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Is DevOps good or bad for security?

Mary Branscombe | March 11, 2016
Does DevOps give you better security through agility or make development and deployment too fast to secure?

Realistically, Azure CTO Mark Russinovich suggests a combination of education to teach best practices and static analysis tools to enforce them. “As much as possible, it needs to be built into the CI/CD [process] so developers don't have to opt in to it, it just happens,” says Russinovich. “You can tell them all day long ‘don't check secrets into code’ but somebody is going to do it, so what you need to do is let them know right then; don't catch it down stream, catch it right when they check it in so that they know they can't do that.”

But that enforcement has to be part an overall DevOps culture, Russinovich says. “What we believe is developers are actually mostly well intentioned. They might forget, there might be someone who hasn't taken training, hasn't taken it in a while, it slips their mind and the gates are just to catch that, because it's too much of a risk not to have them.”

The way the Visual Studio team handles credentials might be a good model. “We run Visual Studio cloud services; we have well over a thousand secrets in there, constantly rotated,” Guckenheimer says. “They’re well rotated and developers do not have access to any of the secrets for production, they're on a separate domain. We practice Just Enough Admin. So were you to somehow get access to the account of the director of engineering – through some back door or social engineering, or brute force it or steal his badge – it wouldn't do you a lot of good, in terms of hacking to get to the production service, because the secrets would be rotated. He would not have admin privileges, because those get enabled on a ‘just enough,’ time-limited expiration basis.”

At best, Russinovich claims, “you might get access to a little bit of source code he could see from his repository – and it would probably be pretty obvious to someone that his account was compromised, and we would shut that off.”

Beyond protecting credentials, DevOps gives you an opportunity to monitor not just the code your developers are writing but third-party code you’re relying on; Forrester’s Bittner suggests viewing that as part of your supply chain management and bill of materials. Monitoring the binary artifacts and components you use, with services like Sonatype and Artifactory, is a relatively novel idea but Guckenheimer predicts it will become common practice, in light of issues like Heartbleed, Poodle and Shellshock.

Shift security left

A more fundamental problem is the common disconnect between DevOps and security.

Getting that kind of visibility about problems and vulnerabilities is part of the way DevOps can help you “shift left” on security, by catching flaws earlier in the development cycle – as well as spotting vulnerabilities in configuration before you deploy to a live system. The potential for security problems and improvements applies as much to infrastructure and operations as to developers, points out Forrester analyst Amy DeMartine, noting that 47 percent of web applications servers have vulnerabilities because they’re misconfigured.

 

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