Hackernoon logoHow to Develop Your SAAS Application with a Security Mindset by@imaginovation

How to Develop Your SAAS Application with a Security Mindset

SaaS applications are now being widely used by businesses and individuals. Almost 70% of the apps companies use today are Saa-based, and it is estimated that by 2025, 85% of business applications will be Saa/SaaS-based. We will explain how to build a security mindset for businesses using the platform with a secure mindset. In this blog, we will show how to use a SAAS app with a security-aware mindset. The security of your application depends on the security of the service provider and the standards they maintain.
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Michael Georgiou Hacker Noon profile picture

Michael Georgiou

Co-Founder, CMO at Imaginovation

SaaS applications are now being widely used by businesses and individuals. In fact, almost 70% of the apps companies use today are SaaS-based, and it is estimated that by 2025, around 85% of business applications will be SaaS-based. (source)

However, even though SaaS applications are so popular, businesses are still concerned with the security risks associated with them. Security is a number one concern when it comes to these applications. Therefore, SaaS providers need to take a number of steps to build a safe and secure platform.

So, if you’re looking to build a SaaS platform, read this blog. We will explain how to build a SaaS app with a security mindset.

Let’s dive in.

What Makes SaaS Application Risky?

So, what really makes a SaaS application vulnerable to security attacks? Let’s take at the possible reasons that can make a SaaS app risky for businesses. 

1. Virtual servers

SaaS applications use virtual servers to store and manage multiple accounts and data. Virtual servers allow efficient use of storage space. However, the problem with virtual servers is that if it is compromised, it could put several stakeholders at risk. 

2. Poor access control

Poor access control is another reason that can put a SaaS app at risk.

If the SaaS provider doesn’t keep sufficient access control over its systems, an unauthorized user might breach their systems and attack your data. 

If the application is accessible on a public WiFi without any VPN or if it is used on an infected mobile, it can also pose a security threat to the server. Without the endpoints’ security, the SaaS platform can allow attackers to enter the server.

3. Managing user identity

All great SaaS platforms are focused on simplifying the lives of their end-users. That’s why SSO (Single Sign-on) abilities are allowed to ease access to applications – this is especially helpful in the case of multiple SaaS applications. 

With SSO in place, your users will not have to remember separate passwords for each application. However, there is a certain degree of risk that comes with SSO. 

With an increase in the number of SaaS applications, it becomes difficult to manage data securely. Implementing SSO in SaaS leads to instances of unauthorized access, denial of service to authorized users, and impersonating users to exploit their user privileges. 

4. Non-compliance with global standards for secure services

The security of your SaaS application largely depends on your SaaS provider and the standards they maintain. 

It’s a fact that all SaaS providers do not conform to universally accepted SaaS security standards. Providers who claim to be compliant might not even have SaaS-specific certification. Some standards like ISO-27001 offer a certain level of confidence in application developers; however, you need to carefully evaluate that all the essential security avenues are covered under the certification.

5. Insider threat

Insiders (your own employees or staff) can abuse their authorized access and inside knowledge – trading confidential information about your business or stealing your intellectual property. This can cause much damage and exfiltrate sensitive data.

6.Reduced Visibility and Control

When you transition your application’s operations to the cloud, you tend to lose some visibility and control over those assets and operations. 

Since the SaaS provider will host all of your data on the cloud, you do not hold complete control over it. It means that if something goes wrong, you are at the mercy of your SaaS provider. 

7. Vendor Lock-In Complicates moving to other CSPs 

Vendor lock-in becomes an issue when you consider moving your application assets and operations from one CSP to another. You then realize that the cost, effort, and schedule time needed for the move is higher than initially considered due to many factors like non-standard data formats and reliance on one CSP's proprietary tools and APIs.

This issue especially increases if the CSP takes more responsibility, like using additional features or APIs. It then becomes incredibly challenging to move to a different CSP, thus resulting in loss of data. 

