial and reputational damage: The average cost of a data breach is over $4.4 million per incident — and that’s not counting the damage done to your brand name and industry reputation. Mitigating threats with a Zero Trust security model will help your organization avoid these costly repercussions.
  • Simplified compliance and risk management: Lower your liabilities and keep sensitive data under lock and key through phishing-resistant authentication, strong encryption, cryptographic asset management, and continuous monitoring.

The further you more effectively implement Zero Trust principles, the sooner you’ll realize these key advantages. Not sure where to start? Check out our guide on the Zero Trust Trust Maturity Model.

Why you need Zero Trust in a cloud environment

Traditionally, Zero Trust security is predicated on an enterprise’s ability to manage the network itself. In turn, the security team can establish access control policies and other mechanisms — and more importantly, it can enforce them.

But now, with more organizations hosting information in cloud environments, there is concern over whether or not enterprises lack this level of control. Cloud domains are owned/operated by cloud providers and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) vendors, meaning a company’s network security policy doesn’t automatically carry over to the cloud environment. Consequently, sensitive data that is stored or transmitted is at risk of being spread out across an unprotected attack surface. And, because these safeguards don’t automatically carry over, many businesses might have little to no insight into:

  • Who or what is accessing their data
  • What device they’re accessing it from
  • How the information is being used/shared
  • When their corporate assets are involved in a data breach

In simple terms, they’re sitting ducks. Worse yet, threat actors have taken notice. IBM reports that 82% of all breaches in 2022 involved data stored in the cloud, suggesting cybercriminals are targeting cloud-hosted assets and virtual infrastructure.

Use cases for implementing Zero Trust in a cloud environment

More than a buzzword, Zero Trust architecture has its fair share of enterprise applications. Strengthening a Zero Trust security posture can help you manage:

  • Remote workers: Even as employees return to office, hybrid setups are here to stay. Zero Trust provides distributed workforces the means to stay connected despite their distance and increase efficiency without cost to the user experience.
  • Machine identities: Machine identities are digital keys, secrets, and certificates that establish the validity of digital transactions. They’re important for secure communication between machines, such as servers, workstations, bots, applications, and more. According to Gartner research, devices and workloads are outnumbering human users by an “order of magnitude,” rendering it exceptionally difficult to manage these transactions. Implementing a Zero Trust model can help mitigate their associated risks through enhanced visibility and control across an increasingly vast array of machine identities.
  • Third-party vendors: Cloud providers are another entry point into your extended perimeter. They have access to data processed through their applications, which means a security breach on their end could cascade into a bigger problem on yours. Eliminating implicit trust ensures that even third-party vendors are vetted properly through strong authentication.
  • Shadow IT and BYOD: Employees may be accessing corporate resources from an unprotected personal device. Likewise, individual users or departments may install tools and apps without proper authorization. Zero Trust enhances visibility, allowing you to spot and mitigate these potential threats in real-time.

Applying Zero Trust principles to the cloud

It’s clear there’s much to gain by adopting a Zero Trust model. But how do you actually do it?

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a silver-bullet Zero Trust solution. However, there are several technologies and techniques that help you navigate the Zero Trust journey:

1. Certificate lifecycle management (CLM)

Certificate lifecycle management is essential to implementing Zero Trust at scale. Digital certificates are issued to people and devices so that organizations can verify their identities and authorize requests, whether it be to access the network or a specific corporate resource. Digital certificates are also used for strong encryption and access control. With so many certificates in use for so many purposes, CLM allows you to ensure no certificates go unmanaged, and enables you to enforce the principle of least privileged access.

There are three important steps in the certificate lifecycle:

  • Issuance, renewal, and revocation: Certificates can’t be forgotten about, or else you risk opening up a backdoor into your cloud environment. So, security teams must seamlessly manage their lifecycle from start to finish, renewing any that have been authenticated and revoking all that have not.

2. Key and Secrets Lifecycle Management

Keys and secrets underpin the security of cryptographic processes. Managing their complete lifecycle is critical for comprehensive security.

