7 DevOps Security Best Practices for 2023
Let’s delve deep into what DevOps Security is all about, the processes, best practices, and benefits.
The ability to ship software at speed has become imperative to stay competitive in today’s ever-evolving digital world. Fortunately, DevOps has enabled IT businesses to embrace speed by seamlessly collaborating with developers and operations teams and automating the processes across the software development lifecycle (SDLC). However, there’s a catch. While DevOps has indeed facilitated high-paced software delivery, the security considerations are often overlooked, which led to subpar application security.
Moreover, security teams often considered security as an infrastructural component rather than an application design element. Basic practices such as firewalls that secure the borders are deemed sufficient. This approach fails utterly when applications are hosted in environments beyond enterprise infrastructure, such as the cloud, containers, or serverless computing platforms. Moreover, introducing security testing at the final phases of the software development lifecycle inherently causes friction, slowing business teams from realizing the speed and scale of unrestricted DevOps.
However, given the reliance on applications to keep businesses running, security should not be an afterthought in application development. The speed of pushing out deployable code without checks increases the risks of vulnerabilities with a potential for high impact in production environments.
So, how can businesses address the security challenges in the DevOps ecosystem? The answer is DevSecOps (or DevOps Security)!
Let’s delve deep into what DevOps Security is all about, the processes, best practices, and benefits:
What Is DevOps Security?
DevOps Security or DevSecOps is all about the seamless collaboration of development, security, and operations teams by breaking down the traditional boundaries that previously existed between Security, IT operations, and software development teams. It tightly integrates security tools and processes throughout the DevOps pipeline in order to achieve continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery (CD) of high-quality products to your customers.
So, instead of testing the code towards the end of the development lifecycle as it used to be in the DevOps approach, DevSecOps shifts the security testing towards the left (shift-left approach) of the lifecycle, reducing the need for rework just before or after deployment. DevSecOps not only improves the overall quality of code, but it also improves the developer's productivity as they can now focus on delivering quality code and producing more frequent releases with confidence.
Challenges of Securing DevOps Process
Seamlessly integrating security into the DevOps pipeline is not a breeze. Here are some of the common challenges that you need to address to optimally secure your DevOps process:
The most common DevOps security issues rise from the cultural resistance of development and operations teams towards security and testing. They perceive security as a bottleneck that causes delays in the development process. Usually, the security teams take time to thoroughly test environments and applications to ensure they don’t miss any vulnerabilities, which often leads to frustration among the DevOps teams that are aiming for short development cycles and continuous delivery of code.
One of the best ways to address this challenge is security automation. Automation not only mitigates the security risks arising from manual errors but also reduces the amount of time spent on security processes like code analysis and vulnerability testing, among others.
Though cloud adoption benefits DevOps teams in many ways, it also comes with its security challenges. While the security risks in on-premises software deployments are very limited, the cloud has a broader attack surface and does not have a well-defined network perimeter. Moreover, a small misconfiguration or manual error in the cloud can lead to the potential exposure of critical resources to public networks. So, the traditional approach of protecting the network perimeter and trusting the entities within the perimeter becomes ineffective.
Workload containerization significantly enhances productivity in a DevOps environment by providing a consistent software environment from one machine to another during development, testing, and production. Containers simplify the build, test, and deploy pipelines in DevOps. However, the added complexity of the underlying engine, orchestration, and networking means more potential attack vectors that need to be monitored and secured.
DevOps is the collaboration between development and operations teams. And DevOps security requires integrating security teams into the DevOps culture. Considering that security teams are used to work in a siloed way, it will be challenging for them to scale with the rapid, iterative pace of the DevOps-first culture. On the other hand, the traditional security tools, technologies, and processes, which are already in place, weren't designed with many of these use cases in mind. Moreover, the security and engineering teams working in isolated bubbles will often duplicate operational effort and information flow that could easily be aggregated in one bucket.
DevOps environment facilitates a highly collaborative, interconnected culture. This means development and operations teams often share privileged information such as account credentials, API access tokens, and SSH keys. However, for the security team, this means developing a far more sophisticated security strategy that can ensure controlled privileged access and secrets management. Any poor security practices can allow malicious actors to compromise these credentials, gain access to DevOps infrastructure, disrupt operations, and steal data.
How to Build a DevOps Security Culture?