8. Increased cybersecurity risk due to insufficient due diligence

If you’ve planned to migrate to the cloud, it’s essential that you perform sufficient due diligence. Moving data to the cloud without fully understanding the complete scope of doing so, the security measures used by your CSP, and your own responsibility to provide security measures can prove disastrous. 

9. Stored Data is lost 

There are many reasons other than the malicious attacks for losing data stored in the cloud. You can permanently lose your data even due to accidental deletion by the cloud service provider or any such reason. It’s important to note that the burden of avoiding data loss does not fall solely on the provider's shoulders. If you lose the encryption key to your encrypted data, it will be lost. 

SaaS Security Checklist: Best Practices to Follow During Development 

Risk exposure comes with almost every aspect of doing business. SaaS applications are no different – they have their security concerns that you must learn to resolve.

So what should you do to safeguard your SaaS applications successfully?

To protect against SaaS security risks, you must identify all the vulnerable hotspots and have a strategy in place, backed by industry best practices. 

This will help you establish the security standards in your SaaS application without any worries.

That’s why we have prepared a comprehensive security checklist to help you secure the SaaS applications which you will develop and maintain.

Let’s go through this checklist, explore the various best practices being followed universally, and figure out which ones you must apply.

Implement Cybersecurity in the real sense

As a SaaS provider, see that your cybersecurity claims are not limited to only marketing activities. Ensure you have adopted these claims in your application proactively. 

Most security-aware SaaS vendors share their security features on their websites or customer portals. If you haven’t come across any such documentation, make sure you check with the potential vendor. 

Besides, the business portal of your SaaS service provider must have a well-documented process in dealing with the following areas:

  • Security advisories around flaws reported publicly. 
  • Patching management – its availability and updates.
  • Resources around cybersecurity practices for SaaS users.
  • Regulatory assessments and security decisions related to cloud services. 

It is wrong to assume that finding a security service provider who’ll provide you with a quote and deliver service will be the end of it all.

What you need is a holistic approach to adopt cybersecurity.  It’ll include many other activities, from considering timelines for SaaS security testing to liaisoning with the third party, and from risk remediation of assessment findings to revalidating and ensuring there are no risks.

End-to-end data encryption

When it comes to data encryption of your SaaS application, follow a comprehensive approach that involves both data in transit and data at rest. 

Secure encryption provides much-needed privacy and protection to your application from eavesdropping, tampering, and other interferences on the web.

Encryption encodes your data and protects it from unauthorized access and users. And even if someone is able to access your data, they won’t be able to decode it unless they have the encryption keys, which only authorized users will have. 

It's a common practice to employ Transport Layer Security (TLS) to communicate with SaaS applications. It’s the standard protocol to protect your data that is in transit over the web. 

Ensure that all the interactions with the server take place over the TLS and SSL connections, and it should terminate only within the cloud service provider. 

Apply Field-level encryption offered by your cloud service provider. It will help you select the fields you intend to encrypt for transmitting and storing your data securely.

Also, use strong encryption measures for data at rest. Protect client sensitive data, for example, the financial details, by using Multi-domain SSL certificates.

While many service providers encrypt the data by default. However, do remember to explicitly specify your requirement of data encryption clearly to avoid any confusion later. 

Conduct Vulnerability testing

Vulnerabilities & loopholes in your SaaS application can cost you money and more.

Many SaaS providers make high claims regarding SaaS security. But the onus to verify these claims lie with you. 

You can rely on your SaaS provider for security if they have tools or checks to meet all standards. 

Besides, you must ensure that intensive checks are done on the SaaS systems. 

A comprehensive SaaS security check usually comprises both automated and manual checks because they are based on real-world scenarios and the latest threats.

Implement a data retention policy

Data retention policy is vital for your SaaS application – especially for account management and subscriptions, to keep your data safe.

Make sure your SaaS provider has declared their data retention policy with clarity. 

