What Is DevOps Security?
DevOps security is a methodology that unifies three previously disparate fields—software development, IT operations, and security. DevOps aims to break silos and eliminate barriers between development (Dev) and operations (Ops) teams, ensuring rapid delivery of high-quality software. DevOps security incorporates security best practices and tools into the entire development process. The end result of this process is known as DevSecOps.
DevOps security promotes collaboration between all stakeholders to ensure teams cover all areas of concern. It ensures developers do not put all their efforts solely into writing high-quality code but also into ensuring it is built for security. Collaboration practices ensure all staff participating in a DevOps team help each other in creating secure, high-quality code.
DevOps teams employ a continuous deployment strategy to remain productive and effective. The process is iterative and includes automated and/or manual reviews that provide the information needed to fix bugs. The goal is continuously releasing secure software in rapid cycles without disrupting the user experience and business operations.
Development workflows rely on frameworks, programs, libraries, and software development kits (SDKs) created by third parties. This third-party code can contain vulnerabilities that expose the software to security risks. Working together in cohesion ensures that developers, IT operations, and security personnel can catch these vulnerabilities on time.
In this article:
Security Challenges Facing DevOps Teams
DevOps involves adopting iterative software development, programmable infrastructure deployment and maintenance, and automation. While these changes may impact security, the main challenge often stems from conflicting development and security objectives. Developers usually aim to rapidly push software through the pipeline, while security staff tends to focus on eliminating flaws even if it requires pushing back development.
DevOps Teams Do Not Prioritize Security
The main challenge in implementing DevOps security is helping team members overcome the cultural resistance to testing and security. DevOps teams often view security as a nuisance that slows the development lifecycle. However, in practice, retroactive fixes take more time and effort. Teams that address security issues earlier reduce the overall technical debt.
Unlike traditional on-premises deployments, cloud-first architectures pose a larger attack surface. There is no clear perimeter in the cloud. Instead, there are unclear, loosely-defined network boundaries.
Cloud vendors allow users to easily configure access to provisioned resources so they are accessible over public Internet traffic. However, making this connection while using legacy network security that assumes a well-defined network does not guarantee security.
Tools Come With Their Own Risks
DevOps implementations rely on cloud infrastructure and open source tools to support the workflow. However, while some tools significantly increase productivity, they can also introduce risks into DevOps environments. Containers, for example, are portably packaged applications and can run on any computer or cloud environment. However, poor visibility into containers makes it difficult to identify vulnerabilities.
Related content: Read our guide to DevSecOps tools
Inadequate Controls Provide an Opening for Attack
DevOps environments must include controls to protect privileged access and manage secrets. A DevOps environments use privileged inputs, such as account credentials and API access tokens, to maintain confidentiality of protected assets and data. Inadequate secret management and improper access controls can allow threat actors to breach the environment, steal data, gain control of the IT infrastructure, and disrupt operations.
Shift Left and Shift Right in DevOps Security
The software development cycles can be likened to an infinity loop or a continuum. The left side of the loop includes planning, development, and testing software in a pre-production environment.
The pre-production phase aims to build software that meets specific design requirements. Releasing software into production on the right side makes it available to users. The production phase aims to maintain software that meets specific business objectives and reliability criteria – including functionality, performance, and perhaps most importantly, security.
Shifting left involves moving testing and evaluation earlier in the development process. In the context of DevOps Security, this means shifting security left to ensure that security flaws are discovered as early as possible in the development lifecycle.
What is shift right
Shift-right methods help ensure applications that run in production can withstand real-world user load while providing high quality, and do not have security weaknesses or vulnerabilities.
DevOps teams that practice shift right focus on testing applications in a staging or production environment to ensure they are resilient, performant, and secure. The goal is to identify and remediate issues that teams might not find when testing in development environments. This can help identify security weaknesses that escaped earlier stages of security testing. Shifting right requires automating security controls, such as access controls and network policies, and ensuring applications have observability in the production environment.
Both shift right and shift-left testing are core components of Agile development, ensuring teams can build and release software iteratively and reliably while also testing software at diverse phases in the lifecycle.
DevOps Security Best Practices
The following best practices can help secure the DevOps pipeline.
DevSecOps is a form of DevOps that incorporates security into the SDLC—security tools and processes are part of the pipeline from the beginning. This approach improves application security before releases reach production. It eliminates the silos dividing security and DevOps teams.
To implement DevSecOps:
- Incorporate security tools into the CI/CD pipeline at the left of the process: scanning vulnerabilities, secrets, SAST, SCA, and declarative configuration.
- Ensure collaboration between security and DevOps teams.
- Review all infrastructure security policies before deployment.
- Implement runtime security controls to protect production environments.
- Build observability into applications to enable effective security monitoring.
- Create an incident response process to ensure effective response to security incidents.
Related content: Read our guide to the secure software development lifecycle (SSDLC)
Code reviews should be integral to the DevOps process, with the security team overseeing coding and code review techniques. Developers should use security testing tools alongside other CI/CD tools—usually, there will be several tools.
There are three main pre-release security testing techniques for source code and traditional applications:
- Static Application Security Testing (SAST)—identifies common vulnerabilities before developers compile a build.
- Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST)—allows security testers to inspect running builds and identify various issues.
- Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST)—a combination of SAST and DAST.
In cloud native environments, additional types of testing are needed to scan cloud native resources:
- Kubernetes manifest scanning
- Container image scanning
- Infrastructure as Code (IaC) template scanning
Related content: Read our guide to application security
Scanning for Vulnerabilities
Vulnerability scanning is a major DevOps security focus. Deploying vulnerable software allows attackers to exploit the application, so it is imperative to identify and remediate vulnerabilities before release. Penetration testers can evaluate the initial results to distinguish actual threats from false positives.
Vulnerability scanning is also important for Kubernetes deployments, which require updating Kubernetes when discovering new open source vulnerabilities.
Secret management is essential for enforcing security policies for digital entities. For example, credentials for databases or other internal systems should never be hard coded into configuration or source code. This prevents unauthorized entities from accessing resources or compromising data.
Protecting authentication and authorization secrets usually involves:
- Authenticating all access requests.
- Implementing least privilege.
- Using RBAC policies.
- Regularly rotating credentials and other secrets.
- Automating secret management.
- Tracking access.
- Avoiding secrets in code or config files.
Monitoring and Ensuring Observability
DevOps security requires consistent visibility using:
- Monitoring tools—allow teams to track the system state using various metrics.
- Observability tools—allow teams to debug systems by exploring undefined patterns and properties.
DevOps teams must regularly report on system performance and health, including from the customer perspective. Monitoring should focus on defined metrics and objectives, while observability investigates unknowns. Teams should have access to tooling to track and analyze production infrastructure issues.
Securing the Software Supply Chain
A software supply chain encompasses everything affecting an application in any way throughout the SDLC. Supply chain security procedures are important for protecting application components, infrastructure, tools, and code (including proprietary and third-party). To secure the supply chain, organizations must map out the components of their applications, identify all artifacts and dependencies, and verify they are authentic and secure.
Organizations must implement and demonstrate the following security practices to minimize supply chain risks:
- Source integrity – prevent developers from committing malicious code into trusted repositories, and secure source code management systems.
- Build integrity – ensuring all artifacts in the build process are validated with signed metadata and have known dependencies that have undergone security scans.
Deployment integrity – ensure all deployed artifacts are secured and release integrity is carefully monitored, to avoid replacement or addition of malicious components at runtime.