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Cloud Governance – What Is It, Framework & Models

What is Cloud governance

Cloud governance refers to policies and controls that allow you to systemize your cloud use to ensure continual compliance. Because cloud deployments are dynamic and involve many interconnected components, a properly planned governance framework is essential to mitigate misconfigurations, security issues, and operational inefficiencies.

This article will explore these problems and share some best practices to follow when implementing cloud governance.

What we will cover:

  1. What is cloud governance?
  2. Cloud governance framework
  3. Why is cloud governance important?
  4. How to implement cloud governance?
  5. How can Spacelift help with cloud governance?
  6. Cloud governance challenges
  7. Cloud governance best practices

What is cloud governance?

Cloud governance is the process of designing, implementing, and iterating upon policies and frameworks that support your cloud operations. An effective cloud governance strategy optimizes utilization efficiency, provides deep security controls, and helps you stay compliant with applicable regulatory standards of cloud computing.

Following a cloud governance framework gives you comprehensive oversight of your cloud environment, but it can be difficult to determine what should be included. Cloud governance can also be challenging to integrate with an organization’s existing cloud inventory, particularly if team members aren’t accustomed to following structured rules and processes.

Cloud governance framework

cloud governance framework

A cloud governance model usually includes five main principles and policy types:

  1. Data security — These policies protect your data from unauthorized access and ensure its use is compatible with any regulatory restrictions that apply.
  2. Threat detection — Real-time threat detection capabilities allow new cloud hazards to be spotted as they appear, such as improper security settings on a new S3 bucket, or a compute node that is running an outdated operating system release.
  3. Risk management — Cloud risk management provides an overview of detected threats and vulnerabilities, allowing you to make informed triage decisions—for example, by automatically prioritizing security risks and assessing their severity in the context of your actual cloud operations.
  4. Cost management — Cloud costs can be tricky to predict; the ease with which new resources can be started means costs often quickly spiral. Governance frameworks help you track and reduce your costs, such as by flagging or automatically stopping unused instances.
  5. Change management — Changes to cloud resources need to be carefully controlled to prevent unauthorized modifications and support compliance audits. Implementing a cloud governance framework ensures all changes are made using consistent processes, reducing your risk.

Attaining governance of these five areas allows you to maintain the reliability, integrity, and security of your cloud environments. By combining process automation with policy-based risk management, you’re granted full control of your resources even when operating at scale.

Why is cloud governance important?

Efficient cloud governance provides many benefits to organizations that are dependent on cloud technologies. It’s designed to address the unique operational challenges the cloud creates, including the increased risk of security issues and runaway costs.

Improved infrastructure performance

Embracing a governance framework can deliver performance improvements for your infrastructure. Deeply integrating observability with your cloud environments allows you to monitor their activity and precisely troubleshoot any issues, keeping your workloads running fast.

Defense in depth with minimal risk

Defense in depth and cloud governance go hand-in-hand. Being deliberate about governance helps increase your security depth by allowing you to robustly enforce policies around authentication, data access, network transfers, and runtime behavior. Using automated management tools facilitates real-time responses to security events before they have a chance to disrupt your operations.

Optimized cloud utilization and efficiency

By standardizing instance types and provisioning methods, you can ensure correct resource allocation and identify any over-committed or unused assets. This permits more efficient cloud utilization, leading to a stable performance at a reduced cost.

Cloud policies managed consistently

Many organizations use multi-cloud architectures to improve their operating flexibility. Combining services from multiple clouds is often beneficial, but it also leads to management headaches. Cloud governance solutions solve multi-cloud problems by letting you roll out consistent policies across all your providers, abstracting the differences in their security and identity implementations.

Remain compliant with regulatory standards

Cloud governance frameworks are crucial tools for organizations subject to special legal standards or regulatory requirements. Using clearly defined processes to enforce policies ensures continual compliance, while integrated observability mechanisms and multi-cloud management make it easier to gain visibility over your cloud landscape during audits.

How to implement cloud governance in a cloud environment?

