Specify a security strategy for applications and APIs


Applications and their data ultimately act as the primary store of business value on a cloud platform. While the platform components like identity and storage are critical elements of the security environment, applications play an outsize role in risks to the business because:

  • Business Processes are encapsulated and executed by applications, and services need to be available and provided with high integrity
  • Business Data is stored and processed by application workloads and requires high assurances of confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

This section focuses on applications written by your organization or by others on behalf of your organization vs. SaaS or commercially available applications installed on IaaS VMs.

Diagram that shows various application models.

Modern cloud platforms like Azure can host both legacy and modern generations of applications

  • Legacy--applications are hosted on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) virtual machines that typically include all dependencies, including OS, middleware, and other components.
  • Modern--Platform as a Service (PaaS) applications don't require the application owner to manage and secure the underlying server operating systems (OSes) and are sometimes fully "Serverless" and built primarily using functions as a service.
  • Hybrid--While hybrid applications can take many forms, the most common is an "IaaS plus" state where legacy applications are transitioning to modern architecture with modern services replacing legacy components or being added to a legacy application.

Securing an application requires security assurances for three different component types:

  • Application Code--Application Code is the logic that defines the custom application that you write. The security of this code is the application owners' responsibility in all generations of application architecture, including any open-source snippets or components included in the code. Securing the code requires identifying and mitigating risks from the design and implementation of the application. It also requires assessing the supply chain risk of included components.
  • Application Services--Application Services are the various standardized components that the application uses, such as databases, identity providers, event hubs, IoT device management, and so on.
  • Application Hosting Platform--This is the computing environment where the application actually executes and runs. In an enterprise with applications hosted on premises, in Azure, and in third-party clouds like Amazon Web Services (AWS), this (Application Hosting Platform) could take many forms with significant variations on who is responsible for security:

Onboarding New Applications

An Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) application registration is a critical part of your business application. Any misconfiguration or lapse in the hygiene of your application can result in downtime or compromise.

This article describes security best practices for the following application registration properties.

Redirect URI It's important to keep Redirect URIs of your application up to date. A lapse in the ownership of one of the redirect URIs can lead to an application compromise. Ensure that all DNS records are updated and monitored periodically for changes. Along with maintaining ownership of all URIs, don't use wildcard reply URLs or insecure URI schemes such as http or URN.
Implicit grant flow for an access token Scenarios that require implicit flow can now use Auth code flow to reduce the risk of compromise associated with implicit grant flow misuse. If you configured your application registration to get Access tokens using implicit flow but don't actively use it, we recommend you turn off the setting to protect it from misuse.
Credential Credentials are a vital part of an application registration when your application is used as a confidential client. If your app registration is used only as a Public Client App (which allows users to sign in using a public endpoint), ensure that you don't have any credentials on your application object.
AppId URI Certain applications can expose resources (via WebAPI) and, as such, need to define an AppId URI that uniquely identifies the resource in a tenant. We recommend using either of the following URI schemes: API or HTTPS, and set the AppId URI in the following formats to avoid URI collisions in your organization. The AppId URI acts as the prefix for the scopes referenced in the API's code, and it must use a verified customer owned domain. For multi-tenant applications, the value must also be globally unique.
Application ownership Ensure app ownership is kept to a minimal set of people within the organization. It's recommended to run through the owner's list once every few months to ensure owners are still part of the organization and their charter accounts for ownership of the application registration.
Checklist App developers can use the Checklist available in the Azure portal to ensure their app registration meets a high quality bar and provides guidance to integrate securely. The integration assistant highlights best practices and recommendations that help avoid common oversights when integrating with the Microsoft identity platform.

Security Standards for Onboarding applications

Organizations should use guidance and automation for securing applications in the cloud rather than starting from zero.

  • Using resources and lessons learned by external organizations that are early adopters of these models can accelerate the improvement of an organization's security posture with less effort and resources.

  • Developers should use services available from your cloud provider for well-established functions like databases, encryption, identity directory, and authentication instead of writing custom versions of them.

  • Use native security capabilities built into cloud services instead of adding external security components (data encryption, network traffic filtering, threat detection, and other functions).

  • Always authenticate with identity services rather than cryptographic keys when available.

  • Deploy web application firewalls (WAFs) to mitigate the risk of an attacker being able to exploit commonly seen security vulnerabilities for applications.

  • Enforce security for applications hosted in containers, general application best practices, and some specific guidelines to manage this new application architecture type.

  • Enforce a more comprehensive threat model standard that can identify more potential risks; two popular standards are STRIDE and OWASP.

Several capabilities should be prioritized first because of potential security impact:

  • Identity - User directories and other authentication functions are complex to develop and critically important to security assurances. Avoid using homegrown authentication solutions and favor mature capabilities like:

    • Azure Active Directory (Azure AD)
    • Azure AD B2B
    • Azure AD B2C
    • Third-party solutions to authenticate and grant permission to users, partners, and customers, applications, services, and other entities.
  • Data Protection - Developers, should use established capabilities from cloud providers such as native encryption in cloud services to encrypt and protect data. The security world is littered with examples of failed attempts to protect data or passwords that didn't stand up to real world attacks. If direct use of cryptography is required, developers should call well-established cryptographic algorithms and not attempt to invent their own.

  • Key management--Ideally, use identity for authentication rather than directly handling keys (see Prefer Identity Authentication over Keys). For situations where accessing services that require access to keys, use a key management service like Azure Key Vault or AWS Key Management Service. This will help you manage and secure these keys rather than attempting to safely handle keys in application code. You can use CredScan to discover potentially exposed keys in your application code.

  • Application Configurations - Inconsistent configurations for applications can create security Risks. Azure App Configuration provides a service to centrally manage application settings and feature flags, which helps mitigate this risk.

Additional information

For additional information on Security Standards for applications, see the following: