Getting started with Microsoft Azure security

When you build or migrate IT assets to a cloud provider, you are relying on that organization’s abilities to protect your applications and data with the services and the controls they provide to manage the security of your cloud-based assets.

Azure’s infrastructure is designed from the facility to applications for hosting millions of customers simultaneously, and it provides a trustworthy foundation upon which businesses can meet their security needs. In addition, Azure provides you with a wide array of configurable security options and the ability to control them so that you can customize security to meet the unique requirements of your deployments.

In this overview article on Azure security, we’ll look at:

  • Azure services and features you can use to help secure your services and data within Azure.
  • How Microsoft secures the Azure infrastructure to help protect your data and applications.

Identity and access management

Controlling access to IT infrastructure, data, and applications is critical. Microsoft Azure delivers these capabilities by services such as Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), Azure Storage, and support for numerous standards and APIs.

Azure AD is an identity repository and engine that provides authentication, authorization, and access control for an organization's users, groups, and objects. Azure AD also offers developers an effective way to integrate identity management in their applications. Industry-standard protocols such as SAML 2.0, WS-Federation, and OpenID Connect make sign-in possible on platforms such as .NET, Java, Node.js, and PHP.

The REST-based Graph API enables developers to read and write to the directory from any platform. Through support for OAuth 2.0, developers can build mobile and web applications that integrate with Microsoft and third-party web APIs, and build their own secure web APIs. Open-source client libraries are available for .Net, Windows Store, iOS, and Android, with additional libraries under development.

How Azure enables identity and access management

Azure AD can be used as a standalone cloud directory for your organization or as an integrated solution with your existing on-premises Active Directory. Some integration features include directory sync and single sign-on (SSO). These extend the reach of your existing on-premises identities into the cloud and improve the admin and user experience.

Some other capabilities for identity and access management include:

  • Azure AD enables SSO to SaaS applications, regardless of where they are hosted. Some applications are federated with Azure AD, and others use password SSO. Federated applications can also support user provisioning and password vaulting.
  • Access to data in Azure Storage is controlled via authentication. Each storage account has a primary key (storage account key, or SAK) and a secondary secret key (the shared access signature, or SAS).
  • Azure AD provides Identity as a Service through federation by using Active Directory Federation Services, synchronization, and replication with on-premises directories.
  • Azure Multi-Factor Authentication is the multi-factor authentication service that requires users to verify sign-ins by using a mobile app, phone call, or text message. It can be used with Azure AD to help secure on-premises resources with the Azure Multi-Factor Authentication server, and also with custom applications and directories using the SDK.
  • Azure AD Domain Services lets you join Azure virtual machines to a domain without deploying domain controllers. You can sign in to these virtual machines with your corporate Active Directory credentials and administer domain-joined virtual machines by using Group Policy to enforce security baselines on all your Azure virtual machines.
  • Azure Active Directory B2C provides a highly available global-identity management service for consumer-facing applications that scales to hundreds of millions of identities. It can be integrated across mobile and web platforms. Your consumers can sign in to all your applications through customizable experiences by using their existing social accounts or by creating new credentials.

Data access control and encryption

Microsoft employs the principles of Separation of Duties and Least Privilege throughout Azure operations. Access to data by Azure support personnel requires your explicit permission and is granted on a “just-in-time” basis that is logged and audited, then revoked after completion of the engagement.

Azure also provides multiple capabilities for protecting data in transit and at rest. This includes encryption for data, files, applications, services, communications, and drives. You can encrypt information before placing it in Azure, and also store keys in your on-premises datacenters.

Microsoft Antimalware in Azure

Azure encryption technologies

You can gather details on administrative access to your subscription environment by using Azure AD Reporting. You can configure BitLocker Drive Encryption on VHDs containing sensitive information in Azure.

Other capabilities in Azure that will assist you to keep your data secure include:

  • Application developers can build encryption into the applications they deploy in Azure by using the Windows CryptoAPI and .NET Framework.
  • Completely control the keys with client-side encryption for Azure Blob storage. The storage service never sees the keys and is incapable of decrypting the data.
  • Azure Rights Management (Azure RMS) (with the RMS SDK) provides file and data-level encryption and data-leak prevention through policy-based access management.
  • Azure supports table-level and column-level encryption (TDE/CLE) in SQL Server virtual machines, and it supports third-party on-premises key management servers in datacenters.
  • Storage Account Keys, Shared Access Signatures, management certificates, and other keys are unique to each Azure tenant.
  • Azure StorSimple hybrid storage encrypts data via a 128-bit public/private key pair before uploading it to Azure Storage.
  • Azure supports and uses numerous encryption mechanisms, including SSL/TLS, IPsec, and AES, depending on the data types, containers, and transports.


