Cloud Security: The Power of Turning Off GCP Services

“Check whether all needed services are active!” It was a ubiquitous warning at the beginning of all hands-on labs when I took my first Google Cloud Platform (GCP) tutorials. I could not understand Google’s philosophy. Why would you disable a service? Why does Google not activate them by default and keep them on all the time?

Today, about two years later, I am a big fan of this great feature. It eases my work as a cloud security architect. IT departments benefit from lesser costs and less friction between engineering and security. Plus, the feature helps to protect Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS)-heavy workloads.

Firewalls keep many attackers away in the old world of servers and virtual machines. In a PaaS world, services are directly exposed internally or to the internet, making inadequate authentication and authorization mechanisms and incomplete configurations a considerable risk. Thus, hardening PaaS services is a necessity. If left to application engineers, some might forget about the hardening or projects under pressure delay the hardening to a later point in the future – and it remains a future task to eternity and beyond. Here, the option to disable PaaS services makes a difference. Figure 1 compares a hide-and-seek and a governance-based working model.

The upper process illustrates what is a matter of time in a larger organization. Application teams use a new, innovative PaaS service without proper hardening. The CISO organization finds out and is furious. Next, they analyze together with the cloud platform management team which configurations are appropriate and necessary for hardening the service. Typically, the hardening bases upon a CIS benchmark or cloud-vendor best practices. Next, the platform management organizes the hardening – and the engineering team (hopefully) does not have to make too many modifications to make their code work with the hardened service.

Figure 1: Hardening approaches with and without security governance

The corporate culture and employee motivation do not benefit from CISOs-turned-cops working style always looking for guilty engineers. Reworking code to work with hardened services causes extra costs, especially when more extensive architectural adjustments are necessary. Plus, there is an increased risk for security incidents till the completion of the hardening. Thus, a more bureaucratic process (Figure 1, lower process) that seems to slow innovation and agility is often the better choice.

When an engineer wants to use a new service, he informs the cloud platform management. The latter elaborates the hardening requirements with the CISO organization and ensures their implementation. Afterward, the cloud platform management makes the newly hardened PaaS service available for the engineers, who integrate it into their solutions.

To enable a new PaaS service in the Google Cloud Platform, the cloud platform management changes to the “all products” overview in the GCP console, selects the service it wants to activate, and presses “Enable” (Figure 2). In Google’s GCP, the activation is just a single click on a button.

Figure 2: Managing / Activating / Deactivating Services in Google’s GCP