While many organizations are leveraging DevOps security, only a few are capturing the full potential of DevOps. The prime reason for this failure is understating the potential change in culture and mindset the DevSecOps require. This misunderstanding makes it challenging for employees to comprehend the overall objective of DevSecOps. Moreover, the complex operating models, siloed processes, inadequate cross-skilling efforts, and siloed teams doing uncoordinated actions are impeding businesses from realizing high-speed, high-quality delivery.
So, to build a DevOps security culture, your organization must make significant changes not only in the technology stack but more so in the people architecture. Here are the steps to imbibe DevSecOps culture across your organization:
1. Change in Mindset
Your organization requires the right mindset to encourage a continuous security testing culture across the DevOps lifecycle. In DevOps culture, security is not integrated into the development process, even though it is important. The responsibility of security is bestowed upon the security teams. DevSecOps requires a shift in this mindset. Security should be made a shared responsibility of everyone by shifting security to the left of the software development lifecycle. Moreover, your organization must shift from a singular mindset on accelerating development speed to a broader mindset on increasing both speed and quality by improving and scaling current agile principles and processes.
2. Change in Mechanism
To build the new DevOps security culture, your organization must define key enabling mechanisms such as new DevSecOps roles and responsibilities, operating models for how teams work together, and interaction models that define the participation level of each role. This is essential to fortify the shift in mindset and ways of working.
3. Change in Skillset
The skillset gap remains a looming presence that makes it challenging for organizations to build a qualified DevSecOps team. So, to address this talent gap, organizations must make investments to build new capabilities to UP-skill, CROSS-Skill, and NEW-skill.
In the current DevOps industry, cybersecurity talent is already sparse within the organizations, at a ratio of 1 security engineer to 10 IT/DevOps engineers to 100 developers. Considering this massive disparity, the organizations must empower and educate their developers, who are on the front line of defense, in the form of both training and the adoption of application security testing tools that enable them to keep their software secure.
How Can I Start Implementing DevSecOps in My Organization?
Implementing DevOps security is not a cakewalk. Businesses must strike the right balance between speed and security while embedding security practices into the DevOps pipeline. Here are some tips that help you start implementing DevSecOps in your organization:
Define a DevSecOps Strategy
To successfully integrate security into the DevOps pipeline, businesses must define a strategy that clearly articulates the guiding principles to drive security throughout the software development lifecycle. Before initiating the process, the engineering and security teams must first concord with the standards and objectives of the DevSecOps strategy. This helps build mutual trust among the teams. The strategy should also define shared objectives, expectations for mutual accountability, and metrics for measuring success. Moreover, the strategy should also encompass a set of clear and understandable security policies and governance for access control, code reviews, configuration management, and vulnerability testing, among others. All teams must align with these policies and ensure they are implemented across the SDLC.
The key to a successful DevSecOps strategy is to develop your strategy based on industry frameworks like NIST (The National Institute of Standards and Technology), CIS (Critical Security Controls), and SLSA (Supply chain Levels for Software Artifacts). First, break up the framework into a set of implementation groups. Then, start with the things that you can implement quickly and see results fast with the ability to measure.
Understand Your Toolchain and Workflow
You can’t protect want you can’t see. In most organizations, DevOps and security engineers end-up creating their islands of operations to focus on their core objectives. While developers focus on innovating and building features faster, the security teams focus on security aspects, ultimately creating a wall between them. This further gives rise to incomplete visibility across the workflow and toolchain.
All the teams, including development, operations, and security personnel, must understand the flow of work and the toolchain involved across the DevOps pipeline. The main objective is to make security teams get an overview of the tools and environments used by developers. This helps them to build a unified security testing strategy defining the tests, tools, and data needed to shift the security to the left. The security teams can also unearth opportunities to improve existing DevOps pipeline workflows to make them more compatible with shift-left security. On the other hand, developers must be trained to use at least one of the popular AppSec technologies, such as SAST, DAST, SCA, IAST, and RASP. This helps them test their code throughout the SDLC.
Implement Security Guardrails
While implementing security processes and procedures across the SDLC, the prime objective is to make security a seamless part of daily work. Teams can do so by:
- Embedding security early and often (shifting security to the left).
- Shifting focus from acceptance and system-level testing to unit testing and integration testing.
- Leveraging pre-approved tools to reduce toolchain complexity.
- Introducing penetration testing and automated security testing to identify and fix critical security gaps in the development process.
