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An essential guide to achieving compliance with Kubernetes

An essential guide to achieving compliance with Kubernetes

Jun 15, 2023

Oshrat Nir
Developer Advocate

Learn about Kubernetes compliance challenges, consequences of non-compliance, and get guidance on maintaining a secure and compliant cloud environment in a dynamic Kubernetes setup. Originally posted on March 15, 2023

Kubernetes is a leading open-source platform for automating containerized applications’ deployment, scaling, and management. With the growing adoption of cloud, hybrid, and multicloud environments, the topic of Kubernetes compliance has become increasingly pertinent. Kubernetes compliance means ensuring that the platform and its components adhere to applicable regulations and standards. With a rapidly growing attack surface in modern cloud environments, the emphasis on compliance has increased among Kubernetes users.

This post will explain what compliance is in Kubernetes, the challenges of achieving it, and the consequences of non-compliance. It will then explore how to achieve compliance in this dynamic, ephemeral environment. You will gain insights, guidance, and tool recommendations to help maintain a secure and compliant Kubernetes infrastructure.

Understanding compliance in Kubernetes

Compliance in Kubernetes applies to various aspects of the platform, including security, data privacy, network security, and incident response. The goal of Kubernetes’ compliance requirements is to minimize the risk of security breaches and ensure that sensitive data is protected. This section will present the leading regulatory frameworks and standards that apply to Kubernetes in specific contexts, and discuss the significance of the Kubernetes attack surface.

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Regulatory frameworks and standards

Several regulatory frameworks and standards apply to Kubernetes, depending on the industry and location of the organization. Some examples include:

  • SOC 2: The Service Organization Control (SOC) 2 framework applies to organizations that provide cloud-based services. It addresses data security, availability, processing integrity, and confidentiality standards.
  • PCI DSS: The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) applies to organizations that handle credit card information, and sets standards for securing sensitive data. PCI DSS requires regular security assessments.
  • HIPAA: The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) applies to organizations in the healthcare industry. It is concerned with the protection of patient data, including requirements for access controls, data encryption, and incident response, and establishes standards pertaining to these factors.
  • NIST SP 800-53: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication (SP) 800-53 regulates the security of federal information systems and organizations. Its scope includes requirements for incident response, access controls, and data encryption.
  • GDPR: The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation in EU law for data protection and privacy, applying to all individuals within the European Union. Protecting personal data—including requirements for data breach notification, right to erasure, and data portability—are within its domain.
  • ISO 27001: The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 27001 is an international standard for information security management that addresses information security risks, including requirements for incident management, access controls, and data encryption.

Kubernetes attack surface

The attack surface of Kubernetes refers to the various areas of a Kubernetes cluster that are vulnerable to an attack. These areas, or attack surfaces, can be grouped as follows:

As Kubernetes adoption has grown, so have new use cases which drive more complex architectures This level of adoption has also increased the attack surface of Kubernetes clusters and led to it becoming more diverse and harder to control. This is the direct result of increasing numbers of Kubernetes clusters being deployed in multicloud and hybrid-cloud environments. Thus, organizations must implement robust security controls and continuous monitoring in order to protect their Kubernetes stack from potential attacks.

Compliance frameworks play a crucial role in securing Kubernetes clusters. These frameworks provide guidelines and best practices that help organizations establish robust security controls and ensure adherence to industry regulations. By following compliance frameworks, organizations can implement essential security measures, such as access controls, network policies, and data encryption, to protect sensitive information and prevent unauthorized access. However, achieving compliance in Kubernetes can be quite challenging due to its dynamic and distributed nature. The inherent complexity of Kubernetes, with its multitude of components and the need to manage configurations and updates across clusters, adds an additional layer of difficulty to ensuring compliance. Nevertheless, organizations must rise to the challenge and invest in robust compliance strategies to effectively secure their Kubernetes clusters and maintain regulatory standards.

Challenges of achieving compliance in Kubernetes

Compliance in Kubernetes is a complex beast, due to the architectural characteristics of the cloud and the limitations of current compliance tools. This section will first discuss difficulties related to the dynamic and ephemeral features of Kubernetes and then look at existing compliance tools’ limitations, before suggesting ways to overcome these limitations.

Why Is compliance in Kubernetes challenging?

Achieving compliance in a dynamic, ephemeral environment such as Kubernetes can be challenging for a number of reasons, which deserve a closer look.

Complex architecture

Kubernetes clusters are commonly used for complex applications that use microservices. Their architectural complexity makes compliance across the entire environment a challenge; there are often multiple interconnected components to consider.

Ephemeral state

Pods and containers in a Kubernetes cluster are ephemeral, meaning that they are typically created and destroyed quickly and frequently. This transient state makes it challenging to maintain consistent compliance across the entire stack, as resources may be added or removed without proper oversight.

Lack of holistic visibility

Kubernetes creates a complex stack with applications running both in the cluster and in the underlying cloud infrastructure. There are widely adopted tools available to improve visibility, such as Prometheus for monitoring, Grafana for visualization, and initiatives such as OpenTelemetry to create a unified platform. However, these tools are limited in terms of their focus, and creating holistic visibility often remains elusive. This creates challenges in identifying and addressing compliance issues in a timely manner.

Scalability

One of the critical features of Kubernetes is its ability to scale resources automatically based on demand. Although it is a compelling feature, finding security issues in a thousand-node production environment is challenging.

What are the limitations of existing Kubernetes compliance solutions?

While Kubernetes poses several compliance challenges, the platform actively fosters collaboration with a vibrant, open-source community, and stays attuned to industry trends. It’s reasonable to assume that in the coming years, compliance management for Kubernetes will be improved and simplified. Current compliance solutions in the Kubernetes ecosystem have several limitations, including a lack of Kubernetes-specific features, limited automation, and restricted integration.

Lack of Kubernetes-Specific features

Many compliance solutions are designed for traditional cloud infrastructure environments. As a result, their capacity to address Kubernetes-native features—such as extensions with custom resources or RBAC controls—is limited.

Limited automation

Compliance solutions that rely on manual inspections and audits to ensure compliance can prove to be time-consuming and error-prone. In an ephemeral environment such as Kubernetes they can also prove to be futile. In addition, without automation and continuous controls, ensuring compliance in Kubernetes is onerous.

Limited integration

Some compliance solutions may be siloed and integrate poorly with other tools and systems used in the Kubernetes ecosystem., This lack of integration between  monitoring, logging, auditing, and node-level container runtimes tools may result in suboptimal visibility and can slow down identification of security breaches and patching of them.

Overcoming limitations of current solutions

In order to overcome these limitations, organizations should adopt compliance solutions designed explicitly for Kubernetes environments. These solutions should include features such as automated compliance checks, Kubernetes-specific auditing, and integration with other tools and systems used in the Kubernetes ecosystem.

Please note that relying on compliance tools designed for a cloud environment does not guarantee a sufficient feature set to ensure Kubernetes cluster compliance.

Here are three important things to consider when looking for ways to ensure compliance in a dynamic, complex Kubernetes environment:

Tools

As opposed to a single solution, it is recommended to deploy a number of tools that should be integrated into your overall compliance framework:

CategorySolution Providers
Code complianceOPA, Kube-compliance, Kubescape
Admission controllers Built-in Kubernetes feature, Kyverno, Gatekeeper
Auditing & logging Elasticsearch, logstash, Kibana, Fluentd, Prometheus
Image scanningTrivy, Clair, Kubescape
NetworkingCalico, Cillium, Istio

Best practices 

In addition to selecting the most effective tools, ensuring best practices is also an important part of maintaining Kubernetes security:

  • Verify which regulations apply to your organizations prior to deployment
  • Define and distribute documentation of policies and standards for your organization
  • Automate compliance checks and remediation efforts
  • Use Kubernetes-specific admission controllers
  • Use Kubernetes-specific auditing and logging tools
  • Enable, automate and monitor container image scanning
  • Leverage historical  monitoring data to perform monthly audits and quarterly reviews
  • Regular team training sessions and updates

Consequences of non-compliance

Non-compliance in a Kubernetes environment can create avoidable risks and lead to serious consequences, including:

  • Security vulnerabilities: Non-compliance with security standards and regulations can leave a Kubernetes environment open to attacks and breaches. This can cause sensitive data to be compromised, resulting in financial loss and damage to an organization’s reputation.
  • Compliance penalties: Organizations that are found to be non-compliant with regulatory standards may be subject to fines, liabilities, and legal action.
  • Difficulty in passing audits: Organizations will not pass audits and maintain certifications if they are not compliant. This can result in lost business opportunities.
  • Difficulty in detecting and responding to incidents: Non-compliant clusters can cause failures when it comes to detecting and responding to security incidents, as there may be insufficiencies in monitoring and logging.
  • Struggle to maintain a competitive edge: Organizations may lose their competitive advantage in the market if they are not compliant, as they may not be able to meet the baseline compliance requirements of potential customers and partners.
  • Failure to meet required  industry standards: Non-compliant organizations will not receive the compliance certifications (e.g.PCI-DSS, SOC2, HIPAA, and NIST) necessary for doing business.

To mitigate these risks and consequences, organizations should adopt a comprehensive compliance strategy that includes regular audits, automated compliance checks, and ongoing monitoring of the Kubernetes environment.

Conclusion

Compliance in a Kubernetes environment is a complex and ongoing process. The dynamic and ephemeral nature of clusters, combined with the growing attack surface in modern cloud environments, makes it challenging to maintain a consistent state of compliance. Despite these challenges, organizations must ensure compliance in order to minimize the risk of security breaches and protect sensitive data. This requires a comprehensive approach involving continuous monitoring and assessment, automated testing and remediation, and regular updates to policies and procedures.

In light of these challenges, it is crucial to prioritize compliance in a Kubernetes environment and invest in the necessary resources and tools to maintain high compliance standards. This means staying up to date with the latest regulatory requirements and best practices, and adopting solutions that can help automate the compliance process. ARMO Platform, powered by Kubescape, is a Kubernetes-focused, comprehensive solution to manage compliance in any Kubernetes environment. Sign up today to secure your Kubernetes environment and stay ahead of regulatory requirements.

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