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MVP INSIGHTS: Vanquishing Azure Access Ghosts and Zombies

Correctly granting access to your Microsoft Azure resources is a process filled with potential pitfalls. Magnus Mårtensson, Azure MVP from Devoteam M Cloud, tells you how to do it the right way.

A big challenge for any company that uses Microsoft Azure cloud services is to grant access to your cloud resources in Azure in an appropriate and safe manner. It adds to the challenge that the administrative owner of the Azure accounts may be a less technical person who is responding to requests from ‘the tech people’ asking to be “unblocked to do their job”.  

The immediate risk is that the admin then grants full access to Azure “to be done with it” and intends to let the tech department sort itself out! Already, too many people have the wrong type of access. The potential issues that can arise from such a situation includes, but are not limited to, wasteful Azure spend, mistakes that impact production (and ultimately your customers), and security or data breaches. 

I am here to tell you that using Azure to grant access to Azure may not be as straightforward as you would think. Why not? Read on and I will lay out the challenge and how it might be mitigated for your company. 

The dual nature of identity and access for Azure 

If the question is “who has access to what in Azure?” the answer is split in two: In Azure, access to your resources is granted to users originating from your Azure Active Directory (AAD). Azure and AAD are two different services. Do you see a potential challenge here?  

The problem, of course, becomes the division between the two systems. For instance, you cannot ask AAD what a user has access to in Azure when that information is stored in Azure. Likewise, you cannot ask Azure who is behind an identity because that information is stored in AAD. As you probably know, the names of people who have access in Azure are shown in the Azure portal. Did you also know that these names have been fetched by Azure from the AAD? 

Access to one thing does not mean access to all  

I will, for context, give a few examples on specific access grants stored in Azure. Access could, for instance, be permission to read settings on an Azure Web App resource. Access could be to manage (or contribute to) a storage account resource. A side is that data about a resource and data inside the same resource are two different things in Azure. Access can often be granted to manage a data storage resource but not at the same time granted to the data inside it. One could also have access to the data plane only (the data content) of the same resource, but not to manage the resource itself. It is possible to have both types of access at the same time, but those can be different grants. 

The last initial thing worth noting is that Azure Active Directory is the world’s leading provider of identity and access management. Naturally, we want to take advantage of this strength when managing access to your critical Azure resources! 

Beware of granting ghosts and zombies access in your Azure! 

I want to tell you a story to illustrate some of the key points of access management. Meet “Casper” and “Dave”. They work at your company where they are part of your Azure team. 

Casper and Dave need access to Azure resources to do their job. For this reason, both Casper and Dave have been granted access to a resource group. 

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As happens sometimes, both Casper and Dave later leave the company. The AAD account for Casper’s identity is erased. Casper is now in theory entirely gone – and consequently he ghosts the AAD. Dave‘s account, however, is NOT erased but instead just suspended, so Dave can no longer sign in.  

In both cases Casper and Dave no longer have access to your Azure resources, which is good. What is not good is the state of access in Azure now that they have left. Complications arise immediately when a new manager comes onboard. 

An access nightmare 

Meet “Sarah”. Sarah is a new manager in your company, and she joins the Azure team. Sarah needs to understand who has access to various Azure resources. She looks in Azure at the resource group where Casper and Dave had access and she is immediately confused. 

It seems like there is a ‘ghost’ haunting the Azure resource group! Some unknown entity seems to have lingering access. Even if Azure asks the AAD which identity it is, the response will be that it is unknown since Casper’s identity does not exist in the AAD anymore.  

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Afraid of what this might mean, Sarah reaches out to a person who has access in the same group, Dave. Worry builds as Dave does not answer Sarah’s messages. As we know, Dave left but when you look in access management for the resource group, it looks like he is still roaming around in Azure (almost like a zombie). Like with Casper, Azure asks the AAD who has this specific access. And the response will be Dave – even though Dave’s account is locked, and Dave no longer works in the company. 

Sarah is now very confused and does not know what to do. Can we help Sarah? 

Let’s do better! 

This weird little story is too close to reality for many companies I am called in to work with. The current approach does not work well and we instead need to try something different. I want to be very clear that the method I am discussing next is the method we have employed to manage access to IT systems with Active Directory for decades. All I propose is that we take the same care in Azure, which unfortunately we as an industry, currently do not. 

Why is has it become so bad? 

A legacy reason for poor access control in Azure is that before AAD was available for access control in Azure, the only option was to access Azure subscriptions and resources using a Microsoft Account from Microsoft. Access to a subscription was completely binary. Either you did not have access to all the resources in the subscription, or you had full access to all of them. Remnants of this legacy still exist today but should be avoided and removed if you ever see it. The right way is to use AAD users and corporate accounts.

A more likely reason for the degraded state affairs for access control in Azure is instead related to a general inexperience in Cloud. Many of us are learning Azure while working in it, and access control is the first pitfall we stumble into. After a while, when we begin to understand what access might and should be in Azure, we find it hard to start over. On occasion I have been asked to reset access for users of Azure. That often leads to interesting conversations about why it is necessary to remove access previously granted. An employee might ask: “Am I not trusted anymore?”.  

The real stance must be that we wish to unburden our co-workers with the responsibility of too much access. Restricting appropriate access where it has been too lax is not a punishment, but a gift. Most people I speak to do not want too much access, only the access they need to do their job, and only while they are performing a work task that requires access. 

Granting and managing access to Azure at scale: How to do it correctly 

We need to use the full potential of the AAD, which is its tools for managing users and groups of users. Then we use a naming convention and automation tools to ensure the right group in AAD has the right access in Azure. We want to only grant access in Azure to Active Directory Security Groups and never grant access directly to AAD identity objects, such as machine accounts or human users! 

Returning to the story, Sarah has employed two new engineers, “Cecilia” and “Daisy”, and proceeds to grant them access to some company Azure resources. Sarah creates an AAD Security Group which she grants access in Azure. She makes Cecilia and Daisy members of that group. Now, the engineers have membership granted in AAD in a manageable way, and only groups have access to Azure. AAD knows which users’ identities are members in what security contexts. When that needs to change, this is managed in the AAD. 

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Technical or administrative skills?  

As hinted at just above, while it is important to always grant appropriate access, just-in-time when needed, and with least possible privilege, it is imperative to also be empowered to do that with uniformity and in the correct way each time. We discussed how it is common that an admin setting up an Azure commitment for the company is not necessarily experienced in setting up appropriate access.  

But why is the technical administrator for an Azure setup not doing it, then? The administrators are often not accustomed to Azure yet, and even when they are, the right access at the right time is not always something they have/or take the time for.  

They may become an unwilling bottleneck in the process, slowing down progress, and blocking employees from accessing Azure when they rightfully need to. Is it better then to grant full access to some team members? No, it is worse! 

Invest in access!  

The right access to Azure is a fundament worth investing in, so that you can feel secure as a company and grant your employees the freedom to be accountable for only the things they need to work with, while not needing to be bothered with any undue access they never asked for! 

Keeping a tight ship while cruising toward the cloud, while challenging and uncomfortable at first, will be greatly rewarded down the line! 


If this read has made you curious about security, identity, and access in Microsoft Azure, you should read these related parts about just-in-time access, Privileged Identity Management (PIM), and Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) among other topics and specialist advice: