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January 17, 2023 | Adam Lawson

Cloud Sprawl: What Is It and How to Control It

We all have that one drawer where we stash the things that don’t make sense anywhere else in the house. At first, it can feel like a convenient solution to our allocation problems, but over time, things can accumulate, leading to a lot of mess and confusion. We might even find ourselves buying duplicates of what we already have in the drawer because it’s seemingly become untenable.

Cloud sprawl is the uncontrolled and often unintentional growth of cloud usage within an organization. It can lead to higher costs, a lack of security and compliance, and an overall decrease in efficiency. In some ways, cloud sprawl is like having a “junk drawer” we never take the time to organize. Cloud sprawl occurs when an organization doesn’t manage or monitor their cloud environment. This allows cloud instances, providers, or services to spread across the organization unchecked. Due to this sprawl, you could be:

  • Running up a tab for unused cloud instances
  • Creating a mess
  • Leaving your company open to vulnerabilities

We’ll cover the main causes of cloud sprawl, types of sprawl, the risks you can encounter, and how you can properly plan to manage it.

Causes of cloud sprawl in IT infrastructure

Cloud sprawl is an increasing issue for IT infrastructure, as more organizations move their workloads to the cloud. Common causes of cloud sprawl include lack of oversight, lack of governance, and inadequate planning. As the demand for cloud services and solutions continues to grow, it’s important for organizations to be aware of the potential risks associated with unmanaged cloud usage to ensure they are getting the most out of their IT infrastructure.

Cloud sprawl due to these three culprits: mismanagement, misconfiguration, and improper monitoring.

Mismanagement

If you find your costs creeping up over time, you may have mismanagement to blame. When a cloud environment is mismanaged, instances can be created beyond what was initially budgeted, ballooning costs and leaving your company with more resources than you actually need. Without keeping this in check, you can quickly fall into a cost quagmire.

This isn’t a new problem, nor is it one that can be solved overnight. Before you embark on a costly cloud migration, consider the impact to your current costs and whether or not your company has mismanaged its cloud environment in the past. If it has, you may want to consider migrating to a managed service provider instead of switching cloud providers.

Misconfiguration

Cloud misconfiguration can prove to be one of your biggest security vulnerabilities. You may be leaving doors slightly ajar for cyber criminals to burst through if you’re:

  • Giving unneeded levels of access to cloud identities
  • Leaving your Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) open
  • Failing to secure backups
  • Failing to manage passwords and encryption keys, among others

If you’re not careful about managing this complexity, you could be leaving a door wide open for cyber criminals to come in and wreak havoc. 

Cloud misconfiguration can also lead to leaks of sensitive information. For example, if your cloud configurations allow Google Drive, Dropbox, and iCloud to all share your file folders, then anyone with access to one account can see the files of others that they shouldn’t. It’s possible that Microsoft OneDrive is doing the same thing: allowing other people who are using their service to access to your files without your knowledge or consent. Beyond storage, there are plenty of other important areas to think about. Everything from access rights, to who can view what, how, and where.

Data breaches always seem to come out of nowhere and leave you wondering what you could have done better. The truth is that data breaches are not a surprise – they are an unfortunate reality that companies need to prepare for. Smaller organizations like nonprofits often don’t have the resources or budget needed for cybersecurity protection until it’s too late.

Improper monitoring of a cloud environment

Cloud computing has revolutionized the way businesses function, offering streamlined access to data and applications. However, improper monitoring of a cloud environment can lead to unexpected outages, security breaches, and other risks that negatively impact a business’s operations. To ensure optimal performance and security, it’s essential for organizations to keep an eye on their cloud environment and put robust monitoring strategies in place that can detect any potential issues before they become a problem.

At TierPoint, we’ve seen firsthand how monitoring a cloud environment can be challenging. We designed and built our Managed Public Cloud Professional bundle to provide our clients with actionable insight into their cloud operations so they can effectively monitor and mitigate any risks that might arise. The Managed Public Cloud Professional is a multi-tenant public cloud platform that collects telemetry data from multiple sources in order to detect abnormalities, provide alerts, track issues across servers and applications, identify trends, and build comprehensive reports on performance metrics.

