min read
Jul 15, 2024

What's the Difference Between Securing a Cloud Environment vs SaaS Environment?

Cloud environment vs SaaS environment

If your organization doesn’t rely on any SaaS systems or cloud-based IT resources… then you’re probably living in the 1990s. 

If you are firmly planted in the 2020s, then you’re not only using SaaS systems and cloud-based IT resources, but they probably constitute the majority of your organization’s IT. And, like any part of your organization’s IT, you need to secure it. Since they’re both cloud-based, is there a difference between securing a cloud environment vs SaaS environment?

This post will:

  • Clarify the difference in definition and function between a cloud environment vs SaaS environment
  • List security challenges that exist across both environments
  • Lay out the important security principles that apply to both environments
  • Explain what to prioritize when securing a cloud environment vs SaaS environment 

Let’s go to the cloud.

What is a Cloud Environment vs SaaS Environment?

A cloud environment is a cloud-based IT resources distribution model. These resources could include:

  • Servers
  • Data storage
  • Infrastructure
  • Networking
  • Computing resources
  • Software

A cloud environment allows you to utilize all these IT resources without needing to buy, house and service the hardware needed. Some of the resources offered in cloud environments are pay-per-use, making it even more cost-effective to rely on them. 

So instead of buying servers and sticking them in your offices, you just sign up with Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud and use their servers and computing power.

A SaaS environment is a cloud-based software distribution model, effectively making it a very specific type of cloud environment. A SaaS environment allows you to access and utilize software, which otherwise would have been installed on and accessed only from certain computing devices on specific premises.

In short, the difference between a cloud environment vs SaaS environment is that the cloud environment can enable you to access all kinds of IT resources whereas the SaaS environment will enable you to access only one type of IT resource: software.

Security Challenges Across Both Cloud and SaaS Environments

Cloud-based IT resources are often more cost-effective and easier to manage. Not only do you not have to purchase hardware and software that can break or go obsolete, all maintenance is also automatically taken off your hands.

These resources do come with their own downsides, however, most notably in the area of security. Security challenges in cloud and SaaS environments often stem from or are linked to:

  • Remote access
  • Dynamism
  • Misconfigurations

Remote access

The ability to access cloud environments remotely is its strength - and simultaneously a weakness. You don’t have to be on your organization’s premises to enter and work in your cloud environment, but, then again, neither does a bad actor. 

On-prem systems can be airgapped to some extent. If you have an on-prem, airgapped server, a threat actor would need to be local and have a key to your facility. Cloud systems are all accessible digitally. A threat actor can be in your city, in China or sitting on Brazil’s Baia do Sancho beach.

When your resources can be targeted from anywhere in the world, they become much more of a target.


We again hit the two-sided strength-and-weakness coin with the dynamic nature of SaaS and cloud environments. Cloud environments are designed to be dynamic, changing on the fly according to your organization’s needs at the moment. Need more computing power? Boom! You’re allocated more servers. Need less power? Want not, waste not! You’re automatically scaled down. 

SaaS environments are also characterized by fast-paced change. With one “share with everyone at organization” setting, 10,000 people now have access to a data asset that until now was private. Data assets change, access permissions change; if you were to attempt to manually keep track of all the changes, you would basically be playing one big game of digital Whack-a-Mole.


Resources in cloud and SaaS environments are very interconnected. This is intentional; greater connectedness results in greater fluidity and efficiency. Unfortunately, it also results in resources affecting each other in unanticipated - and unwanted - ways. 

In a cloud environment, for example, resources like Kubernetes, serverless functions and containers might be interacting with each other. If you’re not aware of and on top of the nature of this interaction, you might accidentally apply permissions from one resource to another. Giving unneeded privileges and permissions increases your cloud environment’s attack surface and could open the door to attackers. 

Similarly, in a SaaS environment, the interconnection between systems, assets, identities and connected apps can result in permissions being unexpectedly inherited, applied or otherwise changed.