You can look for such policies in your service agreement. It must include what would happen once the customer’s data retention timeline ends. 

The data retention policies:

  • Help you create backups
  • Free up space on your files
  • Moreover, be aware of the data that needs to be retained. Because after the data retention policy is applied, your data will be programmatically deleted from the server, and respective logs will be generated.

This is important to do because some data needs temporary retention for a particular period, whereas some data may not need retention.  

User-Level Data Security Monitoring

You can use multiple levels of SaaS data security in your application to limit the damage from cyberattacks. 

Security protocols such as role-specific permissions and access enforced distribution of tasks can protect your app from attacks raised due to internal security gaps at the user level.

You can apply role-based access control (RBAC) features to provide user-specific access and action permissions. It will make sure that access is provided to the right/authorized people on your SaaS applications. 

This gives access-control-based security to your SaaS application.  Moreover, it will facilitate segregating the application users and specify clearly how they can access data in your SaaS application.

Certifications and Audits

Certifications such as PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) are helpful to ensure complete protection against data theft.

To get PCI DSS certification, ensure that the data is transmitted, processed, and stored securely. All of this will need to be validated through audits. 

Another essential certification for SaaS providers is SOC 2 Type II certification that validates regulatory compliance, vendor management processes, and other internal risk management processes. It also ensures secured deployment and active monitoring.

Your SaaS provider requires these certifications to protect your SaaS applications from potential data breaches and ensure confidentiality and integrity of data.

Implement a Secure SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle)

While going through different phases of the SDLC, you have to be extremely cautious.   

Because there is a possibility that the set of actions that take place during different SDLC phases are not always complying with application security standards.

And a secure SDLC would mean the realization of security activities throughout the entire development lifecycle – It includes secure coding methodologies, vulnerability analyses, as well as penetration tests.

Implementing a secure SDLC will help you detect SaaS security issues in the development stage and fixed before production. It will help you identify and address the potential vulnerabilities in your application early on.

Ensure secure deployment

Safe deployment is another key activity that is vital to the development of a secure SaaS product. Deployment is done in two different ways -

Public Cloud deployment. Most big vendors like Amazon and Google provide services that assure SaaS data security, data segregation, infrastructure hardening, etc. But whenever you opt for a public cloud vendor, ensure that they follow all globally accepted security standards.

Self-hosted deployment. If you have opted for a self-hosted deployment, it is your responsibility to prevent denial-of-service (DoS) and network penetration attacks. Make sure to automate the deployment process as much as possible.

Logs

Logs help you monitor SaaS security incidents and in detecting cyber attacks. Build your SaaS application with an automatic logging mechanism available for the clients to assist in audits and other regular monitoring processes.

How to Successfully Develop SaaS Application

SaaS app development is different from the traditional approach to software development. 

But do not feel intimidated. We have compiled a list of steps for you to follow in the process of building a SaaS application successfully.

Here’s what you need to do:

Step 1: Conceptualization 

The first step in developing a SaaS application is to have an idea or concept around which you will build your application. 

Only when you have a concept in hand should you proceed with a technological solution to resolve it.

Think of challenges that need a solution - a unique solution that’ll help your app stand out and provide distinct value to your customers. You will not succeed with your SaaS app endeavor if you have nothing new and different to offer. 

Build a clear idea of all of your application’s functions – how it will work, look, and be used by your customers.  

Identify your target audience and figure out what they must be looking for with an app like yours. 

Step 2: Explore SaaS Application Trends

To keep your SaaS app relevant, look for what's trending, and base your app on current trends. 

Here are the top SaaS trends that you must watch for in 2021:

AI Algorithms and Machine Learning

AI algorithms and ML benefit companies using SaaS by providing customization, analytics, and security. 

You can implement AI to analyze large quantities of data generated on your app from customer interactions. This data will play a key role in helping you make informed business decisions. 

