DevOps Security Best Practices: Protect Your Apps from Vulnerabilities

Marcin Rybak

Nov 5, 2021 • 11 min read
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Before the advent of DevOps, testing for security was typically calendared only in the final stages of development.

This wasn’t as much of an issue until development cycles trimmed down from months to weeks or days.

In a rapid and collaborative DevOps environment, sophisticated organizations recognized that security teams must also be brought out of isolation into the already integrated development and operations process. This led to the recognition of “DevSecOps” in order to highlight another transformational shift — bringing security as part of DevOps.

DevSecOps pertains to an organizational culture, manifested into development practices and use of automation tools, wherein security is a shared responsibility and integrated into the DevOps lifecycle.

In a cloud-first environment, it might be easy to simply rely on the security features offered by cloud vendors. However, as research from Forrester has shown, 58% of businesses experienced a data breach, and 41% of those were attributed to software vulnerabilities.

Whether or not DevSecOps remains just another trendy buzzword, the success of the DevOps process has inevitably pointed out that security should be an integral part of it.

Best practices in DevSecOps

DevSecOps requires thinking about application and infrastructure security from the very beginning and throughout the life of any given system. Presented below are DevOps security best practices that your organization should consider.

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Adopt and implement a DevSecOps model

Just as the DevOps model required a cultural change from organizations, DevSecOps requires a similar shift in mindset and strategies from managers to engineers.

Businesses and institutions need to involve security professionals, whether internal or external to the organization, at the outset of any new initiative to embed information security into project plans and lay the groundwork for security automation.

Adopting and implementing a DevSecOps model places the onus on executives and managers to help engineers do their work with security in mind. This requires establishing a culture of openness between the security specialists and developers to be able to share insights and feedback with each other about security issues.

Update governance policies with security practices

Moving to a DevSecOps model requires more than a shift in mindset. To establish expectations and clarity, this shift must find itself in your organization’s governance structure and policies.

Codifying your security protocols, whether new or established, communicates to your teams how you intend to put DevSecOps into practice. It’s also a starting point for further discussions into how to improve your organization’s security practices over time.

Automate security processes

DevOps embraced automation of processes that enabled development and operation teams to work more collaboratively and seamlessly. DevSecOps similarly embraces automation of security processes for fast delivery of applications that meet client expectations.

By applying automated security controls and tests early in the development cycle, your DevSecOps teams can minimize human errors, downtime, and vulnerabilities.

Automated security tools help engineers, whether or not they have sufficient security training, to identify vulnerable code, potential threats, and other security risks in the development process and infrastructure.

Some examples of security automations include the following:

  • Introduce security scanners within containers.
  • Automate updates and patches for known security risks within the DevOps pipeline, which is intended to eliminate the need for team personnel to log into production environments.
  • Fully automate a significant proportion of security regression tests, while those that must be performed manually should be auto-assisted.
  • Use automation tools in code analysis, configuration management, secret management, vulnerability management, audit, remediation, and in other areas where automation tools are already widely available.

Conduct vulnerability assessment and management

Scanning for vulnerabilities is already a common practice in a DevOps environment. However, conducting vulnerability assessments, for the most part, are still usually limited to a few instances and not truly embedded in the DevOps lifecycle.

DevSecOps teams must scan for and remedy vulnerabilities across development, integration, and production environments. The results from penetration testing and other attack mechanisms must inform how each member of the team can address the security risks in their respective area of work.

Further, security automation tools should assist teams in running tests and monitoring for vulnerabilities, which can make integrating security into the DevOps process more seamless.

Continuous security in CI/CD

Closely related with the rise of DevOps is the CI/CD method, which refers to continuous integration, continuous delivery, and continuous deployment.

DevSecOps practitioners ensure that security protocols and tools are integrated in a CI/CD context. While there are quite a few to consider, here are some examples of security guidelines within the CI/CD pipeline:

  • Pattern changes in session management or authentication must trigger a notification to security engineers.
  • Teams must use a software version management system not just to track all changes to the source code, but also manage executable images and the tools used to create and test the software.
  • Release-to-production decisions must be based on predetermined metrics, which include security metrics.
  • Continuous deployment processes must trigger run-time security and compliance checks such as ensuring unnecessary services are disabled.

Enforce a least privilege model

The least privilege model, a critical rule of thumb in security, is the practice of never giving more privileges than required. Enforcing least privilege access rights minimize opportunities for internal or external attackers to exploit vulnerabilities.

