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The three pillars to implement a productive DevSecOps culture

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / Song_about_summer)

When DevOps emerged more than ten years ago, the main focus was to bridge the gaps between Dev and Ops activities and teams by introducing automation to the processes of building, testing and deployment of applications. What started as a loose collection of standard practices shared among high-functioning software engineering teams transformed into a modern statement of engineering culture and process: DevOps. At this point, security certainly played a role but wasn’t always a priority.

The rise of DevOps coincided with two other major shifts in the way software is built and deployed - the move to cloud and the growing reliance on open source. Together, these changes are powering digital transformation, enabling businesses to deliver value faster and remain competitive. These changes, though, also introduce additional complexities that make it increasingly challenging to secure digital assets.

As development teams continue to deliver more rapidly and more frequently, security teams are finding it difficult to keep up and often end up as being the bottleneck in the delivery pipeline. For this reason, bringing security into the DevOps fold from the outset – in other words, embracing a DevSecOps culture within a business – has become increasingly important.

An evolution, not a revolution

Embracing a DevSecOps process - that is, embedding security as an integral part of the development process - is a solution for all kinds of business where security is a bottleneck in this development process. Companies should think of DevSecOps as the natural continuation of DevOps, rather than a separate idea or concept; it is an evolutionary step, rather than a revolutionary one.

Embracing a DevSecOps culture enables development teams to secure what they build as they build it while creating more collaboration between development and security teams. This allows security teams to become a supporting function - offering their expertise to increase developer autonomy while also providing the oversight with the business needs. 

The practicalities of implementation

Nailing DevSecOps won’t happen overnight. However, being aware of the need for it is already a step in the right direction for businesses. The benefits of DevSecOps are broad-ranging, but key advantages include:

  • Improved security posture: Security is a feature from the design phase onwards. A shared responsibility model ensures security is tightly integrated — from building and deploying code, to securing production workloads. Teams work collaboratively to share security knowledge and tooling gives faster feedback.
  • Reduced costs and time: Identifying vulnerabilities and bugs before deploying results in an exponential reduction in risk and operational cost. The time of secure software delivery is also reduced by eliminating the need to retrofit security controls post-development.
  • Enabling more reliable delivery: Greater trust in the security of developed software and embracing new technologies enables more reliable delivery, which ultimately means enhanced revenue growth and expanded business offerings.

Breaking it down: the three pillars

As businesses increasingly understand the importance of embracing a DevSecOps culture and the benefits it will bring, there are three pillars they should consider when moving towards implementation: people, process and technology. DevSecOps principles build on these three intersecting parts, by eliminating silos and creating a collective focus.

People: empowering the team

A modern security culture and mechanisms that work for, rather than against, people are crucial to making security work. Moving to DevSecOps starts by challenging the way traditional security teams integrate with the wider business. Strong links between development, security, and operations teams ensure earlier feedback on the quality of the code, software or application from a security point of view, and in turn, reduces the costs of implementing fixes.

Traditionally, development was responsible for fast delivery, security was responsible for application security, and operations were responsible for stability. DevSecOps removes these silos and unites all three roles in a common goal of rapidly delivering secure and stable software.

Process: supporting the new DevSecOps culture

Embracing a DevSecOps culture requires processes in place to ensure smooth adoption. This includes breaking down the barriers of policies and workflows coming from the top that have traditionally got in the way, and instead encouraging shared-responsibility.

When shifting to DevSecOps, the right balance between automated gating and manual gating must be found. Traditional security strategies involved setting key milestones at which security activities occurred and not allowing the process to progress past that milestone until an acceptable result was achieved. In some organizations with particularly mature models, operations implemented similar gates before software could be deployed. However, this kind of gating model creates lengthy feedback loops that slow software delivery and ultimately reinforce silo-based thinking.  Whereas the key to DevSecOps is creating faster feedback loops.

Mutual accountability is a concept that must be embraced, as a replacement to gating, and supported by subsequent process changes. Development, security, and operations personnel should be working together to ensure all the business objectives - leading to the creation of fast, secure, and stable software - are achieved. A good place for these collaborative teams to start is with threat modelling to identify the security threats, the weaknesses that allow the threats to be exploited, and then identifying compensating controls that can be implemented to mitigate threats.

Processes by which security and operational best practices are implemented throughout the delivery pipeline are crucial in establishing this collaboration and accountability.

Technology: paving a path to success

Of course, putting the processes outlined above in place requires the support of proper technologies. While people and processes work together to ensure the adoption of this new DevSecOps culture, it can fall apart if the underlying technology doesn’t accommodate the changes.

Often, when people think about DevSecOps technologies, they get caught up in the automation of delivery processes such as builds, promotions, and deployments. But automation isn’t always the correct answer. Organizations need to look at their technology and automate when necessary and capable, streamline where possible, and eliminate technology where it’s not practical or it is redundant. In some cases, where automating around the bottleneck is making it costly, it may be necessary to overhaul the process completely. It is necessary to listen to other teams in the business and offer user-proof services.

When choosing a technology platform, it’s important to select one that places the needs and requirements of developers at the centre of its solutions. Platforms with a developer-first approach are able to integrate security across the pipeline, helping multiple different stakeholders such as development, security and operations teams to get a holistic view to be able to come together and embed a mutual DevSecOps mindset.

Daniel Berman, Product Marketing Director, Snyk

Daniel Berman is Product Marketing Director at Snyk, the leader in cloud-native application security.