An In-Depth Guide to DevSecOps (and 5 Best Practices)


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Thursday, September 1, 2022

What is DevSecOps, why is it so important and how can enterprises transition successfully from their existing development philosophies?

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An In-Depth Guide to DevSecOps (and 5 Best Practices)
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The development landscape was once chaos, with development and security teams working separately, services and applications being delivered slowly and endless personal preferences for design and coding standards. New hires and employees that change companies or careers had to spend more time learning new systems and their peculiarities than doing actual work of business value.

Development operations (DevOps) is the philosophy of creating applications to meet operations’ goals across the varied frameworks and services that development professionals and managers may come across within a fast-growing business. The result is applications developed through a coherent and well-managed series of processes that ensure application quality and business value.

For the past 15 or so years that DevOps has been in existence, IT professionals and developers have adopted it as the dominant practice, delivering success across many organizations and highlighting broken processes or teams in many more. Alongside those business changes, the security landscape has changed at a frightening pace, and security often remained something for the end of a DevOps project.

The growing risk of hacks and breaches created the need for DevSecOps (a.k.a “security as code”) with added focus on defending the business. This wasn’t just a process for IT and development professionals, but one driven by security professionals that cuts through design, business culture and across applications and operations to protect users and the business.

With the threat of malware, ransomware, phishing attacks and other threats looming large, launching in ever-growing volumes at every business, DevSecOps is a vital addition to the development process with benefits that stretch far beyond IT and operations.

What is DevSecOps?

DevSecOps enshrines a security focus across platform and application design, using automation to protect against high-volume and high-speed threats while promoting strong security in all code across the business and through application lifecycles.

DevOps vs DevSecOps: What’s the difference?

DevSecOps is considered by some as a successor to DevOps, with security being a key and mandatory part of all business IT and development processes. However, with the need to retrofit security to many applications, there are likely cases where the two coexist within the business, with DevSecOps building an overarching framework driving all future efforts with the “security” element built in. The primary goal should be to create a culture that significantly improves the organization’s security posture, making it ready to react to changing threats.

By 2019, only 40% of projects followed DevOps methodologies, compared to 90% expected by the end of this year, leaving any laggards worryingly exposed.

The differences between the two will remain clear, and while they can have discrete advantages in some case, DevOps brings its focus to bear on:

  • Creating a predictable, efficient and reliable development path
  • Promoting the agile mindset within development
  • Ensuring operations and production work in harmony for software
  • Creating applications that can be adapted and updated quickly
  • Delivering applications quickly with a strong ‘shift-left’ focus
  • Practical results include reduced downtime, fewer errors and faster feature additions

DevSecOps is comparatively less mature, and 70% of organizations lack enough knowledge of its practices, it adds the following to the process mix:

  • Strong enforcement of access control policies
  • Elimination of vulnerabilities becomes a top priority
  • Edge cases can be identified and fixed as needed
  • Integrated security and compliance, with testing shifted left

For those in government, health, military or finance development, DevSecOps is already mandatory, and it’s increasingly becoming essential for other enterprises as common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs) create greater risks.

Learn more: DevSecOps vs DevOps: 5 Crucial Differences You Need to Be Aware of.

What is the CI/CD pipeline?

Key to delivering DevSecOps is integrating security features into the continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipeline, an essential tenet of most DevOps efforts. This framework encourages designers and developers to focus on delivering fast, iterative and reliable code into the pipeline, meeting business strategic goals and operational needs.

By securing the CI/CD pipeline , applications and development tools become more secure, reducing the risk of intrusion and creating a secure pipeline with less risk and automated security features.

Why DevSecOps practices are important

As security has moved higher up the CEO/CIO list of priorities, its role in DevOps, evolving into DevSecOps has become a key factor in protecting the business against IT threats. From malware to ransomware, well-hidden breaches and exploiting vulnerabilities in tool chains, higher-grade hackers with illegitimate access can examine the development process to add their malicious touch to an application or exploit a patch. This was found in the 2017 NotPetya hack, which was seeded inside a legitimate MeDoc application update to cripple businesses.

As the number of major exploits grows, every business and enterprise should follow DevSecOps principles, bringing automation and streamlining across development and testing.

Implemented correctly, DevSecOps delivers both security and operational benefits to the business. It helps to complete the DevOps triangle that was often missing or not taking the key “security” point seriously. With each hack costing in the millions of dollars region for large firms, an internal exploit or a compromised update you sell or share to users or clients could have massive risk and compliance implications.

And, as major verticals adopt stronger security efforts as part of compliance regulations, DevSecOps is fast becoming the favoured method to meet those rules among development teams.

5 benefits of switching to DevSecOps

For smaller firms looking to formalize development processes, or enterprises looking to evolve their DevOps, there are many DevSecOps benefits that can be used to sell the change to CIOs/CEOs. C-Suite leaders should be more than welcoming, given the increase in security risks and greater compliance or regulatory requirements.