The Azure platform uses a virtualized environment. User instances operate as standalone virtual machines that do not have access to a physical host server, and this isolation is enforced by using physical processor (ring-0/ring-3) privilege levels.

Ring 0 is the most privileged and 3 is the least. The guest OS runs in a lesser-privileged Ring 1, and applications run in the least privileged Ring 3. This virtualization of physical resources leads to a clear separation between guest OS and hypervisor, resulting in additional security separation between the two.

The Azure hypervisor acts like a micro-kernel and passes all hardware access requests from guest virtual machines to the host for processing by using a shared-memory interface called VMBus. This prevents users from obtaining raw read/write/execute access to the system and mitigates the risk of sharing system resources.

Microsoft Antimalware in Azure

How Azure implements virtualization

Azure uses a hypervisor firewall (packet filter) that is implemented in the hypervisor and configured by a fabric controller agent. This helps protect tenants from unauthorized access. By default, all traffic is blocked when a virtual machine is created, and then the fabric controller agent configures the packet filter to add rules and exceptions to allow authorized traffic.

There are two categories of rules that are programmed here:

  • Machine configuration or infrastructure rules: By default, all communication is blocked. There are exceptions to allow a virtual machine to send and receive DHCP and DNS traffic. Virtual machines can also send traffic to the “public” internet and send traffic to other virtual machines within the cluster and the OS activation server. The virtual machines’ list of allowed outgoing destinations does not include Azure router subnets, Azure management back end, and other Microsoft properties.
  • Role configuration file: This defines the inbound Access Control Lists (ACLs) based on the tenant's service model. For example, if a tenant has a Web front end on port 80 on a certain virtual machine, then Azure opens TCP port 80 to all IPs if you’re configuring an endpoint in the Azure classic deployment model. If the virtual machine has a back end or worker role running, then it opens the worker role only to the virtual machine within the same tenant.


Another important cloud security requirement is separation to prevent unauthorized and unintentional transfer of information between deployments in a shared multi-tenant architecture.

Azure implements network access control and segregation through VLAN isolation, ACLs, load balancers, and IP filters. It restricts external traffic inbound to ports and protocols on your virtual machines that you define. Azure implements network filtering to prevent spoofed traffic and restrict incoming and outgoing traffic to trusted platform components. Traffic flow policies are implemented on boundary protection devices that deny traffic by default.

Microsoft Antimalware in Azure

Network Address Translation (NAT) is used to separate internal network traffic from external traffic. Internal traffic is not externally routable. Virtual IP addresses that are externally routable are translated into internal Dynamic IP addresses that are only routable within Azure.

External traffic to Azure virtual machines is firewalled via ACLs on routers, load balancers, and Layer 3 switches. Only specific known protocols are permitted. ACLs are in place to limit traffic originating from guest virtual machines to other VLANs used for management. In addition, traffic filtered via IP filters on the host OS further limits the traffic on both data link and network layers.

How Azure implements isolation

The Azure Fabric Controller is responsible for allocating infrastructure resources to tenant workloads, and it manages unidirectional communications from the host to virtual machines. The Azure hypervisor enforces memory and process separation between virtual machines, and it securely routes network traffic to guest OS tenants. Azure also implements isolation for tenants, storage, and virtual networks.

  • Each Azure AD tenant is logically isolated by using security boundaries.
  • Azure storage accounts are unique to each subscription, and access must be authenticated by using a storage account key.
  • Virtual networks are logically isolated through a combination of unique private IP addresses, firewalls, and IP ACLs. Load balancers route traffic to the appropriate tenants based on endpoint definitions.

Virtual networks and firewalls

The distributed and virtual networks in Azure help ensure that your private network traffic is logically isolated from traffic on other Azure virtual networks.

Microsoft Antimalware in Azure

Your subscription can contain multiple isolated private networks (and include firewall, load balancing, and network address translation).

Azure provides three primary levels of network segregation in each Azure cluster to logically segregate traffic. Virtual local area networks (VLANs) are used to separate customer traffic from the rest of the Azure network. Access to the Azure network from outside the cluster is restricted through load balancers.

