Cloud Penetration Testing: Mitigate Risks and Boost Cyber Resilience in the Cloud

For today’s organizations, the journey to the cloud is well underway. IDC Research, for instance, forecasts that a clear majority of technology buyers will choose as-a-service consumption models for all or most of their infrastructure purchases by 2026. In a similar vein, analyst firm Gartner predicts that more than half of enterprise IT spending will have shifted to the public cloud by 2025.

These changes are happening for good reasons. Business and technology stakeholders alike are well aware of the many benefits that cloud transformation can bring. They’re moving growing numbers of workloads to the cloud to achieve cost savings, embrace mobility, build agile and flexible deployments, and gain access to best-of-breed applications and services.

With these opportunities come new risks, however. Cloud environments are fundamentally different from on-premises deployments in several key ways. Their architectures are different, how identities and permissions are managed is different, and cloud security best practices are different. Always inventive and resourceful, attackers are well aware of these differences, and they’re eager to exploit any misconfigurations or vulnerabilities they can find in the cloud.

Another trend we’ve observed is that often moves to the cloud are led by groups other than IT,  such as development or a functional area working with a vendor. While the business rationale behind a cloud migration may be justified, if the execution doesn’t follow good security practices or involve input and validation from information security, the deployment may be fundamentally flawed from a security standpoint.

Organizations that want to stay one step ahead of attackers can now leverage cloud-focused penetration testing to help them find and fix cloud-based security vulnerabilities before threat actors discover them. Pen testing that’s purpose-designed for cloud environments can help organizations mitigate risks and build a more robust security posture while advancing their cloud maturity.

Security in the cloud demands new skill sets

Although organizations are currently migrating applications and workloads to the cloud at breakneck speed, the skills needed to manage and configure cloud environments securely remain in short supply. Administrators who are spinning up new cloud environments need to know how to configure them (the default configuration is rarely the most secure), and how to assign permissions and privileges in ways that protect sensitive data and other resources. All too often, this is a time-consuming—or simply unfamiliar—task for busy administrators. This means that misconfigurations and excessive permissions abound in modern enterprise cloud environments.

In addition, monitoring for cloud security breaches is different than monitoring for the compromise of an on-premises network or endpoint device. When an attacker compromises a cloud resource and begins running queries in a cloud environment, their activities will generate a very different forensic footprint than an attack targeting on-premises systems would. Even the most powerful managed detection and response (MDR) solution may not pick up on malicious activities involving cloud resources, since attack patterns may never involve any endpoint devices at all.

In general, cloud-focused cyberattacks tend to follow very different attack paths than traditional network-focused attacks do. For example, rather than a typical end-user account, attackers may look compromise a cloud application service identity during an attack, enabling the threat actor to masquerade as an authorized service within the environment.  Attackers possess a strong understanding of cloud infrastructure and the common misconfigurations they can abuse to compromise systems and data. . To identify and defend against these threats, penetration testers need cloud-specific knowledge and corresponding offensive testing expertise.

How cloud penetration testing can help

A cloud penetration test is a focused engagement in in which an offensive security expert mimics the actions that a real-world threat actor would take in order to compromise your organization’s cloud resources. This gives you extensive visibility into your attack surface from an outside point of view, so that you can identify all the cloud assets that you have and the vulnerabilities that exist within them. With this information in hand, you’ll know what’s exposed and what a real-world attack’s blast radius could look like, should one of your cloud assets ever be compromised.

Cloud pen testing is specifically tailored to cloud attack techniques. In the cloud, threat detection relies much less on things like malware signatures, since cloud account compromises can often occur without the need to deploy malicious software. Instead, attackers tend to use tools that are already installed in the environment, often relying on compromised credentials and escalating privileges to admin access or other high-level permissions to conduct reconnaissance, exfiltrate data, and cause other types of harm.

The pen tester will simulate the malicious activities that could successfully compromise your environment, with the goal of empowering you to build detection mechanisms that will reliably catch these TTPs in the real world. Pen testers also rely on open-source intelligence to uncover domains that you may not have known were associated with your business.

The end result is a report on the most significant vulnerabilities in your environment, plus a list of the concrete steps you can take to mitigate them. Some mitigation steps are simple—a quick reconfiguration of your development environment might dramatically reduce your organization’s attack surface, for instance. But others are more complex. As a full partner to our managed services clients, Netrix can undertake remediation efforts on their behalf, helping to set up technologies or establish procedures that ensure that problems are addressed in ways that are meaningful and lasting. With those solutions in place, we will also conduct re-testing to ensure the remediation is effective and your environment is secure. Or, if you’ve got the remediation process covered internally, we can simply provide a list of prioritized recommendations.

As always, the goal is to identify root causes—not just symptoms—so that problems can be addressed in ways that are far-reaching and impactful.

Want to learn more about our cloud pen testing service offering? Contact a member of our expert team to set up a free, no obligation discovery session today.


Alex Shi

Managing Consultant
Alex has 15+ years of leadership and professional experience in technology and security. He has diversified experience working at various management levels of IT operations, security program management, supply chain, and hands-on security testing engagements. Alex leverages his experience working across business functions to bring a practical and collaborative approach to security testing. These skills along with early career experience as a software developer enable him to translate complex technical challenges into actionable solutions for organizations.