6 min read

The term “security” often evokes negative feelings among software developers because it is associated with additional programming effort, uncertainty and roadblocks to fast development and release cycles. To secure software, developers must follow numerous guidelines that; while intended to satisfy some regulation or other, can be very restrictive and hard to understand. As a result, a lot of fear, uncertaintyand doubt can surround software security. 

First, let’s consider the survey conducted by SpiceWorks, in which IT pros were asked to rank a set of threats in order of risk to IT security. According to the report, the respondents ranked the following threats as their organization’s three biggest risks to IT security as follows: 

  • Human error
  • Lack of process
  • External threats 

DevOps can positively impact all three of these major risk factors, without negatively impacting stability or reliability of the core business network. Let’s discuss how security in DevOps attempts to combat the toxic environment surrounding software security; by shifting the paradigm from following rules and guidelines to creatively determining solutions for tough security problems.

Human error

We’ve all fat-fingered configurations and code before. Usually we catch them, but once in a while they sneak into production and wreak havoc on security. A number of “big names” have been caught in this situation, where a simple typo introduced a security risk. Often these occur because we’re so familiar with what we’re typing that we see what we expect to see, rather than what we actually typed. 

To reduce risk from human error via DevOps you can:

  • Use templates to standardize common service configurations
  • Automate common tasks to avoid simple typographical errors
  • Read twice, execute once

Lack of process

First, there’s the fact that there’s almost no review of the scripts that folks already use to configure, change, shutdown, and start up services across the production network. Don’t let anyone tell you they don’t use scripts to eliminate the yak shaving that exists in networking and infrastructure, too. They do. But they aren’t necessarily reviewed and they certainly aren’t versioned like the code artifacts they are;they rarely are reused. The other problem is simply there’s no governed process. It’s tribal knowledge. 

To reduce risk from a lack of process via DevOps:

  • Define the deployment processclearly. Understand prerequisites, dependencies and eliminate redundancies or unnecessary steps.
  • Move toward the use of orchestration as the ultimate executor of the deployment process, employing manual steps only when necessary.
  • Review and manage any scripts used to assist in the process.

External threats

At first glance, this one seems to be the least likely candidate for being addressed with DevOps. Given that malware and multi-layered DDoS attacks are the most existential threats to businesses today, that’s understandable. There are entire classes of vulnerabilities that can only be detected manually by developers or experts reviewing the code. But it doesn’t really extend to production, where risks becomes reality when it’s exploited.

One way that DevOps can reduce potential risk is, more extensive testing and development of web app security policies during development that can then be deployed in production.  Adopting a DevOps approach to developing those policies — and treating them like code too — provides a faster and a more likely, thorough policy that does a better job overall of preventing the existential threats from being all-too-real nightmares. 

To reduce the risk of threats becoming reality via DevOps:

  • Shift web app security policy development and testing left, into the app development life cycle.
  • Treat web app security policies like code. Review and standardize.
  • Test often, even in production. Automate using technology such as dynamic application security testing (DAST) and when possible, integrate results into the development life cycle for faster remediation that reduces risk earlier.

Best DevOps practices

Below is a list of the top five DevOps practices and tooling that can help improve overall security when incorporated directly into your end-to-end continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipeline:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Security test automation
  3. Configuration and patch management
  4. Continuous monitoring
  5. Identity management

Collaboration and understanding your security requirements

Many of us are required to follow a security policy. It may be in the form of a corporate security policy, a customer security policy, and/or a set of compliance standards (ex. SOX, HIPAA, etc). Even if you are not mandated to use a specific policy or regulating standard, we all still want to ensure we follow the best practices in securing our systems and applications. The key is to identify your sources of information for security expertise, collaborate early, and understand your security requirements early so they can be incorporated into the overall solution.

Security test automation

Whether you’re building a brand new solution or upgrading an existing solution, there likely are several security considerations to incorporate. Due to the nature of quick and iterative agile development, tackling all security at once in a “big bang” approach likely will result in project delays. To ensure that projects keep moving, a layered approach often can be helpful to ensure you are continuously building additional security layers into your pipeline as you progress from development to a live product. Security test automation can ensure you have quality gates throughout your deployment pipeline giving immediate feedback to stakeholders on security posture and allowing for quick remediation early in the pipeline.

Configuration management

In traditional development, servers/instances are provisioned and developers are able to work on the systems. To ensure servers are provisioned and managed using consistent, repeatable and reliable patternsit’s critical to ensure you have a strategy for configuration management. The key is ensuring you can reliably guarantee and manage consistent settings across your environments.

Patch management

Similar to the concerns with configuration management, you need to ensure you have a method to quickly and reliably patch your systems. Missing patches is a common cause of exploited vulnerabilities including malware attacks. Being able to quickly deliver a patch across a large number of systems can drastically reduce your overall security exposures.

Continuous monitoring

Ensuring you have monitoring in place across all environments with transparent feedback is vital so it can alert you quickly of potential breaches or security issues. It’s important to identify your monitoring needs across the infrastructure and applicationand then take advantage of some of the tooling that exists to quickly identify, isolate, shut down, and remediate potential issues before they happen or before they become exploited. Part of your monitoring strategy also should include the ability to automatically collect and analyze logs. The analysis of running logs can help identify exposures quickly. Compliance activities can become extremely expensive if they are not automated early.

Identity management

DevOps practices help allow us to collaborate early with security experts, increase the level of security tests and automation to enforce quality gates for security and provide better mechanisms for ongoing security management and compliance activities. While painful to some, it has to be important to all if we don’t want to make headlines. 

About the Author

Hari Vignesh Jayapalan is a Google Certified Android app developer, IDF Certified UI & UX Professional, street magician, fitness freak, technology enthusiast, and wannabe entrepreneur. He can be found on Twitter @HariofSpades.


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