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Cloud Sprawl Explained

Cloud sprawl is a phenomenon that involves the unmanaged growth of cloud-based resources and services.

Wiz Experts Team
6 min read

What is cloud sprawl?

Cloud sprawl is a phenomenon that involves the unmanaged growth of cloud-based resources and services. Many businesses hail scalability as a primary advantage of cloud technologies. However, all the easy, affordable, and accessible ways organizations can scale their cloud estates often lead to the disorganized mushrooming of their cloud-based identities, infrastructure, and data. 

Cloud sprawl can debilitate both performance and cybersecurity. If your IT environments are rife with rough cloud resources that fall outside the visibility and stewardship of IT teams, workflow bottlenecks, security vulnerabilities, and compliance red flags may go unnoticed.

Left unaddressed, cloud sprawl can have significant long-term implications, with one study out of McKinsey claiming it results in a net ROI value leakage of between 65% and 70%. This points to why only 1 in 10 companies claim to have unlocked the cloud’s complete value. On the one hand, businesses must empower their teams to develop, design, and scale at will. On the other hand, finding ways to identify and address cloud sprawl is imperative. 

If businesses fail to curb cloud sprawl, the risks can mature into disasters. 

What are the risks of cloud sprawl? 

Unfortunately, the issues that can emerge due to cloud sprawl are varied and many—covering security threats, sloppy operations, and waste.

Resource wastageMany businesses migrated from on-premises data centers to cloud platforms for cost benefits. But cloud usage doesn't automatically result in cost savings. And if cloud sprawl becomes a problem, it can result in poorer use of cloud computing resources and unnecessary cloud costs.
Workflow inefficienciesCompanies that suffer from cloud sprawl will have highly disorganized and haphazard cloud structures and workflows. This can result in major operational inefficiencies, as well as cross-team communication and collaboration challenges.  Furthermore, since businesses now mix and match offerings from multiple cloud providers, workflows can easily become convoluted due to cloud sprawl.
Weakened cybersecurity postureIf IT and security teams aren’t in control of proliferating cloud structures, cyber threats can easily slip under the radar. Threat actors can breach cloud environments and exfiltrate data for long periods before businesses find out. This happens because it’s impossible to identify and remediate exploitable vulnerabilities in rogue cloud resources.

What are the causes of cloud sprawl? 

The list is long, and organizations need to be aware of all possible culprits. 

Accelerated growth

For most businesses, DevOps initiatives are firing on all cylinders. With software development lifecycles (SDLCs) on overdrive, devs may commission myriad cloud services from disparate cloud providers at breakneck speeds. 

As a result, stewardship and governance of these newly commissioned cloud instances become exceedingly complex. 

Shadow IT

Employees often unofficially procure cloud services (like productivity apps and conferencing platforms) to bypass the lengthy process it would normally take to get official permission from the IT team to use them. 

This unmanaged procurement of cloud computing resources can result in a lack of visibility and management challenges that can severely exacerbate cloud sprawl and introduce countless risks.

Self-service IT ecosystems

Democratized and decentralized IT models are in vogue. Numerous teams and employees commission cloud services themselves, which is different from the top-down approaches of the past. 

Self-service IT ecosystems provide many transformative benefits, but they can also result in cloud sprawl.

Suboptimal management

Cloud environments change with every second, and businesses need comprehensive visibility across all their cloud computing resources to ensure optimal protection. Companies with suboptimal management of their cloud estates will lack a holistic picture of what cloud resources they procure and use. 

This can lead to the unwanted proliferation of cloud resources, blind spots across cloud environments, a general lack of visibility, and more advanced cloud management challenges.

Lack of standardized practices

Businesses must have standardized practices and policies in place to commission new cloud computing resources. Without these, they can’t efficiently track and steward the influx of cloud computing resources, which are typically an amalgam of IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS offerings from various cloud service providers.

Are there different types of cloud sprawl? 

Technically, the uncontrolled proliferation of any cloud computing resource is a form of cloud sprawl. However, some forms of cloud sprawl are more prevalent than others, particularly the three types listed below. 

Identity sprawl

Cloud environments are inhabited by numerous digital identities, both human and machine. The rampant growth of these identities is a form of cloud sprawl that results in numerous access-related challenges. 

For instance, dormant digital identities that fall outside the visibility of IT teams may have access privileges to crown jewels. If a threat actor hijacks one of these digital identities, businesses will have no way of knowing that their adversaries hold a key to their most private cloud chambers. Furthermore, the resulting data breaches, leaks, and exfiltration may be impossible to spot.

Infrastructure sprawl

Cloud environments are sometimes built hastily to meet short-term needs. Various teams and personnel may set up accounts, applications, identities, databases, and other critical cloud structures without thinking about long-term security or governance. Once these cloud resources fulfill their initial purpose, some businesses neglect them via slipshod management, poor decommissioning practices, and suboptimal surveillance. 