  • Key Lifecycle Management: Generate, deliver, and distribute cryptographic keys to a range of supported applications through multiple standard interfaces, including KMIP. Provide access control to keys and enable automated capabilities including key rotation, key expiration, and key revocation.
  • Secure Root of Trust: As a foundational element of Zero Trust’s data protection pillar, this enables FIPS-certified cryptographic key generation and lifecycle management with dual controls and separation of duties.
  • Decentralized Vault-Based Architecture: Distributed key storage ensures that keys and data are kept within the geographical areas where they are supposed to be maintained to facilitate compliance with geo-fencing and data sovereign regulations.
  • Centralized Compliance Management Dashboard: This process enables the documentation of keys and secrets based on templates for continuous compliance assessment using built-in or custom policies.

3. Identity and access management (IAM)

User identity is the heart of post-perimeter cybersecurity. A robust, feature-rich IAM portfolio is key to securing identities and keeping your most valuable assets protected from compromised credentials, phishing attacks, and other threat vectors. Essential capabilities include:

  • Strong authentication: Checking all requests against all possible data points ensures the user identity is verified without any risk signals falling through the cracks. An effective Zero Trust architecture will leverage both risk-based and adaptive authentication methods to provide high assurance and phishing-resistant verification.
  • Phishing-resistant multi-factor authentication (MFA): MFA leverages numerous authenticators — tokens, facial recognition, mobile push notifications, and more — to ensure users are who they claim to be. However, not all MFA is the same, as some are vulnerable to bypass attacks. For high-assurance identities, organizations should use certificate-based passwordless authentication for both users and devices.
  • Passwordless security: Traditional usernames and passwords are prone to repetition and are much easier to crack when tied to personal information. Zero Trust advocates for passwordless security, which uses cryptographic keys to enable temporary access without burdening users or your IT department.
  • Single-sign-on (SSO): SSO is an access management function that allows a user to login with a single set of credentials for multiple resources. With the right combination of cloud security tools, organizations can build a strong authentication foundation beneath this process, ensuring SSO can’t be taken advantage of for nefarious purposes.

Best practices for implementing Zero Trust

Now that you know why creating a Zero Trust cloud is important and the tools it takes to get there, let’s talk about the actual implementation process.

Be warned: It’s not happening overnight. The Zero Trust journey could turn out to be a multi-year endeavor, so it’s best to take a phased approach. You can implement the foundations early, but as an ongoing process, reaching Zero Trust maturity will require continuous effort.

Here is one approach to how you can start your journey to Zero Trust maturity:

  1. Application and asset discovery: Before you can adequately secure your environments — in the cloud or otherwise — you need to identify everything within its reach. This step involves taking inventory of your most sensitive data, where it resides, and where it goes. Then, inventory your cryptographic assets, including all hardware, software, and credentials.
  2. Map transaction flows: Understanding the relationship between cloud applications, systems, servers, networks, devices, users, and third-party cloud providers is important. This step helps you chart how data moves between these elements, how they interact with each other, and determine areas that need the most attention.
  3. Architect boundaries: Once you’ve figured out where your most crucial assets are, you can isolate them with additional controls to prevent lateral movement.
  4. Establish access control policies: Define context-based rules for how assets can be used, shared, manipulated, etc. A solid access management plan will explicitly outline permissions based on the principle of least privilege.
  5. Monitoring and maintenance: You can’t set and forget cloud security. Even after you’ve built a robust Zero Trust framework, your security team must regularly monitor user activity for anomalous behavior. More importantly, it should search high and low for vulnerabilities before hackers have a chance to exploit them.

Secure the cloud with Entrust solutions

As cloud environments grow larger and more complicated, traditional network security tools are falling short of the mark. Today’s organizations need more robust, advanced, and automated solutions that not only lay the foundation for a Zero Trust architecture, but also pave the way for ongoing security well into the future.

The good news? That’s where Entrust comes into play. Our portfolio of Zero Trust solutions are designed to secure your most critical resources:

  1. Identities
  2. Connections
  3. Data

From phishing-resistant MFA and adaptive authentication to strong credentials and CLM, we offer a full range of tools to take your asset protection to the next level. Leverage our expertise to:

  • Reduce your attack surface
  • Protect growth and profitability
  • Enable secure access
  • Simplify compliance

Ready to get started? Explore our Zero Trust solutions for more information.