What is Cloud Sprawl? Identifying and Managing the Uncontrolled Growth of Cloud Resources

The convenience and ease of provisioning new resources in the cloud has allowed developers and business to quickly respond to changing demands and seize new opportunities. However, this same ease of use can lead to uncontrolled cloud growth and complexity, especially when different departments within an organization operate in silos, without proper communication and coordination. This phenomenon, known as cloud sprawl, comes with cloud security, cloud compliance, and cloud cost management challenges

Fortunately, it is possible for companies to harness the power of the cloud and achieve their growth objectives without falling victim to the pitfalls of cloud sprawl. This article explores the different types of cloud sprawl, examines the factors that contribute to its emergence, discusses the challenges it poses, and provides best practices for preventing cloud sprawl from negatively impacting your cloud architecture.

What is cloud sprawl?

Cloud sprawl is the uncontrolled proliferation of an organization’s cloud instances, services, and providers, often stemming from a lack of visibility and governance over cloud resources. This typically occurs when different departments or teams independently adopt cloud services without central oversight, leading to a fragmented and inefficient cloud ecosystem. Cloud sprawl can result in a host of challenges, including security vulnerabilities, compliance issues, operational complexity, and unexpected costs.

Cloud sprawl vs cloud growth

While cloud growth is a positive indicator of an organization’s successful adoption and use of cloud technologies, cloud sprawl signifies uncontrolled and poorly managed expansion. Cloud sprawl emerges when the growth of cloud resources, such as instances, services, and data stores, occurs without proper visibility, cloud governance, and optimization.

In contrast, well-managed cloud growth involves the strategic and controlled scaling of cloud resources in alignment with your organization’s goals and policies.

Types of cloud sprawl

Cloud sprawl can manifest in various forms across an organization’s cloud ecosystem. There are three primary types of cloud sprawl:

Platform sprawl

Platform sprawl occurs when there is an unchecked spread of cloud accounts, instances, and services across multiple cloud providers. This often results from decentralized cloud adoption and management, where different teams or departments independently provision resources without having a unified governance framework in place. The lack of visibility and control over these resources can lead to inefficiencies, security risks, and compliance issues.

Our 2023 DigitalOcean Currents report found that about 33% of organizations rely solely on a single cloud provider. On the other hand, 35% use multiple cloud providers, indicating a multi-cloud strategy. Meanwhile, 31% of organizations have adopted a hybrid model, integrating one or more cloud infrastructure services with their on-premises setup. While multi-cloud and hybrid-cloud environments can be effectively managed with the right strategies, this requires implementing a centralized governance model, establishing clear policies and guidelines, and using cloud monitoring tools for optimization.

Data sprawl

Data sprawl is the rampant growth and dispersion of an organization’s data across various cloud storage services and instances. As data volumes increase and become more distributed, it becomes challenging to maintain proper data inventory, classification, and protection. This can result in data silos, inconsistent security controls, and potential exposure of sensitive information.

Identity sprawl

Identity sprawl describes the unmanaged growth of human and non-human identities, such as user accounts, roles, and service principals, across an organization’s cloud platforms. As the number of identities grows, it becomes difficult to enforce the principle of least privilege and ensure that each identity has only the necessary permissions to perform its intended function. Inadequate identity governance can lead to excessive permissions, increasing the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.

What causes cloud sprawl?

Cloud sprawl can happen due to different factors within your organization’s cloud ecosystem. Here are some of the primary causes of cloud sprawl:

Decentralized cloud adoption

When different departments or teams independently adopt cloud services without a centralized governance model, it can lead to a fragmented and uncontrolled cloud environment. This approach often results in redundant or overlapping services, inconsistent configurations, and a lack of overall visibility into the organization’s cloud resources.

Lack of visibility and monitoring

Organizations that lack comprehensive visibility and monitoring across their cloud environments are more likely to experience cloud sprawl. Without real-time insights into cloud metrics around resource utilization, performance, and costs, it becomes challenging to identify underutilized or abandoned resources, leading to unnecessary expenses and potential security risks. Insufficient monitoring also reduces an organization’s ability to detect and address misconfigurations or non-compliant resources promptly.

Inadequate access control and identity management

Poor identity and access management practices can contribute to cloud sprawl by allowing the unchecked spread of user accounts, roles, and permissions across cloud platforms. When organizations don’t enforce the principle of least privilege and regularly review and revoke unnecessary access rights, it can result in a complex web of identities and permissions that are difficult to manage and secure. This identity sprawl increases the attack surface and the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive resources.