3 Types of cloud sprawl

Cloud sprawl can take many forms, from an unmanaged proliferation of cloud services to inefficient usage of resources. Fortunately, there are ways to identify and address cloud sprawl before it starts to have an impact an organization’s bottom line. By recognizing the types of cloud sprawl and implementing proper governance controls, businesses can get ahead of the problem and ensure their clouds remain secure and cost-effective.

There are two important questions to consider when dealing with cloud sprawl: where and why. Where the sprawl is occurring is just as important to know as what is causing it.

Platform sprawl

Platform sprawl can happen on just one cloud platform or across multiple platforms in organizations with hybrid or multicloud environments.

Because it’s so easy to add and assign new roles to the cloud, order computing power, and add features to existing cloud structures, developers can fall into these behaviors without checks and balances. And, it’s not hard to see that these practices of spinning up resources can just as quickly lead to abandoned, unneeded, or forgotten workloads and identities. Without anyone monitoring the environment, rogue cloud resources may sit unused for years, leaving organizations open to potential cloud computing security risks.

We’ve all seen developers push code changes; this can be done to fix a bug or try out an experimental feature. In some cases, this may also be part of a migration process to switch over from an on-premise data center to use the cloud as your primary compute resource. When this happens, there’s no one monitoring the environment and no governance policies in place that prevent rogue changes from breaking things or compromising data security.

Identity sprawl

Does everyone in your cloud environment have access to everything, or do you have a specified process for which roles receive which permissions? Identity sprawl occurs when identities are not consolidated, and instead may include one account that holds several person and non-person identities with needed and unneeded roles and permissions. If your organization experiences an infiltration, the spread of identities can make the source harder to pin down.

Ensuring that cloud access is secure and maintained is essential in any organization. It requires a structured process to identify which roles require what access and how to grant it. With the right strategy, organizations can make certain their cloud environment gives users the right permissions while protecting their data and resources from unauthorized access.

When you have the appropriate permissions and roles in place, you can access your cloud environment with a single username and password. This is considered to be a consolidated identity. If your organization experiences an infiltration, this consolidated identity makes it easier to pinpoint the source of the intrusion.

Data sprawl

Data in the cloud feels more nebulous – no pun intended. If there is no oversight or protocol for how your organization collects, processes, and stores data, it can spread out of control rapidly. When data is stored in environments that may feel siloed from one another, monitoring becomes a challenge, as does managing and working with the data.

If data is stored in the cloud, an organization can easily move it to another facility or even another country. It’s a little more difficult to do with on-premise storage. However, using the right tools and creating policies around the data you store can help ensure your cloud storage is compliant with regulatory requirements.

Data sprawl can also mean missing out on key insights that could be gleaned from better-organized data, or overuse of cloud computing resources because you have redundant, obsolete, and trivial (ROT) data being unnecessarily stored. And, of course, the more data you have, the more you may be open to security vulnerabilities.

Data out of context can lead to poor decisions and higher costs. The more data you have, the more difficult it becomes to make proper decisions based on the information alone. A key reason: it can be nearly impossible to know if the data has been properly cleansed of errors or faulty source material, or if it still contains useful information in its current form. And this is true across all types of organizations—from banks and hospitals to stores and manufacturers.

For example, consider a hypothetical situation where an organization is trying to decide whether a new product will sell well using traditional store metrics, demographic data, or strategy data. Traditional store metrics, such as sales and profit margins, will tell the company that the new product is a good idea. Historically, those products tend to be successful or fail in certain markets according to demographics data. In other words, it’s been shown that people who are college-educated purchase e-books more often than people who are not college-educated. However, strategy data would tell the organization that many of their customers buy similar products across different categories, so one new product would not really help them differentiate themselves from their competitors. This can ultimately lead to weak sales in the new product, which would cause a return on investment to be very difficult.

The risks of cloud sprawl

As you may already be piecing together, cloud sprawl can lead to:

  • Avoidable expenses
  • Security issues
  • Environment inefficiencies

Now, let’s review the risks associated with cloud sprawl and how to avoid them.

