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Why "Shift Left" is Fundamental to Security

You may be looking at the title of the blog and wondering what the term "shift left" means in the context of cybersecurity. You are not alone. The term has yet to reach buzzword status among C-level executives; however, the chances are you will hear more about it more soon and you certainly must understand it. The term refers to the process of shifting control over security more to the "left" of the development process.


Let's start at the beginning. In recent years two key trends have become a source of great concern for IT security professionals. These trends are cloud and agile development paired with DevOps. Agile allows me to bring new offerings to market faster and more effectively and cloud provides me the ability to reduce my capex and increase my agility even further, right? Yes, correct, but it also results in gaping holes in your cybersecurity posture unless managed effectively. Before explaining the issue at hand, let’s provide a quick summary of what agile, DevOps and cloud are and what they do to provide context.



Agile


What Agile and Scrum have in common at a high level is that they aim to make the development process more agile and involve the business more closely into the process of defining requirements, reviewing results and adjusting where possible, allowing businesses to deliver working code and results for products and customers faster than in the past where we used waterfall or other similar methods. The fundamental change here (without going into detail) is that code is delivered usually in 2-4 week intervals (also referred to as sprints) and the focus is more on delivering working code than extensive documentation. It also means that the development team takes on a broader set of responsibilities from development through testing and deployment.



DevOps


DevOps or Development Operations is essentially what the term suggests, developers as part of a development team that handle both development and operations of the usually agile developed components, frequently using technologies as containers and serverless functions as part of public cloud services to package and push software into operation. Unfortunately in many development teams the DevOps engineers are still seen as the "poor cousins" and are frequently staffed with junior team members that lack the level of experience that is actually required, but more about that later.



Cloud


While we are all familiar with cloud services by now with public cloud services providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google GCP and Alibaba, more often than not managers don’t understand that the choice of cloud architectures but also development platforms and virtualization approaches (think VMs, Docker, Kubernetes and serverless functions) lead to increased agility but also an entire new range of complexity and potential security issues. Moreover the use of many new cloud services and technologies means that there is a clearer delineation between the development and DevOps teams and the traditional IT and security teams.


While cloud and agile are trends that are positive and can deliver substantial potential business benefits, they create substantial security challenges that, unless managed effectively, can lead to an increase in vulnerabilities and potential incidents.


One of the challenges relates to the fact that DevOps teams can spin up instances and services in the cloud at any time and the security operations teams very often find themselves in a position having to check compliance with security policies after the fact. In combination with the fact that more often than not the DevOps engineers aren’t the most senior engineers this means that they may not fully comprehend the complexity of a system or the different cloud services they are responsible for and may inadvertently open the system up to unauthorized access due to the lack of understanding or misconfigurations. In combination with the agile development approach this can lead to substantial risks. Ways to mitigate some of these risks are the use of policies and restrictions of the freedom of operation. Additional ways of mitigating the risks are the use of cloud monitoring solutions that monitor for misconfigurations, violations of best practices and possible violations of codified security policies using platforms such as Palo Alto’s Prisma Cloud or Dome 9 to name a few. What these platforms do (amongst other things) is to allow the security teams to codify the organization's security policies and actively monitor public and private environments against these policies and best practices continuously.


However, this is only half the story. The bigger challenge is that as we move to agile development, containerization and the use of serverless functions, developers and DevOps often make choices that have a fundamental impact on security without having the understanding of the impact their actions may have. A simple example is the choice of base OS image used for a container and the means by which a Docker container is built and pushed into operation. Developers may elect to use a base image based upon an older version of say CentOS which may well include known vulnerabilities but happens to include the components the developer prefers and may run it as "root" user. However, this container is likely to be more vulnerable than an image based upon a minimal image such as Alpine for example and built with only approved, required and validated components and that includes the latest security patches. Since developers focus on delivering working code, they are generally far less concerned with security and frequently unaware of the vulnerabilities they inadvertently introduce. Traditional approaches would then frequently result in the security teams getting involved once the components have been built and withholding the system being placed in operation (best case) or fighting for changes after the fact (worst case). In either case this leads to inefficiency, frustration in both the development and the security teams and most importantly potential exposure to the organization.


And this is where "shift left" comes in, moving the codified security policies (by the security) team into the development and build environments and integrating with the development environments that developers use as well as the CI/CD pipeline to enforce security policies automatically right at the source. Shifting left means ensuring developers can operate in their known environments and focus on developing code while being made aware of any decisions that would conflict with the organization's security policy right then and there. This increases efficiency and reduces frustration and conflict. It furthermore protects the organization from potential exposure and provides all teams a set of reports that span the entire pipeline from development through build to operation by integrating at every step and adhering to a single policy.


Shift left approaches are fundamental to cybersecurity and if you are using Agile/Scrum approaches and DevOps, you should ensure you provide your organization the tools to protect yourself from these possible exposures.


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