You can start setting up cloud governance by implementing tools and processes that provide a formal structure for your cloud computing operations, including:

  • Automation of workflows and processes, such as using CI/CD pipelines, to improve efficiency and prevent unauthorized or unintentional changes,
  • Unification of cloud controls so policies can be managed centrally, without having to duplicate them across clouds,
  • Continual threat detection and alerts to notify you of potential issues as they happen, with automated mitigations that prevent compliance violations,
  • Use of observability solutions that facilitate oversight of your cloud infrastructure, permitting accurate tracking of utilization, costs, and overall performance, and,
  • Robust logging, reporting, and audit controls that enable you to prove ongoing compliance and accurately investigate suspected breaches or attacks.

Cloud governance is still a relatively young concept, so you may struggle to find a single solution that offers all these capabilities. Governance functions are often included in cloud management and security tools, but you might have to combine multiple products to get the most complete coverage.

AWS Management and Governance allows you to control cloud usage across AWS and on-premises infrastructure, for example, while Oracle Cloud Observability and Management offer multi-cloud visibility and automation. Other platforms like CrowdStrike or Wiz can offer more complete policy-driven security coverage across all of your environments.

Hence, it’s important to evaluate the different tools in the marketplace, analyze how they align with your requirements, and then look for ways they can be integrated to achieve the best outcome overall governance objectives.

There are three main steps to follow to begin your cloud governance implementation:

Step 1: Assess your cloud operations and plan which governance controls are required

In this stage, you should inspect your cloud inventory to identify any issues such as missing processes, poor monitoring, or weak security protections. You can then plan how to address them using governance controls. Distribute the plan to stakeholders and refine it as more information becomes known.

Step 2: Implement your controls

This stage is where you do the hard work to transform your cloud operations into a properly governed structure. It involves procuring—or building—platforms and tools that are capable of addressing the issues you’ve identified. Significant effort and investment are often required at this stage, but if you completed a full planning process, you shouldn’t encounter any unexpected blockers.

Step 3: Continually audit and review your cloud governance strategy, then iterate on any changes you require

Cloud governance is never a set-and-forget initiative. Cloud environments are dynamic, and your requirements can change quickly. For example, when new services are provisioned, a zero-day vulnerability is discovered, or you become subject to additional compliance requirements. You should regularly audit your cloud use, review your strategy to ensure it’s still appropriate, and make any adjustments that become necessary.

The exact steps to take will depend on the scale of your organization and the types of cloud services that you use. For example, a business that only runs a few non-critical cloud apps will have different governance requirements than an enterprise with mission-critical multi-cloud deployments. 

Although it can be tempting to implement all possible controls from the outset, this could be counterproductive if it increases your setup time: it’s better to start small with just the controls you actually need and then layer in additional processes in future iterations.

Implementing cloud governance with Spacelift

In this section, we will go through a simple OpenTofu example that spawns EC2 instances and demonstrate how easy it is to implement governance for it. The OpenTofu code is available here.

We will create a rego plan policy that restricts EC2 instance type to t2.micro. This will ensure that none of our instances have a different type:

package spacelift

deny[sprintf(message, [resource.address, instance])] {
   message := "Instance type %s is not allowed (%s)"
   resource := input.terraform.resource_changes[_]
   resource.type == "aws_instance"
   instance := resource.change.after.instance_type
   instance != "t2.micro"
}
sample := true

Next, we will create a rego approval policy, that requires at least one approval for a run to be applied:

package spacelift

# In this example, each Unconfirmed run will require two approvals -
# including proposed runs triggered by Git events. Additionally,
# the run should have no rejections. Anyone who rejects the run will
# need to change their mind in order for the run to go through.

approve {
   input.run.state != "UNCONFIRMED"
}

approve {
   count(input.reviews.current.approvals) >= 1
   count(input.reviews.current.rejections) == 0
}

sample = true

In our code, we are also adding an SSH key to the instances that we are creating, so to make things simple, we will create a context that will mount a public key to all stacks that have this context attached. This context will automatically attach to all instances that have the governance label.

cloud security governance
cloud based data governance

Before finishing the creation of the context, let’s take governance up a notch and integrate a security vulnerability scanning tool inside the hooks view. For this example, we will use tfsec:

cloud compliance and governance

We are saving the output of tfsec in a file called tfsec.custom.spacelift.json, so we’ll be able to define custom policies for it as well.

