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What Is DevSecOps? How Does It Work & What Are the Benefits?

Panoptica Team
Thursday, Sep 8th, 2022

We explain what DevSecOps is, how it works, and how integrating security throughout the development process helps create more secure systems. 

What is DevSecOps?

DevSecOps stands for development, security, and operations. It’s an approach to software development that integrates security as a shared responsibility throughout the software development lifecycle.

DevSecOps is as much a cultural approach as a technological one. In addition to automating security at every phase of software development, it involves a paradigm shift in thinking that places security at the forefront of the process. A true DevSecOps culture incorporates security checkpoints and tests throughout the software delivery cycle, with predefined security policies. 

DevSecOps is supposed to operate as built-in security, and not one that functions around the edges or around the perimeter surrounding apps and data. 

Why is DevSecOps important?

As a model, DevSecOps provides accountability for the implementation of security. Essentially, this Security as Code mentality is part of the emerging “shifting left” mentality. Rather than “bolting on” security at the end of the software development lifecycle (SDLC), this mindset demands that security issues be fixed in real-time, whenever or wherever they occur in the process. 

Combined with DevOps, it is about speedy development and operations paired with top-notch security. Instead of just focusing on sprints, deliverables, and delivery timelines, DevSecOps empowers programmers to secure code as they write it. 

By integrating security into software development, DevSecOps allows companies to rapidly release and deploy software products while still ensuring they have a high standard of application security. It ultimately ensures that time-to-market and security aren’t mutually exclusive objectives. 

DevSecOps was a remedy to the friction and the resultant security gaps it created due to how development and security teams hitherto approached security. With time, it also increasingly addressed the lack of integrated security controls that could highlight vulnerabilities, eventually automating compliance tasks so the security teams can focus on what they do best. 

DevSecOps emerged from DevOps, integrating an added application security (AppSec) layer to an SDLC approach typically geared only towards rapid and frequent development cycles. 

DevOps mainstreamed an agile framework approach to software development where development teams work collaboratively with operations to design, build, test, validate, and release software products in a speedy and iterative manner. In essence, DevOps is predicated on removing the barriers between traditionally siloed development and operations teams. 

DevOps rapid implementation also has the added advantage of providing developers with continuous insight and expedient feedback loops.

To be effective, DevOps revolves around the three pillars of process, technology tools, and organizational culture. Essentially, these are the common threads that run through DevOps and DevSecOps, connecting them. 

However, it has become evident that DevOps has serious limitations. First, with the emphasis on speed and velocity of delivery, developers often become reluctant to prioritize security at the expense of meeting delivery targets. The fallout was that security was treated as a footnote —  nothing more than a little token, isolated to a specific item in the final stage of development.

But the faster code is released, the faster vulnerabilities are also introduced. It soon became obvious that embracing a high-velocity software development approach also heightened the need for security to be interwoven into the process. 

This scenario led to the evolution of DevSecOps, to ensure security is emphasized as an integral aspect of a DevOps project.

What are the phases in the DevSecOps lifecycle? What is the typical workflow?

A successful DevSecOps implementation should span the entirety of the software development lifecycle (SDLC). This is no small feat because the main characteristics of modern DevOps workflows and pipelines are their almost undifferentiated, continuous flow. Therefore, DevSecOps makes it imperative to incorporate and embed security at vital points of the continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) cycle. 

So, instead of a one-off security test at scheduled deployments or at the tail end of product development, security is integrated during planning, design, coding, QA/testing, and final release to the production environment. 

  • Plan: This is the least automated phase of the process as it mostly involves discussions, reviews, and formulation of a security strategy. It involves decisions like creating a security roadmap that preemptively determines when to do things for the most optimal benefit. For instance, running the right test at the right time, to the right depth and scope.