Network traffic to and from virtual machines must pass through the hypervisor virtual switch. The IP filter component in the root OS isolates the root virtual machine from the guest virtual machines and the guest virtual machines from one another. It performs filtering of traffic to restrict communication between a tenant's nodes and the public Internet (based on the customer's service configuration), segregating them from other tenants.

The IP filter helps prevent guest virtual machines from:

  • Generating spoofed traffic.
  • Receiving traffic not addressed to them.
  • Directing traffic to protected infrastructure endpoints.
  • Sending or receiving inappropriate broadcast traffic.

You can place your virtual machines onto Azure virtual networks. These virtual networks are similar to the networks you configure in on-premises environments, where they are typically associated with a virtual switch. Virtual machines connected to the same virtual network can communicate with one another without additional configuration. You can also configure different subnets within your virtual network.

You can use the following Azure Virtual Network technologies to help secure communications on your virtual network:

  • Network Security Groups (NSGs). You can use an NSG to control traffic to one or more virtual machine instances in your virtual network. An NSG contains access control rules that allow or deny traffic based on traffic direction, protocol, source address and port, and destination address and port.
  • User-defined routing. You can control the routing of packets through a virtual appliance by creating user-defined routes that specify the next hop for packets flowing to a specific subnet to go to a virtual network security appliance.
  • IP forwarding. A virtual network security appliance must be able to receive incoming traffic that is not addressed to itself. To allow a virtual machine to receive traffic addressed to other destinations, you enable IP forwarding for the virtual machine.
  • Forced tunneling. Forced tunneling lets you redirect or "force" all Internet-bound traffic generated by your virtual machines in a virtual network back to your on-premises location via a site-to-site VPN tunnel for inspection and auditing
  • Endpoint ACLs. You can control which machines are allowed inbound connections from the Internet to a virtual machine on your virtual network by defining endpoint ACLs.
  • Partner network security solutions. There are a number of partner network security solutions that you can access from the Azure Marketplace.

How Azure implements virtual networks and firewalls

Azure implements packet-filtering firewalls on all host and guest virtual machines by default. Windows OS images from the Azure Marketplace also have Windows Firewall enabled by default. Load balancers at the perimeter of Azure public-facing networks control communications based on IP ACLs managed by customer administrators.

If Azure moves a customer’s data as part of normal operations or during a disaster, it does so over private, encrypted communications channels. Other capabilities employed by Azure to use in virtual networks and firewalls are:

  • Native host firewall: Azure Service Fabric and Azure Storage run on a native OS that has no hypervisor. Hence the windows firewall is configured with the previous two sets of rules. Storage runs native to optimize performance.
  • Host firewall: The host firewall is to protect the host operating system that runs the hypervisor. The rules are programmed to allow only the Service Fabric controller and jump boxes to talk to the host OS on a specific port. The other exceptions are to allow DHCP response and DNS Replies. Azure uses a machine configuration file that has the template of firewall rules for the host OS. The host itself is protected from external attack by a Windows firewall configured to permit communication only from known, authenticated sources.
  • Guest firewall: Replicates the rules in the virtual machine Switch packet filter but programmed in different software (such as the Windows Firewall piece of the guest OS). The guest virtual machine firewall can be configured to restrict communications to or from the guest virtual machine, even if the communication is permitted by configurations at the host IP Filter. For example, you may choose to use the guest virtual machine firewall to restrict communication between two of your VNets that have been configured to connect to one another.
  • Storage firewall (FW): The firewall on the storage front end filters traffic to be only on ports 80/443 and other necessary utility ports. The firewall on the storage back end restricts communications to come only from storage front-end servers.
  • Virtual Network Gateway: The Azure Virtual Network Gateway serves as the cross-premises gateway connecting your workloads in Azure Virtual Network to your on-premises sites. It is required to connect to on-premises sites through IPsec site-to-site VPN tunnels, or through ExpressRoute circuits. For IPsec/IKE VPN tunnels, the gateways perform IKE handshakes and establish the IPsec S2S VPN tunnels between the virtual networks and on-premises sites. Virtual network gateways also terminate point-to-site VPNs.

Secure remote access

Data stored in the cloud must have sufficient safeguards enabled to prevent exploits and maintain confidentiality and integrity while in-transit. This includes network controls that tie in with an organization’s policy-based, auditable identity and access management mechanisms.