Same Security Principles for Both Environments

To deal with these challenges and enforce security in your cloud-based environments, live by the following principles:

  • Visibility
  • PoLP (principle of least privilege)
  • Automation 


If you are not aware of every single connection, interaction and change that goes on in your systems, it is there that you are most vulnerable. 

Visibility is critical, no matter which cloud resource you are dealing with. That includes all:

  • Configurations (and changes to configurations)
  • Assets (and changes to assets)
  • Identities (and changes to identities)
  • Access permissions (and changes to… you get the idea)
  • Human-app interactions
  • App-app interactions

What you don’t know can hurt you.

So make sure you know.

PoLP (principle of least privilege) 

Who can get onto the data center floor (the place with all the servers, etc.) in Google’s data centers? Less than 1% of Googlers. It’s an “as-needed only access area, meaning that only the technicians and engineers who have to be there to maintain, upgrade or repair the equipment are ever allowed in there.”

Take a play from Google’s book.

If a user doesn’t need to have access to a resource, application or asset, don’t give them access.


As said above, if you were to try to manually keep track of all the changes that happened in one day, you would go home exhausted from your game of digital Whack-a-Mole. 

Automation is the key to securing a dynamic environment. You need automated processes to track the changes and detect potential risks, and you need automated workflows that can respond to these risks by:

  • mitigating directly
  • involving the end user so they can remediate the issue
  • alerting your information security team so they can intervene

Different Security Priorities for Cloud Environment vs SaaS Environment

With all the similarities between SaaS and cloud environments when it comes to security, there are also differences. These differences lie primarily in each environment’s primary security vulnerabilities and, accordingly, what should be prioritized.

Configurations is an area where this difference is highlighted. The more resources available to use and control in the cloud environment, the more critical securing configurations becomes. For the SaaS environment, configurations are important, but less so than in a wider cloud environment, because in the Shared Responsibility Model, the SaaS provider (and not you as the customer) is responsible for most of the high-level configurations, where a misconfiguration would most broaden the attack surface. 

This chart will illustrate the growing importance of configurations as the complexity of the available cloud resources increases:

Responsibility Area SaaS PaaS IaaS
Physical Security Provider Provider Provider
Host Infrastructure Provider Provider Provider
Network Controls Provider Provider (Limited customer control) Shared (Customer configures network settings)
Operating System Provider Provider Customer
Application Provider Customer (managing application settings) Customer
Backup and Recovery Provider Shared (Customer oversees backups) Customer (Choosing and managing backups)
Data Security Shared (Customer manages data access) Customer (Encryption, access controls) Customer (Encryption, access controls)
Identity and Access Management Shared (Customer manages own users) Customer (Setting user permissions) Customer (Setting user permissions)
Compliance Customer (Adhering to regulatory requirements) Customer (Adhering to regulatory requirements) Customer (Adhering to regulatory requirements)

The most vulnerable levels of a SaaS environment consist of:


In the SaaS environment, you ARE your identity (as defined by your access credentials). If someone misappropriates your identity, they can do anything you could have done in the environment, and no one will be able to tell the difference.


If a threat actor breaks into your SaaS environment, their ultimate target will usually be the data assets: that is what they can sell, hold for ransom or otherwise use for direct gain. Simultaneously, the data level is so vulnerable to overexposure by users, whether intentionally or accidentally.

Connected apps

Third-party apps open up more doors to your SaaS environment and data. More hands in the pot mean more potential for someone to walk away with a chunk of meat, especially if you’re not aware of all the hands or whom they belong to. 

Obey the (Cloud) Environmental Protection Act

Whether you manage significant IT resources through the cloud, or your main involvement is with Google Workspace and Slack, security awareness and implementation is critical. While security priorities do differ in a cloud environment vs SaaS environment, the underlying challenges and principles are the same. So go apply what you now know - and protect the environment!

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