SSPM vs. CSPM: What's the difference?

Posture management in the cloud is key, but evaluating different tools, such as SaaS security posture management and cloud security posture management platforms, can be confusing.

Choosing the best tools to secure an organization's cloud infrastructure, data and applications is critical. But a market full of similar-sounding tools makes it difficult to know which to invest in.

Take SaaS security posture management and cloud security posture management, for example. CSPM and SSPM might appear similar at first glance, but they have differences that organizations should be aware of.

Let's compare SSPM and CSPM and then discuss when to adopt each or both.

What is SSPM?

SSPM products are cloud-based platforms that monitor only cloud applications, not PaaS or IaaS deployments and components. SSPM tools can detect configuration settings; access controls between SaaS apps, including API connectivity; and governance of identity and access management (IAM) integration and privilege assignments.

Some SSPM offerings can assess and report on end-user device posture before permitting access to SaaS applications. SSPM tools can also discover shadow IT, compliance issues and more.

Be aware that SSPM products have limitations. SSPM tools might support some SaaS offerings within a defined catalog but might not necessarily cover all SaaS apps an organization uses. Check which apps a provider supports when performing SSPM product evaluations.

What is CSPM?

CSPM platforms are cloud-based platforms that continuously monitor PaaS and IaaS configurations and vulnerability posture. They work primarily on leading cloud services -- AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud -- and sometimes Alibaba Cloud and Oracle Cloud.

CSPM platforms provide visibility into cloud services assets, including AWS S3 buckets, containers and more. The cloud security tool originally focused on reporting configuration weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but many have evolved to also remediate misconfigured resources.

The scope and scale of leading PaaS and IaaS offerings continue to grow, with providers offering hundreds of different services with a vast array of configuration options. Organizations should look for a CSPM platform that performs continuous monitoring of all aspects of deployed cloud environments, including the following:

  • IAM roles and accounts.
  • Data and storage security.
  • Workload vulnerability posture and exposure.

Network access controls.

SSPM vs. CSPM: How they compare

For the most part, SSPM and CSPM platforms don't protect the same areas, but there are a few exceptions:

  • Both can provide visibility into IAM integration and privileges, which might be centralized into a single federated model for access to SaaS, PaaS and IaaS.
  • Both usually provide a range of compliance and standards reporting -- for example, CIS Benchmarks for some SaaS tools and IaaS clouds as well as PCI DSS and other industry and regulatory requirements.
  • Both can provide some degree of insight into API exposure in their respective cloud service types.
  • Both can produce alerts and log data that can be fed to a security operations function to facilitate incident response, investigations and threat hunting activities.

In most other ways, SSPM and CSPM platforms are focused on different things. SSPM is much more concerned with complex SaaS applications with a wide range of APIs and functions, whereas CSPM is broadly focused on core configuration settings for diverse PaaS and IaaS assets.

SSPM, CSPM or both?

What should organizations invest in, and what are the unique drivers to make an investment in a posture management platform?

Unless a company has an immediate, compelling need for SSPM tools, it might be best to wait and see if the market shifts. Currently, the market is trending toward potential consolidation of SSPM functionality with other SaaS-focused cloud security options, notably cloud access security brokers. In the near future, we could also see cloud-native application protection platform (CNAPP) vendors, which often sit in the same space as CSPM vendors, go on an acquisition spree for SSPM providers.

For any organization with significant presence in PaaS and IaaS environments, some form of CSPM platform stops being a "nice to have" and begins moving toward a "must have" option. With CNAPPs now including workload protection, pipeline security tools, zero-trust network access and CSPM capabilities, it's a good idea to investigate the CNAPP market first to see what posture management capabilities are the best fit.

It's almost a guarantee that most organizations will eventually have some form of SSPM and CSPM platform in use, but for the moment, the need for a CSPM platform has an edge over an SSPM tool.

Dave Shackleford is founder and principal consultant with Voodoo Security; SANS Institute analyst, instructor and course author; and GIAC technical director.

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