Built-in cryptographic technology enables you to encrypt communications within and between deployments, between Azure regions, and from Azure to on-premises datacenters. Administrator access to virtual machines through remote desktop sessions, remote Windows PowerShell, and the Azure portal is always encrypted.

To securely extend your on-premises datacenter to the cloud, Azure provides both site-to-site VPN and point-to-site VPN, plus dedicated links with ExpressRoute (connections to Azure Virtual Networks over VPN are encrypted).

How Azure implements secure remote access

Connections to the Azure portal must always be authenticated, and they require SSL/TLS. You can configure management certificates to enable secure management. Industry-standard security protocols such as SSTP and IPsec are fully supported.

Azure ExpressRoute lets you create private connections between Azure datacenters and infrastructure that’s on your premises or in a co-location environment. ExpressRoute connections do not go over the public Internet. They offer more reliability, faster speeds, lower latencies, and higher security than typical Internet-based links. In some cases, transferring data between on-premises locations and Azure by using ExpressRoute connections can also yield significant cost benefits.

Logging and monitoring

Azure provides authenticated logging of security-relevant events that generate an audit trail, and it is engineered to be resistant to tampering. This includes system information, such as security event logs in Azure infrastructure virtual machines and Azure AD. Security event monitoring includes collecting events such as changes in DHCP or DNS server IP addresses; attempted access to ports, protocols, or IP addresses that are blocked by design; changes in security policy or firewall settings; account or group creation; and unexpected processes or driver installation.

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Audit logs recording privileged user access and activities, authorized and unauthorized access attempts, system exceptions, and information security events are retained for a set period of time. The retention of your logs is at your discretion because you configure log collection and retention to your own requirements.

How Azure implements logging and monitoring

Azure deploys Management Agents (MA) and Azure Security Monitor (ASM) agents to each compute, storage, or fabric node under management whether they are native or virtual. Each Management Agent is configured to authenticate to a service team storage account with a certificate obtained from the Azure certificate store and forward pre-configured diagnostic and event data to the storage account. These agents are not deployed to customers’ virtual machines.

Azure administrators access logs through a web portal for authenticated and controlled access to the logs. An administrator can parse, filter, correlate, and analyze logs. The Azure service team storage accounts for logs are protected from direct administrator access to help prevent against log tampering.

Microsoft collects logs from network devices using the Syslog protocol, and from host servers using Microsoft Audit Collection Services (ACS). These logs are placed into a log database from which alerts for suspicious events are generated. The administrator can access and analyze these logs.

Azure Diagnostics is a feature of Azure that enables you to collect diagnostic data from an application running in Azure. This is diagnostic data for debugging and troubleshooting, measuring performance, monitoring resource usage, traffic analysis, capacity planning, and auditing. After the diagnostic data is collected, it can be transferred to an Azure storage account for persistence. Transfers can either be scheduled or on demand.

Threat mitigation

In addition to isolation, encryption, and filtering, Azure employs a number of threat mitigation mechanisms and processes to protect infrastructure and services. These include internal controls and technologies used to detect and remediate advanced threats such as DDoS, privilege escalation, and the OWASP Top-10.

The security controls and risk management processes Microsoft has in place to secure its cloud infrastructure reduce the risk of security incidents. In the event an incident occurs, the Security Incident Management (SIM) team within the Microsoft Online Security Services and Compliance (OSSC) team is ready to respond at any time.

How Azure implements threat mitigation

Azure has security controls in place to implement threat mitigation and also to help customers mitigate potential threats in their environments. The following list summarizes the threat mitigation capabilities offered by Azure:

  • Azure Antimalware is enabled by default on all infrastructure servers. You can optionally enable it within your own virtual machines.
  • Microsoft maintains continuous monitoring across servers, networks, and applications to detect threats and prevent exploits. Automated alerts notify administrators of anomalous behaviors, allowing them to take corrective action on both internal and external threats.
  • You can deploy third-party security solutions within your subscriptions, such as web application firewalls from Barracuda.
  • Microsoft’s approach to penetration testing includes “Red-Teaming,” which involves Microsoft security professionals attacking (non-customer) live production systems in Azure to test defenses against real-world, advanced, persistent threats.
  • Integrated deployment systems manage the distribution and installation of security patches across the Azure platform.

Next steps

Azure Trust Center

Azure Security Team Blog

Microsoft Security Response Center

Active Directory Blog