Unnecessary costs

The more your budget is tied up in your cloud workloads, the less you have to allocate for other, more important projects.

Unnecessary costs can be detrimental to any business. As cloud computing becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it’s crucial for companies to evaluate how their budget is allocated for cloud workloads and start thinking about IT cost optimization. Reallocating resources from unnecessary costs could mean more money for projects that drive innovation and growth. By closely examining cloud spending, companies can ensure they’re optimizing their investments in the most cost-effective way possible.

Security

Cloud security has become increasingly important in cloud computing as organizations move more of their data and operations to the cloud. However, there are many potential threats to the security of cloud-based information, ranging from misconfigured settings to inadequate identity and access management. To ensure complete safety and privacy, organizations must take proactive steps to protect their cloud data from unauthorized access and malicious attacks.  

Misconfigurations pose the biggest threat to your cloud security, but mismanagement leading to excess data and accounts can also cause problems. Having the proper security settings in cloud applications is an important line of defense that, if missed, can leave your business open to hackers. Worse yet, because these can be forgotten pockets of data, they can go unnoticed and allow infiltrations to go undetected.

Inefficiency

Inefficiencies in cloud management can have a huge impact on an organization’s operations. Without proper coordination between departments, costly redundancies and misused resources can occur.

Additionally, if different departments are using different cloud providers, it can cause confusion and create additional strain on the team’s resources. By having a centralized system for managing the organization’s clouds, companies can reduce costs and make sure everyone is working from the same source of information.

How to manage cloud sprawl

Once you understand the scope of the problem, you’ll have an easier time monitoring and managing it. With that knowledge, businesses can put in place measures to monitor and manage cloud sprawl more effectively.

Assessments, like our FinOps strategy assessment, can give useful insights to produce tangible results. From alterations in license types or cutting down on unnecessary VMs to suitable scaling, customers can start witnessing money savings quickly after implementing recommended changes.

Defining a cloud strategy

Build a company-wide cloud strategy that includes all stakeholders across departments. This unified strategy should include policies for how the cloud is managed – how will data be handled and stored, how will access be doled out, and which cloud platforms will be used for what purposes. Figure out who’s in charge of monitoring, how the environment will be kept free from clutter, and how often costs will be evaluated to ensure you are within budget.

The cloud is not just for one person or department, it’s for everybody! A strategy allows you to get buy-in from all the different groups working in your business and it’s a great way to simplify operations.

Cloud tools

Making sure cloud usage stays within certain guidelines can be made easier with the right software as a service (SaaS) tools. For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has a license manager that can help you track and control the licenses in your environment, and provides the ability to manage cloud resources via CloudFormation to ensure AWS cost optimization. Microsoft Azure can automate processes in the cloud, optimize costs, and help you manage resources, such as IaaS, PaaS and the database.

Without a closer eye on your cloud usage, it can be easy to exceed your allotted resources. If you need help checking on the cloud-usage model or are just interested in data visualization tools, TierPoint offers products and services that can provide insight into where your dollars go.

Managed cloud service provider

Managing the cloud can become complicated and expand beyond the scope of your internal resources. Whether you need more hands or specialization, that’s where a managed cloud service provider can come in. Working with experts can help reveal cloud security concerns you may not have seen that aid in disaster recovery, budget bloat that could have flown under the radar, or managerial issues that you previously dealt with because you were too busy with other matters.

Save IT Cost and Optimize Your Cloud Sprawl

Don’t let your junk drawer get out of hand. The sooner you deal with cloud sprawl, the easier it will be to control, contain, and prevent it in the future. A managed cloud partner can give you much-needed visibility and a plan of action to stop the sprawl before it spreads.

Keep Cloud Sprawl and Cloud Costs in Check

You can reduce your cloud sprawl and costs with a comprehensive cloud strategy. A cloud strategy better helps you manage your cloud environment to keep it (and your budgets) running efficiently, even as your business shifts and grows. Read more about building out a cloud strategy with the guide below.

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