By neglecting the management and monitoring of these cloud resources, businesses become more susceptible to internal and external vulnerabilities.

Data sprawl

While vast volumes of data can be an asset, businesses must be wary of data sprawl, a phenomenon where businesses lose control over the data they possess. In cloud environments, this is a pertinent threat because teams often unofficially or carelessly procure or build databases, applications, and resources ad hoc. 

Data sprawl increases the possibility of data breaches, compliance and data privacy failures, management disarray, and a loss of data value.

Simple best practices to prevent cloud sprawl

Luckily, there are practices and solutions companies can adhere to and adopt to counter cloud sprawl. 

A. Implement Cloud Governance Policies and Procedures

  • Establish a formal cloud governance framework that defines:

  • Cloud service selection criteria based on security, performance, and cost.

  • Approval workflows for cloud resource provisioning and deletion.

  • User access controls and identity management for cloud services.

  • Data classification and security protocols for cloud storage.

  • Backup and disaster recovery procedures for cloud resources.

  • Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with cloud providers.

  • Regularly review and update cloud governance policies to adapt to evolving business needs and security threats.

B. Centralize Cloud Resource Provisioning and Management

  • Designate a central cloud management team responsible for:

  • Cloud resource provisioning and de-provisioning.

  • Managing cloud user access and permissions.

  • Monitoring cloud resource utilization and performance.

  • Identifying and eliminating idle or underutilized resources

  • Implementing automated resource scaling based on demand.

  • Utilize a centralized cloud management platform to gain a holistic view of all cloud resources across the organization.

  • Standardize infrastructure-as-code (IaC) tools like Terraform or Ansible to automate cloud resource provisioning and configuration.

C. Enable Cloud Cost Monitoring and Optimization Tools

  • Leverage cloud provider billing tools and cost management dashboards to track cloud spending by department, project, and resource type.

  • Implement cloud cost optimization tools that offer:

  • Cost anomaly detection and recommendations for resource optimization.

  • Reserved instances or savings plans for predictable workloads.

  • Automated resource tagging for cost allocation and chargeback.

D. Standardize Cloud Services and Platforms Across Departments

  • Identify a limited set of approved cloud services and platforms that meet common business needs.

  • Encourage departmental adoption of standardized cloud services to avoid service sprawl and simplify management.

  • Provide centralized training and support for users on approved cloud services.

E. Enforce Accountability and Educate Users about Responsible Cloud Usage

  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities for cloud resource management.

  • Establish a system for holding accountable those who violate cloud governance policies.

  • Provide ongoing training for all users on responsible cloud usage practices:

  • Resource optimization techniques.

  • Security best practices for cloud data.

  • Cost-conscious cloud resource selection and utilization.

F. Leverage Cloud Automation Tools for Resource Provisioning and Management

  • Utilize infrastructure as code (IaC) tools to automate cloud resource provisioning and configuration.

  • Implement automated tagging for cloud resources to simplify cost allocation and management.

  • Explore serverless computing options to eliminate the need for manual server management.

How Wiz can help you manage cloud sprawl

Cloud sprawl is a dangerous pitfall of cloud operations, and one seen all too often. It can lead to unnecessary costs, workflow inefficiencies, security risks, and a lack of visibility across cloud environments.

Wiz can assist in preventing cloud sprawl by providing comprehensive visibility and control over cloud resources. It achieves this through several key capabilities:

  1. Agentless Scanning: Wiz's agentless scanning technology allows for a complete and continuous assessment of your cloud environment without impacting workload performance. This ensures that all resources are accounted for and monitored.

  2. Effective Permissions Analysis: By calculating the effective permissions each identity has on all resources, Wiz helps organizations understand the scope of exposure and tighten access controls, thereby reducing the risk of sprawl due to misconfigured permissions.

  3. Project Scoping: Wiz enables the scoping of resources based on ownership or business context, which helps channel cloud risks to the responsible individuals and teams. This focused approach can prevent sprawl by ensuring that resources are managed and remediated effectively.

  4. Comprehensive Risk Analysis: Wiz identifies risks across numerous categories, including cloud entitlements and secure configuration, which can contribute to sprawl if not managed properly.

  5. Normalization Across Clouds: Wiz normalizes terminologies and risk definitions across multiple cloud providers, allowing for consistent management and comparison of cloud resources, which is essential in preventing sprawl in multi-cloud environments.

By leveraging these features, organizations can maintain tighter control over their cloud resources, ensure compliance with security policies, and prevent the unchecked growth and mismanagement that characterize cloud sprawl.

Get a personalized demo today to learn more about Wiz and see how it can help you curtail cloud sprawl in your organization.

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