  1. The addition of security monitoring and reporting across the development, resting and deployment checks, often automated, enabling rapid notifications at any point
  2. Encourage the use of design and development openness and transparency at the start of any project, reducing of hacks, a reliance on risky APIs and other unsanctioned practices
  3. Helping deliver faster applications that are secure by design, with security being a measurable part of the development process
  4. Improved internal and end-user security with faster patching before incidents can occur, and an improved capability and speed of recovery should there be a breach or other incident
  5. Improving the overall security balance by enabling infrastructure which provides greater security automation

How to implement DevSecOps successfully

Every business moving to a DevSecOps approach will have its own team, philosophical and technical challenges to overcome, but the basic approach is enumerated below.

  • Put the right people in charge to ensure that a strong culture is put in place first. Hire people with DevSecOps experience, including cybersecurity architects, or build a team around those with DevOps and security knowledge. Enter a dialog to develop and define the concept around business-driven security as it fits your business before moving on to the practical steps.
  • The development workflow should already be in place from your DevOps experience. Align the security features and practices to fit in with that workflow, adding rightsized monitoring, risk and compliance aspects, rather than trying to bend the workflow to fit into complex security concepts.
  • Ensure visibility across the security aspects so that all users and stakeholders can view the impact they have. Refine complex policies or filters that generate false positives or negatively impact workflow to ensure that security matches the pace of development.
  • Once a solid baseline is established, use DevSecOps practices to enable automated vulnerability identification and tracking. This will elp security and developers eradicate or limit the impact vulnerabilities might have down the line.
  • When initial success is achieved, look at moving some budget over from security to ensure the DevSecOps team has the tools to continue improving their task. Also, ensure that success is highlighted (and how things could have gone wrong) across the business to reinforce the fact that security is the responsibility of all teams and workers.

Learn more: 7 Vital Metrics DevSecOps Need to Be Monitoring

5 DevSecOps best practices

When it comes to building and working in a DevSecOps-enabled environment, follow these best practices to ensure that your DevSecOps effort has the strongest basis for success. Seasoned experts also have plenty of advice from the field.

  1. Automation is the key to success

The speed of DevOps means there’s little time for manual processes since the security check, testing analysis, deployment monitor or other feature that is added in the name of security ensure the actual process is automated, generating a rapid report for operators and a dashboard view for management.

That being said, there will be some steps where automation can provide an overload of information if applied too rigidly, such daily total source code scanning. Be selective in your approach and use dynamic methods where appropriate to minimize the impact on your workflows.

  1. Focus on education for all

For many, the addition of security to development efforts will be a new and challenging step. Each step on the road to DevSecOps create opportunities for education within development teams about the risks that code errors create, using insecure APIs and how a single vulnerability (or a cascading sequence) can have major impacts.

Also, ensure that end-users understand the wider security implications of using apps in clouds, device security and other areas to drive greater safety for the business.

  1. Constant monitoring is key to modern security

There’s no such thing as done and dusted when it comes to modern IT security. Hackers are constantly finding new vulnerabilities to exploit, penetrating networks to deliver new malware and disrupting business operations. While they may not target your specific business, having a system of constant monitoring, using static and dynamic methods, across the workflow is key to ensuring you remain protected across this shifting landscape.

  1. Always look to shift left

The earlier something is done in the DevSecOps process, the more security is improved and the more integrated it becomes in all processes. If IBM recommends this approach, we can rest assured it’s a good one to follow.

 “Shifting left allows the DevSecOps team to identify security risks and exposures early and ensures that these security threats are addressed immediately. Not only is the development team thinking about building the product efficiently, but they are also implementing security as they build it" - IBM
  1. Become a master of security and know your enemy

Your security architect or similar role should be on the cutting edge of the IT security situation, evolving as it does on a daily basis. But they should also be following what the enemy is doing, tracking the latest efforts of hacker groups, behind the headline stories, to understand how the battle lines are changing. This information needs to be spread across development and operations teams to highlight how their input helps win the day, and how changing threats will create new challenges that they must meet together.

Agile vs DevSecOps

Many IT professionals rely on A-B comparison and compare DevSecOps to the agile methodology. In short, Agile created a mindset for developers to move fast with business goals in mind. DevOps helped create a cultural shift among enterprise development teams to work with operations.

DevSecOps pushes that further as an iterated approach with a drive to embed security in a shift-left effort, and ensures that security is enshrined in all development stages and processes.

Final thoughts

Taking the “security as code” mantra of DevSecOps to heart will reduce the risk that the business faces from the digital warfare it’s exposed to whenever an application, API or network is engaged. Shifting left ensures that security is a day-one consideration for the business, development teams and users, when any new or updated application is required.

As development spreads its tentacles further into Dockers, Kubernetes, AWS, Jenkins, AI systems and other areas, the need to enshrine security across all code, every link and API is vital. Using automation to handle the increasingly complex workload of ensuring code is valid and all vulnerabilities and misconfigurations are eliminated will improve the speed of delivery.

Whatever security tools are used, the business benefits include increased visibility and observability into the risks and their management, plus rapid identification and fixes for production alerts or issues. This reduces downtime across the CI/CD pipeline, and automation provides monitoring across the tools stack and beyond into user land.

While any DevSecOps effort will create challenges for the business, the operational benefits and cultural change of a successful project will impress the C-Suite, reinforcing the need for security, and strengthening the reputation of your applications and developers.

DevSecOps won’t stand still and is already being pushed towards a “continuous security” paradigm –one where all code and every application or network connection is under constant guard through automated security systems. However, the sooner the business gets on a security-first footing from first code to end user, the better.

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