Inconsistent tagging and naming conventions

Without standardized tagging and naming conventions for cloud resources, cloud sprawl can rear its head. When resources are not properly tagged or consistently named, it’s challenging to identify their purpose, ownership, and dependencies. This lack of clarity can lead to team members creating duplicate or redundant resources, as well as difficulties in tracking and optimizing resource usage across your cloud environment.

Organic and unplanned growth

As organizations expand their cloud adoption over time, organic and unplanned growth can contribute to cloud sprawl. Without a well-defined cloud architecture and cloud scalability plan, the addition of new resources and services can be ad hoc, leading to a complex and disorganized cloud environment. The absence of regular cloud audits and optimization efforts can result in the accumulation of unused or underutilized resources.

What are the challenges of cloud sprawl?

Cloud sprawl poses challenges for organizations, hindering their ability to effectively manage and optimize their cloud environments. Here are some of the key challenges of cloud sprawl:

Increased security risks

As cloud sprawl grows, it’s more difficult to maintain a consistent security posture across all cloud resources. The lack of visibility and control over the sprawling cloud environment can lead to misconfigurations, unpatched vulnerabilities, and inadequate access controls, making the organization more susceptible to data breaches, unauthorized access, and other security threats. The larger attack surface created by cloud sprawl also makes it more challenging to detect and respond to security incidents promptly.

Compliance and regulatory issues

Cloud sprawl can make it difficult for organizations to ensure compliance with various industry standards and regulatory requirements, such as HIPAA, GDPR, or PCI DSS. With resources spread across multiple cloud platforms and services, it becomes challenging to maintain consistent security controls, data protection measures, and audit trails. The lack of centralized visibility and governance can lead to compliance violations with potential legal and financial consequences.

Operational inefficiencies

Cloud sprawl can impact an organization’s operational efficiency by creating a complex and fragmented cloud environment. The presence of redundant or underutilized resources, inconsistent configurations, and the lack of standardization can lead to increased management overhead and reduced agility. IT teams may struggle to effectively monitor, troubleshoot, and optimize the sprawling cloud infrastructure, leading to longer response times and decreased productivity.

Cost inefficiencies

One of the most significant challenges of cloud sprawl is the potential for cost inefficiencies and wasted expenditure. When organizations lack visibility into their cloud resource utilization and costs, they may continue to pay for unused or underutilized resources, resulting in unnecessary expenses. That might mean AWS bill shock or Azure hidden costs. The absence of centralized cost management and optimization practices can lead to budget overruns and difficulty in forecasting and controlling cloud spend.

Best practices for preventing cloud sprawl

Cloud sprawl isn’t inevitable, even as you expand your use of cloud services. Here are some best practices to help prevent and mitigate cloud sprawl:

Develop a centralized cloud strategy

Establish a company-wide cloud strategy that involves all stakeholders and clearly defines policies for cloud usage, management, migration, and access controls. This strategy should be well-documented and communicated to ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities in maintaining an efficient cloud environment.

Implement rigorous monitoring and auditing

Regularly audit your entire cloud environment to identify unused, redundant, or rogue resources that may be contributing to sprawl. Implement monitoring solutions that provide visibility across all your cloud platforms, accounts, instances, identities, services, and data stores. Automated tools can help detect anomalous activity, compliance drift, and security threats in real-time.

💡DigitalOcean Monitoring provides real-time visibility into the performance and health of your infrastructure, enabling you to quickly identify and resolve issues.

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Adopt cloud security platforms

Leverage cloud security platforms that offer end-to-end visibility, insights, controls, and support across your entire cloud environment. Look for platforms that integrate cloud security posture management (CSPM) to assess security risks, cloud infrastructure entitlement management (CIEM) to manage identity sprawl, and cloud data loss prevention (CDLP) to discover, classify and protect sensitive data. Having a unified platform gives you a holistic view of your cloud security posture.

Foster a culture of cloud governance

Promote a culture of cloud governance within your organization, emphasizing the importance of security, compliance, and cost optimization. Provide training and resources to help teams understand best practices for cloud usage and management. Consider establishing a cloud taskforce to oversee the entire cloud lifecycle and ensure alignment with your company’s goals. Encourage communication and collaboration between teams to avoid silos and redundancies.

Grow Your Business With DigitalOcean

At DigitalOcean, we offer a suite of products designed to simplify the cloud, allowing your business to focus on innovation and growth rather than getting bogged down by the complexities of cloud management. With our user-friendly platform, teams can deploy, manage, and scale applications more easily and efficiently.

Here’s what DigitalOcean can offer:

  • Simplicity and control. Use DigitalOcean’s Droplets for straightforward virtual machines or leverage Managed Kubernetes for orchestration with a fully managed experience.

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Take advantage of our reliable, high-performance cloud infrastructure and elevate your cloud operations with DigitalOcean.

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