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The Shift-Left Approach: The Evolution of Security in DevOps

The Shift-Left Approach: The Evolution of Security in DevOps

As the digital landscape evolves with developing advancements and emerging technologies, it is also being subjected to emerging threats that harness these advancements, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), to exploit businesses and software development. Not only this, but there is a prevalent skill-gap among developers and security experts, creating a disconnect between software development and the implementation of security practices.

However, the software development industry is currently experiencing a ‘shift-left’ in the significance of security within the DevOps pipeline. This has initiated a cultural change and sees developers altering their attitudes to security with a growing adoption of DevSecOps practices. The shift-left approach reprioritizes security practices and places them much earlier in the DevOps pipeline, whereas traditionally security practices such as testing, vulnerability scanning, and remediation would typically take place at the end.

The shift-left approach is having a substantial impact on cybersecurity and DevSecOps as it considers the preventative remediation of security issues and accounts for the need for speed and efficiency within development and deployment whilst doing so.
In this blog, we will explore the shift-left approach and its impact within DevOps and DevSecOps, including;

Why is the Shift-Left Happening Now?

The shift-left approach to security has actually been around for just over two decades and was initially a reference to literally shifting the placement of security practices to the left of the DevOps pipeline, well before the deployment phase and considering them from the initial planning phase. Before the shift-left and the adoption of DevSecOps practices, it was standard practice to place any security testing and patching processes at the end of the DevOps pipeline, however this has meant that vulnerabilities are discovered much later on and are at greater risk of becoming exploited, especially with zero-day vulnerabilities, which can be quickly and easily taken advantage of by malicious actors. This also puts software release dates at risk, resulting in unnecessary cost implications due to delays.
The shift-left approach has acquired a greater momentum in recent years due to a number of factors, including:

  • Developing technologies combined with growing cyber threats and changing industry requirements all place growing pressure on DevOps environments to find more efficient security solutions to protect their assets, their secrets and provide greater security for their end users
  • The increased adoption of  the cloud for containerized environments and virtual machines, while allowing for a more efficient environment also opens it up to more vulnerabilities and must be secured earlier in the development and planning phases
  • The emerging security skill-gap among developers is also another problem that requires solving through developer education and security coaching programs, as a shift-left approach requires developers to be proactive and efficiently embed security practices into their workflows

With the right education and practices implemented within a DevSecOps pipeline, the shift-left offers developers, IT teams and DevOps environments a solution to these ongoing challenges.


Shift-Left Practices Explained

The shift-left approach is an emerging change in development cultures, processes and attitudes about how the pipeline should work and should be secured, so it can be difficult to explain in a concise manner. However, it can be identified with some common practices;

Static Application Security Testing (SAST): This method of testing looks into security vulnerabilities in the source code of an application or software. SAST tools scan the software code to search for known or common problems within the code so that it can be addressed by the developer. These tests are run in the early stages of development so as to catch vulnerabilities more quickly, as well as allowing developers to avoid similar issues moving forward and apply it to their coding.

Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST): DAST tests software in the early stages of deployment, detecting vulnerabilities within servers, databases and web applications and requires a functioning version of the app or software to search as it will not touch the source code. DAST can provide insights into real, working vulnerabilities and test system endpoints to ensure that software is secure before it reaches the user.

Containerization: Containerization uses Docker containers to package source code with features of its environment infrastructure including required files and Operating System libraries. This allows developers to securely deploy software to different operating systems without having to rewrite the source code as well as isolating any vulnerabilities that could occur during migration and providing the agility to run in multiple environments.

Container Security Scanning: This is the method of applying automated tools to scan for known vulnerabilities found on a database. This prevents threat actors from deploying malicious code in a container by alerting developers to vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

Developer Education: Developer education is imperative to implementing secure practices throughout the DevSecOps pipeline. Security coaching programs train developers with an interest in security to assist other members of their team in recognizing, securing, and preventing vulnerabilities that may occur throughout development. This also alleviates the pressure placed on security experts to secure vulnerabilities that may arise by bridging the gap between them and developers by writing security practices into the source code and reducing the need for intervention from security experts and IT teams. An awareness of security also means that fewer issues are found towards the end of the pipeline as security practices have already been considered and applied earlier.

Secure Coding: Secure coding is the practice of designing and writing code with the best security practices in mind. Through the education of software developers and bridging the skill gap in security, the source code for an application can be engineered in a way that prevents the exploitation of vulnerabilities by malicious actors. It helps to secure the source code from vulnerabilities like lost secrets or compromised keys and containers.

How to Implement Shift-Left Practices

As already demonstrated, implementing a shift-left approach requires successful developer education so that security practices can be applied early on in development. Developer education is required to close the skill gap currently persisting within the software development industry, an obstacle that can be successfully overcome with an effective security coaching program. By recruiting those with an interest in security to act as security ambassadors, a wider reach of developers can gain a knowledge of how to implement security practices into their coding, and coaches can ensure that strong security practices are implemented for the early stages of development reducing the risk of a greater number of vulnerabilities being located and addressed much later in the DevOps pipeline.

While the practice of Continuous Monitoring/Continuous Integration (CI/CD) is a foundational characteristic of DevOps practices, traditional DevOps environments do not often include security practices within this process. CI/CD pipelines allow for an end-to-end pipeline facilitating the fast and efficient delivery of software and software updates. Integrating security practices, including ongoing SAST and DAST practices and security checks, into this pipeline means that vulnerabilities can be located, secured and mitigated more efficiently, allowing them to be located before they can be exploited and addressed without the intervention of security experts.

Automation and Security Tools

DevOps environments can further secure their pipeline and better implement shift-left practices using automated tools to facilitate more efficient, frictionless security processes. The Automatic Certificate Management Environment (ACME) protocol, for example, allows DevSecOps environments to manage a large number of SSL / TLS certificates to secure their containers and environments with low-touch. At least 80% of data breaches are down to human error and the manual approach to certificate management is especially vulnerable due to a growing number of certificates to process. Automated certificate management tools and protocols such as ACME allow for the automated provisioning, renewal and revocation of SSL / TLS certificates preventing them from becoming lost or expired, mitigating the risk of breaches.

This allows for the securing of communications between Docker containers and their hosts to ensure that vulnerabilities cannot be exploited within containerized environments with automatically provisioned SSL / TLS certificates.

This also secures software in its deployment phase by securing data being transmitted by Kubernetes Ingress Controllers, playing a crucial role in securing the integrity and validating the authenticity of data during transit.

Assessment of the Shift-Left Approach

The software development industry is facing ongoing challenges with the importance of security placed at its center, as threat actors begin to adopt new tactics taking advantage of emerging technologies such as AI, security experts are also being presented with the need to adopt a new approach to certificate management and PKI security. Implementing shift-left practices such as security coaching and developer education, continuous static and dynamic testing methods, security scanning and secure coding practices as well as the use of automated security tools can help mitigate these challenges, whilst also facilitating more efficient and secure software deployment in the pipeline. As these challenges develop it is becoming more imperative for DevOps environments to implement these practices as a requirement,  and transition towards a DevSecOps environment, threading security practices throughout the pipeline.

Read the Report

GlobalSign Can Help You Adopt a Shift-Left Approach and Secure Your Environment

GlobalSign’s experts can help you to put a shift-left approach into practice by helping you to find the right automation tools for your environment, so that you can ensure security of your containers, secrets and assets without having to compromise on speed and efficiency.

Adopt Automation to Support a Secure Pipeline

Gartner, 3 Essential Steps to Enable Security in DevOps 1 March 2023, Daniel Betts Et Al.
GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission. All rights reserved.
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