Besides, as a modern-day business you understand that each customer has their own unique behavior and that instead of a one-size-fits-all method, customization works well. This is where AI plays a crucial role in your app.

AI allows the detection of cyberattacks before they impact a software system. With an increase in cybercrime and data breaches, ensure you take advantage of implementing AI for security purposes. 

AI and ML in your SaaS application can automate responsiveness in customer service and reports, such as AI-enabled chat operations with live chatbots. 

API Connections

APIs are critical to the integration of software applications. Let’s take the example of a business with different departments. If the finance department uses one software solution and the operations department uses another, integration of both solutions will be complex. In such a case, an API streamlines this integration and acts as intermediary systems and databases of both departments.  

Platform Unbundling

Businesses have started opting to customize services to their customers' unique needs. Platform unbundling allows for greater personalization with re-packaging core services as an API alongside a collection of add-ons.

Vertical SaaS

Initially, when SaaS was introduced, companies focused on providing solutions spanning multiple industries – horizontal SaaS. But now, the focus has shifted to prioritize one sector at a time. Vertical SaaS companies target niche industries. Focusing on a specific industry enables a company to become a leader in one niche instead of spreading its resources across several.

SaaS to PaaS

With the growth of the SaaS industry, many providers have started focusing on customer retention. SaaS has started migrating towards PaaS – developments that enable businesses to develop custom apps as add-ons to their original services. 

Step 3: Requirement Specification

At this stage, start documenting your application’s requirements. You can begin by doing the following:

  • Specify the requirements for building an MVP. 
  • Build a thorough understanding of what your application requires. 
  • Document the functional specification. 
  • Don’t treat this stage as unimportant. 

You can hire the services of a business consultant to help you convert your idea into technical requirements that a developer can understand. 

Step 4: Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

This is the next logical step towards building your SAAs application. 

Since an MVP comprises the core features required to perform at the basic level, this phase should analyze if your proposed product can solve customers' pain points for which it is being created. 

If you can solve those problems efficiently, you can unhesitatingly move into its development. In short, start developing your SaaS application, if it CAN solve challenges better than any competitors.   

Step 5: Select the right technology stack

This is indeed a tough one. You have to identify and pick the best technology stack from amongst the tons of technologies and frameworks available. And that requires you to dig deep into each of the available options.

You will need to select the right technology for your app’s back-end, front-end, and database.

When selecting a suitable technology stack to develop your SaaS MVP, consider few factors that may include but are not restricted to the following:

  • Maturity of the technology or programming language.
  • Whether the technology supports features required in your app.
  • Ease in Integration with other products.Developer resource pool.

Step 6: Find Developers and Start Development

This step is about finding a team of SaaS developers and cloud service providers who can translate your amazing idea into reality. 

Since SaaS applications consume web services and show information in the user’s web browser, building it requires multiple skill sets. 

You would need developers with expertise in:

  • Front end development
  • Database queries
  • Javascript libraries
  • Server-side queries

Look for developers who have a past track record of developing and implementing SaaS apps at scale. Ensure you maintain constant communication with them to clarify doubts and uncertainties in requirements and check the project's progress. 

Consider adopting agile development practices to achieve maximum flexibility and perform thorough testing of your app.

Step 7: Deployment

Once the SaaS application development is completed, it’s time to deliver and deploy your SaaS application. This process depends on the factors mentioned below:

  • The final version of your app is thoroughly tested.  
  • The app is released from dev servers to production servers. 
  • The QA Team has tested the production server. 

Step 8: Marketing the SaaS application

You don’t have to wait till the end of your product development to initiate this stage. You can execute it even before the app development. It’s worth advertising your app to generate some excitement and gain traction. This is a sureshot key to its success. 

You can promote your app on Social Media such as Twitter, Linked In, Instagram, and Facebook, etc. It will not only generate a buzz around your product, but at the same time, it’ll help you build a mailing list to reach out to people when the first version of your SaaS solution is ready for roll-out.

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