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  • Writer's pictureKhalil Hicks

Is Your Head In The Clouds?

When it comes to securing and assessing our cloud environments, well for most of us, our heads are in the clouds. Don't worry you are definitely not alone. Many cloud infrastructure architects, administrators, developers, and cybersecurity personnel are unaware of how to effectively secure, monitor, and evaluate their cloud infrastructure. As technology evolves, so do the methods used to test or assess its security. With the rise of cloud computing, traditional penetration testing is no longer sufficient. In this blog post, we’ll explore the differences between a traditional penetration test and a cloud penetration test from the perspective of a managed service provider.

Traditional Penetration Testing

Traditional penetration testing involves testing the security of a physical or on-premises network. Penetration testers, also known as ethical hackers, will attempt to exploit vulnerabilities in a system to gain unauthorized access to it. This type of testing is typically conducted manually and can be time-consuming. During a traditional penetration test, testers will typically follow a four-step process: reconnaissance, scanning, enumeration, and exploitation. In the reconnaissance phase, testers will gather information about the target system, such as IP addresses and open ports. In the scanning phase, testers will use tools to scan for vulnerabilities. In the enumeration phase, testers will gather information about the system's users and resources. Finally, in the exploitation phase, testers will attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities they have identified to gain unauthorized access.

Cloud Penetration Testing

Cloud penetration testing, on the other hand, involves testing the security of cloud-based resources and infrastructure. These resources can include identities, roles/permissions, virtual machines, automation runbooks, applications, and network rules. Cloud-based systems are hosted on the internet, which means they are accessible from anywhere in the world. This accessibility means that cloud-based systems are potentially vulnerable to attack from anywhere in the world, making security testing even more critical. Cloud penetration testing requires a different set of tools and techniques than traditional penetration testing. For example, cloud penetration testers may use tools that are specifically designed to test cloud-based systems, such as those that can test the security of APIs and cloud storage systems. One of the biggest differences between traditional penetration testing and cloud penetration testing is the use of automation. Cloud penetration testing is often more automated than traditional penetration testing, as there are tools available that can automatically scan cloud systems for vulnerabilities. These tools can also generate reports that highlight any vulnerabilities that have been identified, making it easier for managed service providers to identify, prioritize, and address security issues.

5 Key Cloud Penetration Testing Considerations

Access: In traditional pen-testing, the focus is primarily on the internal network and systems within the organization, while in cloud pen-testing, the focus is on the cloud infrastructure, applications, and services. Since the cloud infrastructure is hosted and managed by third-party providers, the scope of access and control differs, making the assessment unique. For the majority of the testing, a cloud account with at least global reader permissions is needed to access and assess cloud resources. The pentester's access to the cloud environment can be provided in several ways such as access tokens/keys, web console access, or command-line interface (CLI).

Scope: Cloud pentesting requires a broader scope than traditional pen-testing since it involves testing multiple cloud providers and their different services, applications, and APIs. As a result, cloud pentesting requires more extensive preparation and planning to ensure that all the required assets are tested thoroughly. A pentester's access can be limited to the cloud resources that are deemed in scope for the engagement.

Tools: Traditional pentesting tools and techniques may not be sufficient for cloud environments. Cloud pentesting requires specific tools that are designed to assess cloud services, APIs, and applications. Additionally, cloud pentesting requires knowledge of cloud service providers and their technologies, which is not necessary for traditional pentesting. While traditional pentesting tools may focus on exposed network services and applications, Cloud pentesting tools evaluate identities, roles, and configurations associated with the deployed cloud resources.

Complexity: Cloud environments are typically more complex than traditional IT environments, making cloud pentesting more challenging. Testing a cloud environment requires a deep understanding of the architecture, data flow, security controls, and other factors. Also, cloud environments often use microservices, containers, and automation which makes testing more complicated. Due to the complexity of cloud environments, there are more opportunities for misconfigurations, information disclosures, and paths to privilege escalation. Another challenge created by the complexity of cloud environments is understanding network security boundaries and their associated "firewall" rules. This is especially true when testing hybrid environments where the cloud is connected back to the on-premise infrastructure.

Shared Responsibility: In cloud environments, the responsibility for security is shared between the cloud service provider and the customer. This means that cloud pentesting must consider the shared responsibility model and understand the provider's role in securing the environment. Traditional pentesting is usually focused on the internal network and does not involve third-party providers, making it less complex in terms of shared responsibility.


In conclusion, the key difference between traditional penetration testing and cloud penetration testing is the focus on cloud-based systems. Cloud-based systems are accessible from anywhere in the world, making them potentially vulnerable to attack from anywhere in the world. Cloud penetration testing requires a different set of tools and techniques, including automation, to effectively test the security of these systems. As cloud computing continues to grow in popularity, managed service providers must adapt their security testing methods to ensure the safety and security of their clients’ cloud-based systems.

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