Let’s also define a policy that will deny a run if the number of tfsec high vulnerabilities found is greater than five:

package spacelift

deny [sprintf(message, [p])] {
   message := "You have more high serverity issues (%d) than the threshold: 5"
   results := input.third_party_metadata.custom.tfsec.results
   p := count({result | result := results[_]; result.severity == "HIGH"})
   p >= 5
}
sample = true

Now, let’s create a stack that uses the repository and adds all the policies:

what is governance in cloud computing

We are naming this stack ec2_governance, and adding a label called governance to ensure that all policies and contexts that have the “autoattach:governance” label will be automatically attached to this stack.

cloud governance automation

In this view, we are selecting the repository, the branch, and the folder from which we would like to run our code.

cloud governance definition

Here, we select the tool we will use, and in this case, it will be OpenTofu.

We also attached a cloud integration for dynamic credentials, as it is not recommended to use static ones, even for small demonstrations.

In this view, you can see the policies that we’ve attached and the ones that were automatically attached.

cloud governance tool

Here, you can see the automatically attached context.

We could also add drift detection schedules and other policies, and integrate them with other tools, but for this example, we will leave things as they are, so now we are ready to run the code:

cloud provisioning and governance

We can see that all plan policies have been evaluated to allow the run. Let’s make a simulation to the tfsec one to see if we have any high-severity issues, though:

I changed the threshold to one and simulated a policy run, and we can see that we have four high-severity issues. The number is lower than five let’s run the code, though.

For the approval policy, we have reached an undecided state. We could either approve or reject the run, so let’s approve it and see it in action:

cloud governance solutions

Our EC2 instances have been created successfully and we saw how easy it is to implement governance in Spacelift. Spacelift offers its own OpenTofu/Terraform provider, so you have the ability to automate everything that you’ve seen in this example.

Cloud governance challenges

As we’ve seen, cloud governance is an essential tool for organizations using cloud infrastructure at scale. However, implementing a successful strategy can be challenging because so many components are involved — from security to utilization analysis and collection of audit data. You can address the sprawl by carefully planning your approach and only expanding to more areas of your operation once you’re comfortable with the workflow.

It’s also common for cloud governance initiatives to suffer from push-back from stakeholders. Developers, service operators, and even business leaders can resist new processes that change their ways of working. To be successful, cloud governance frameworks need to be universally accepted, with all team members informed why they’re being introduced and which tools and methodologies are approved to use.

Cloud governance requires significant upfront work to design your framework, implement it in your organization, and retrain staff. It takes time to realize the benefits, but it’s important to remember that cloud governance is a long-term investment. An effective governance strategy equips you for safe, controlled, and efficient cloud usage that’s less likely to suffer costly future disruption.

Cloud governance best practices

To obtain the best results from a cloud governance solution, try to implement the following best practices:

  1. Establish automated controls for provisioning, changing, and monitoring cloud infrastructure.
  2. Create a dedicated cloud governance team that will be responsible for maintaining the framework and implementing it across your organization.
  3. Keep developers and executives informed about how new processes work and why they’re required.
  4. Reference existing standards and frameworks, such as COBIT 5, ITIL 4, and SOC 2, to guide the discovery of the controls you require.
  5. Regularly review your governance structure and iteratively apply any changes that are required.

Following these best practices in cloud governance makes it more likely that your strategy will succeed. Remember the six principles of cloud governance: security, compliance, data management, performance management, asset management, cost optimization, and operational efficiency.

Key points

Cloud governance is a policy-based approach to cloud management and operation. It provides consistent controls and processes for configuring identities, access management, security rules, and compliance guardrails, preventing users from mistakenly applying unauthorized settings in cloud services.

You might already be doing some of these things, but cloud governance formalizes them as part of a cohesive strategy. This makes it much less likely that oversights will occur. Cloud governance solutions can continually monitor your environments and automatically block policy violations as they happen, helping you avoid any costly mishaps.

Ensuring all infrastructure changes are applied using an automated IaC process is one of the most effective ways to secure your environments against accidental change.

Check out Spacelift, the CI/CD platform for IaC, to safely provision infrastructure using your existing pull request workflow. Developers, operators, and security and compliance teams can all use Spacelift to interact with cloud resources while maintaining strict security policy requirements.

If you want to take your infrastructure automation to the next level, create a Spacelift account today or book a demo with one of our engineers.

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