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Stay ahead of threats with DevOps security best practices

Unsure where to start when it comes to securing your DevOps environment? Taking these five actions can strengthen your organization's defenses against cyber attacks.

Digitalization dominates all aspects of modern life, from socializing and online banking to purchasing products and services. And although this dependence on technology has numerous benefits, it also exposes massive amounts of sensitive data to the risks arising from the internet.

To gain a competitive advantage in today's rapidly changing business environment, organizations want to deliver services to users as fast as possible, which requires developing applications and pushing them to production quickly. The DevOps methodology is used worldwide to support rapid delivery of high-quality software.

But if DevOps teams don't implement security best practices, the apps they produce will be vulnerable to cyberthreats. Developing software projects today requires incorporating security into the DevOps framework -- an approach known as DevSecOps -- to combat the ever-growing number of cyber attacks.

The shift from DevOps to DevSecOps

DevOps relies on collaboration between IT operations and development teams, and DevSecOps enhances this model by adding a security component. DevSecOps incorporates additional security controls and best practices into every phase of the DevOps lifecycle to create more robust and secure software projects.

In a DevSecOps environment, tools, practices, processes and people work in harmony to ensure security in every phase of the software development lifecycle: planning, coding, testing, deployment and monitoring. Integrating security into CI/CD pipelines helps development teams discover and remediate security issues before moving an app into production.

Bar chart showing organizations' incorporation of security into their DevOps processes, with only 19% reporting extensive incorporation.
Despite rising cyber attacks, more than half of organizations haven't yet incorporated security into their DevOps processes, according to research from TechTarget's Enterprise Strategy Group.

To integrate security into the DevOps lifecycle, start by following these five best practices.

1. Promote a security mindset throughout your organization

Historically, DevOps teams might have considered security to be outside their purview. For example, developers might focus on enhancing user experience in their application design without taking the time to check their software for vulnerabilities to various cyberthreats.

Shifting this mindset is the most important part of successfully incorporating security into the DevOps lifecycle. A DevSecOps approach should view security as a core concept that developers, IT operations and even management must consider from the outset when developing software projects.

2. Use automated DevOps security tools

Software projects might incorporate thousands of external dependencies to deliver their functions. Manually reviewing every component of a software project for security vulnerabilities is daunting, and it's virtually impossible to achieve 100% accuracy.

However, using automated tools can eliminate many security vulnerabilities and quickly enhance the delivery process. Automation enables developers to check every piece of code, configuration, API call, software library and dependency to ensure they are secure and not vulnerable to cyberthreats.

The following are some examples of automated security tools that can be incorporated into the DevOps lifecycle:

  • Vulnerability scanning tools. These tools scan all projects' source code and other components to ensure they are free from any vulnerabilities. For instance, many developers use container images from public repositories. To ensure their security, such images should be scanned for vulnerabilities before incorporating them into project files. Trivy is an example of a vulnerability scanner for container images.
  • Static application security testing (SAST) tools. These tools scan a software project's source code for insecure code. SonarQube is a popular open source SAST code review tool.
  • Dynamic application security testing (DAST) tools. In contrast to SAST tools, DAST tools perform tests on the running application -- for example, its web interface -- without accessing its source code.
  • IT infrastructure scanning tools. Modern web applications span cloud, on-premises and local environments. Although on-premises infrastructure can be easily scanned for vulnerabilities, the same is not true for apps hosted by a third-party cloud provider. To mitigate this issue, adopt cloud infrastructure scanning tools to detect any misconfigurations that can affect the security of the deployed application.
  • Visualization tools. These tools enable all teams involved in a software project to communicate and share security-related information.

3. Use privileged access management

Privileged access management (PAM) refers to identity tools and technologies that track all users, processes, systems and services accessing an organization's IT environment.

PAM offers complete visibility into who uses privileged accounts and tracks those users' activities while logged in. In DevOps workflows, any security gaps that developers and IT ops leave behind can introduce security vulnerabilities into the system and expose it to cyberthreats.

For example, software projects require communication with different supportive components, such as configuration files, APIs, databases, code files and remote accounts. Because communicating with these entities requires authentication, developers sometimes hardcode sensitive credentials in code files during the development and test phases. Forgetting to remove these accounts after launching the app, however, enables threat actors to infiltrate it maliciously.

Likewise, DevOps teams require access to project builds, code files, test tools and test servers. To provide immediate access to project resources, team members might share access credentials and private keys with their peers using insecure channels. Forgetting to remove these accounts after launch could jeopardize the application's security. Using PAM can mitigate these types of security vulnerabilities.

4. Create and enforce security policies

Establishing and enforcing security policies ensures best practices are adopted across the entire organization's IT environment to mitigate security risks.

Organizations should define security policies for access controls, configuration management, source code review and criteria when selecting security tools. For example, an organization might set specific procedures that developers are expected to follow to create secure code.

5. Conduct regular penetration tests

Penetration testing applies the same techniques threat actors use to exploit weaknesses in the target organization's IT infrastructure and applications.

Because DevOps does not inherently focus on security, organizations should adopt a DevSecOps model to ensure the security procedures they implement in their DevOps pipeline are successful. Organizations should regularly penetration test their applications -- and the underlying IT infrastructure -- to determine whether threat actors can exploit any flaw to gain entry into the organization's IT environment.

Next Steps

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