- Fortifying CI/CD systems with checklists to ensure teams follow best practices.
- Implementing hard security guardrails — Taking action while providing a feedback loop to the engineers to fix the issues.
It is important to automate the security processes and tools to scale and accelerate security operations on par with the pace of DevOps processes. This also helps reduce security flaws in the CI/CD pipeline that emerge from manual intervention. Security processes like code reviews, configuration management, vulnerability assessment, and access management all can be automated. Otherwise, it is difficult to identify security issues without impeding the development process. Automation also relieves developers and security teams from handling manual, repetitive processes, helping them focus on more critical tasks.
Some examples of security automation include:
- Enforce security scanners within containers.
- For known security risks, automate updates and patches within the DevOps pipeline.
- For security regression tests, automate the process as much as possible while auto-assisting the portions that need to be performed manually.
- Leverage automation tools for handling code analysis, vulnerability management, configuration management, secrets management, audits, and other processes while tools are already in use.
Cyberspace is evolving continuously, with new and sophisticated attack vectors increasing exponentially. So, in order to stay ahead of these evolving cyber threats, you must continuously update or improve your security guardrails with continuous security validation and real-time monitoring of security logs. Assess your security posture regularly and send the health reports to the relevant teams to address any critical security vulnerabilities in a timely manner. Continuously integrating and deploying code while ensuring continuous security is the ultimate objective of DevSecOps.
6 DevOps Security Best Practices
Here are the top six DevOps Security best practices that help you achieve continuous security across the software development lifecycle:
1. Vulnerability Assessment and Management
Though vulnerability scanning is a common practice in the DevOps ecosystem, many businesses are still conducting a vulnerability assessment for a few instances and are not truly integrated into the DevOps lifecycle. DevSecOps teams must deploy a system that can scan, identify, and address vulnerabilities across the SDLC and ensure secure code is pushed to deployment. Penetration testing and other attack mechanisms can help each member of the team to identify and address security risks in their respective area of work. Moreover, security automation tools can assist teams in continuously running tests and monitoring for vulnerabilities, making it easy to ensure DevOps security.
2. Risk Assessment
The risk assessment must be conducted during the initial stages of the project to ensure a secure-by-design quality for the project. The assessment provides a holistic picture of the project risks, which involve technical risks and risks that affect the overall business.
3. Threat Modeling
Businesses need to employ threat modeling across the DevOps software development lifecycle. In threat modeling, the security team visualizes the entire pipeline process through the lens of a cyber attacker to find the most probable attack scenarios. It helps in identifying technical vulnerabilities, issues, threats, and potential attack vectors relating to the project. Then set up security controls across the pipeline as per the threat modeling results.
4. Configuration Management
Configuration management is one of the key aspects driving DevSecOps success. Even a slight misconfiguration can prove detrimental to DevOps workflow. So, teams must identify and remediate configuration errors as soon as possible, considering the speed of DevOps. In fact, continuous configuration scans should be conducted across all codebases and servers to ensure misconfigurations are addressed before they are injected into a larger codebase.
5. Privileged Access Management
Monitoring and controlling access, especially privileged user access, is key to securing the DevOps stack. Any unauthorized access to privileged account credentials can potentially lead to supply chain attacks. So, to address this, businesses must enforce the principle of least privilege to provide employees only the access required to complete their job roles and responsibilities. This drastically reduces the scope for internal or external attackers from exploiting the access rights.
For instance, restrict developers from accessing certain system containers that are not required for their work while still enabling permissions required to code, build, test, and manage application components. Moreover, if an engineer doesn’t need root access, then provide only regular user access.
It is also essential to regularly monitor and audit all privileged user logs and activities to track any suspicious activity.
6. Secrets Management
In the DevOps ecosystem, teams use a wide variety of tools to automate software provisioning, configuration management, and application deployment. And all these functions need secret management. This is crucial for DevOps pipeline security because developers often inadvertently store secrets like account credentials, application programming interface (API) tokens, secure shell (SSH) keys, and encryption keys, even in production environments. This is a potential pitfall, as malicious actors can easily glean these secrets and disrupt the entire IT infrastructure. So, secrets management is crucial to cloak or remove these embedded credentials.