For instance, if an engineer doesn’t require root access, then assign only regular user credentials. Further, restrict developer access to certain system containers if unnecessary to their work, while still enabling permissions necessary to code, build, test, and manage application components.

As part of your security governance, regularly monitor and audit all privileged sessions and activities to ensure these are legitimate.

Train the DevOps team on security

Whether or not your organization has dedicated security professionals that can be integrated into DevOps teams, it’s critical that you provide training and capacity building to the development and operations personnel on security practices.

Companies can organize team-wide training sessions or sponsor online courses that individual members can join in on their own time. Because security norms and best practices evolve, organizations must enable their personnel to constantly learn and integrate those learnings into organizational practices.

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DevSecOps: the Netguru way

Our DevSecOps approach is anchored on the Secure Software Development Lifecycle (SSDLC) framework. This is geared towards clients that process sensitive and high value data and require their products to be compliant with top-notch security standards and practices (e.g. OWASP, ISO, NIST, PCI-DSS, HIPAA, etc.).

Whatever business you’re in, we at Netguru have experienced security professionals that can easily integrate into your DevOps teams. Depending on the complexity of the project, our security engineers can be assigned on a part-time or full-time basis.

Our expertise, presented below, are based on a shift-left security approach, which in practice means starting the implementation of security measures from the earliest stages of designing IT systems.

Risk assessment

The practice of risk assessment is conducted as close as possible to project conception to allow for a secure-by-design quality for the project.

The risk assessment exercise involves conversations that are less technical to allow managers and executives of client organizations to take part in the process.

The intended outcome of Netguru’s risk assessment service is to produce a holistic picture of project risks, which not only involve technical risks but risks that affect the overall business.

Threat modeling

Threat modeling is a service that best suits organizations that are building or developing their products from scratch. Nevertheless, it's still highly recommended and valuable to employ threat modeling throughout the product lifecycle.

Compared with risk assessment, the main focus in threat modeling is identifying technical vulnerabilities, issues, threats, and potential attack vectors relating to the project.

In a threat modeling exercise, the security engineer takes the point of view of attackers in finding most probable threat scenarios. This is reflected in the project scope by considering the threats with use cases, test cases, and user stories.

Consulting and architecture analysis

The purpose of this service is to support design and development teams with specific regard to identifying architectural and technical solutions with security as a consideration.

This process enables security consultants or engineers to work hand in hand with project developers in building an architecture and choosing solutions that align with the project’s security parameters.

CI/CD pipeline hardening

The purpose of this service is to set the appropriate configurations of CI/CD pipelines through the selection of tools intended for early identification of security issues.

Error detection during development is recommended by global security standards such as OWASP and NIST and also by certain legal regulations such as HIPAA and PCI-DSS.

Extended security testing

Quality Assurance is a complex and dynamic process with testing as one of the key steps involved. While testing comes in many forms, a QA engineer typically focuses on functional testing, which verifies the utility of an application from the users’ point of view.

Non-functional testing, which includes security and performance tests, focuses on the general robustness and reliability of application. These are oftentimes performed by subject matter experts. For instance, organizations need to conduct regular tests on infrastructure resistance to outages, not just attacks.

In extended security testing, penetration tests are performed in every sprint and deeply integrated into the DevOps lifecycle. This degree of continuity accelerates time to market without neglecting cybersecurity.

Cloud hardening

Cloud hardening is an array of tools, techniques, and best practices to reduce and manage vulnerability of applications, infrastructure, and other cloud-based systems.

This is done by removing superfluous applications, permissions, functions, ports, and other elements unnecessary to the optimal functioning of a system.

For example, by introducing API gateways, a business reduces exposed APIs. By minimizing attack vectors and condensing a system’s attack surface, malware and exploits have fewer opportunities to gain a foothold within your cloud ecosystem.

Secure your business by design

In a study about the economic value of preventing cybersecurity breaches, the research presents that most cybersecurity budgets focus on containing attacks rather than preventing them. The study argues that companies are more effective at containment than prevention because containment after a breach is perceived to be more accountable, and that prevention is seen to be more difficult.

DevSecOps best practices are secure-by-design concepts, which in practice means security implementations begin at the earliest stages of designing IT systems. Not only is this approach about project delivery but also about achieving business objectives that matter to your organization.

While it’s never too late to start becoming more conscious and deliberate about security, implementing security best practices in systems already in production is more difficult, complex, and expensive. DevSecOps reduces the cost of implementing security controls, not to mention deterring attacks that may be costly to your entire business.

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Marcin Rybak

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