Top Benefits of Prioritizing DevOps Security
In a nutshell, DevOps Security empowers businesses to deliver more secure software faster. It helps identify and address security issues early in development when they are easier, faster, and less costly to fix. Some other tangible benefits of DevSecOps include:
Traditional Development Issues
- Manual, repetitive tasks.
- Time taken for deployment ranges from days to weeks.
- Human intervention gives rise to inconsistencies and errors.
- Frequent downtime.
- Teams work in silos, giving rise to delayed, slow releases.
- Security testing performed in the late stages of the development cycle.
- Compliance is not addressed.
- Security engineers are solely responsible for security, which makes them heavily burdened.
DevSecOps Value Propositions
- Automated configuration and software deployment.
- Time taken for deployment is within minutes.
- Continuous and automated processes drive consistency across the DevOps cycle.
- Downtime is as low as possible.
- Continuous collaboration between teams, giving rise to high-speed, quality deliverables.
- Early, automated testing is conducted with the shift-left approach.
- Security auditing, monitoring, and notification systems are automated, enabling teams to demonstrate continuous compliance.
- Security is the shared responsibility of development, IT operations, and security teams.
Best DevOps Security Tools
DevOps Security tools help implement security best practices into the DevOps workflow without hampering the speed of product delivery. However, given the high volume of open-source and subscription-based DevSecOps tools available in the market, selecting the right set of tools that best suit your business objectives is a tough task. To make it easier for you, we have listed down the best DevOps security tools that help you achieve DevSecOps success:
- Aqua Security is a cloud-native application security platform that protects your applications from development to production, whether they run on virtual machines, clouds, containers, or serverless platforms. This tool helps integrate vulnerability management, cloud security configuration scanning, Kubernetes security posture management, pre-prod malware detection, and dynamic threat analysis for full end-to-end DevSecOps security.
- Checkmarx is the most comprehensive application security platform that covers your code at every stage of the software development lifecycle. The tool facilitates Static Application Security Testing (SAST), Software Composition Analysis (SCA), API Security, Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), Infrastructure as Code (IaC) Security, and Container Security. Beyond these offerings, Checkmarx also offers AWS and Gitlab integration.
- Contrast Security is a unified DevOps security platform that enables you to get secure code moving through the entire application development pipeline. The platform offers solutions for SAST, IAST, RAST, SCA, and vulnerability scanning, among others.
- IriusRisk is one of the most powerful, scalable, and collaborative automated threat modeling platforms, designed to enable DevSecOps teams to shift the security to the left and build a secure-by-design platform. Key benefits of the platform include an automation engine, countermeasure recommendations, and integration with issue trackers.
- Snyk is one of the best DevOps security platforms that is designed to secure your code as it’s written, avoid open-source vulnerable dependencies, secure your container images, and fix misconfigurations in infrastructure as code. As the platform is powered by industry-leading security intelligence research, it enables the teams to find and fix vulnerabilities as soon as they’re discovered.
- SonarQube is a DevOps security platform that empowers all developers to cleaner and safer code. The platform improves code quality and security by checking the code against thousands of SCA (static code analysis) rules. SonarQube covers around 29 programming languages, giving support to multi-language projects.
Worried about the high cost of procuring the above-mentioned tools?
Here’s the List of “Open Source” DevSecOps Security Tools:
- OWASP Threat Dragon
- Chef InSpec
Frequently Asked Questions: DevOps Security
1. Are there any tools that can help enable security in a DevOps environment?
Yes, there are many DevSecOps tools available in the market that help you enable security in a DevOps environment. However, selecting the right set of tools that rightly fits into your DevOps architecture is not easy. So, to help you choose the best of breeds, we have curated a list of the best DevOps Security tools (in the above section) that help you seamlessly integrate security across the DevOps pipelines.
2. What is the difference between Traditional and DevOps Security?
Traditional security tools and practices weren't designed to keep up with the quick pace of change that DevOps requires. Moreover, security was brought into the picture during the test/deployment and operations phases. This approach often led to delays in application releases and deadlines as security glitches were detected in the later stages of development.
On the other hand, DevOps Security aims to integrate security throughout the entire application development lifecycle. The security is shifted to the lift of the development lifecycle so that security vulnerabilities are detected and addressed during the early development stages. This approach helps deliver high-quality software faster.
3. Which automated testing tools work best with DevOps?
Some of the automated testing tools that work best with DevOps are:
- Sonatype Nexus
- WhiteHat Security
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