    In addition to creating a plan, this phase also engages in security analysis to determine the number of security controls necessary for a given application. This may involve conducting a risk/benefit analysis and determining the risk tolerance an organization can stomach.
  • Code: As the name suggests, this phase involves the writing of code or programming. The objective of this phase is to ensure developers write secure code. Therefore, it is bolstered by vital code-phase security practices such as code reviews, unit tests, static code analysis, and pre-commit hooks.
  • Build: The build process kicks in after developers have committed code into the source code repository. It is one of the most automated parts of the DevSecOps process. Automated tools are plugged into the CI/CD pipeline to execute security practices against the build artifact like static application software testing (SAST), software component analysis, and so on.

    During the build phase, third-party apps and external code dependencies are also scanned using source composition analysis (SCA) to detect if they have any security issues.
  • Test: This phase is triggered after the build artifact is deployed to a staging or test environment. Although DevSecOps tests are not limited to this phase, it is nonetheless where a comprehensive test suite is conducted.

    This type of test takes time to execute and uses tools like dynamic application security testing (DAST) tools designed to detect live application flaws. These security-focused DAST tools analyze the build artifact for common vulnerabilities such as SQL and code injection risks, buffer overflows, cross-site request forgery, cross-site scripting attacks, proper authentication and authorization mechanisms, API-related endpoints, and so on.

    These tests are often benchmarked against a list of known high-severity issues such as the OWASP Top 10.
  • Release: Because the application is invariably thoroughly tested at this point, this phase focuses on the runtime environment infrastructure. Hence, this phase revolves around configuration management issues that provide visibility into the static configuration of a dynamic infrastructure.

    These are critical because most of the aspects of a system’s configuration aren’t easily modified once deployed, with the only option of changing them being through updates to the configuration management repository.

    The release phase testing also involves interrogating user control access, secret data management, and network firewall access. They also audit access tokens and API keys to ensure limited access in the spirit of the principle of least privilege.
  • Deploy: This phase is responsible for deploying the tested artifact to production. Therefore, it is predominantly preoccupied with security areas of concern revolving around live production environments.

    As a result, it primarily delves into reviewing the differences between the production environment and previous environments, most notably testing (staging) and development environments. For instance, validating their Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Digital Rights Management (DRM) certificates.
  • Ongoing: Modern-day IT infrastructure, especially cloud-native technologies, don’t lend themselves to one-off checklists and static security policies. To secure your landscape against vulnerabilities and data breaches, security needs to be an ongoing, continuous enterprise integrated at each stage of the app and infrastructure lifecycle. 

Benefits of adopting DevSecOps

There are many benefits of adopting DevSecOps, but the primary ones are the increased speed of delivery of more secure code and products. 

Improved, Proactive Security

DevSecOps ingrains cybersecurity best practices throughout the software development and delivery cycles. By institutionalizing code review, audits, QA tests, and scanning for security issues, problems are caught, addressed, and proactively nipped in the bud as soon as they are identified. 

The totality of these efforts ensures that fixing problems are easier and less costly, further preventing additional dependencies such as technical debt. 

Moreover, it fosters a culture of collaboration and trust between developers, tech operations, and SecOps that improves cooperation. 

Fast, Cost-effective Product Delivery

Security issues can bog down developers with fixing time-consuming bugs that would have been easier to resolve if discovered earlier in the process. DevSecOps minimizes or eliminates these bottlenecks, streamlining security by making it easier to resolve. 

Building a Repeatable and Adaptive Security Process

DevSecOps develops and encourages a culture where security is applied consistently across the environment. Its ingrained automation practices also ensure the DevSecOps process is capable of changing and adapting to new requirements. 

Increased Code Coverage and Vulnerability Patching

By leveraging automation and continuously enhanced processes, DevSecOps improves overall security through increased and wider code coverage. In doing so, it manages to identify, resolve, and patch security vulnerabilities more quickly.

DevSecOps best practices

While we have presented only a couple, these are essentially broad strokes with other relative best practices subsumed into one another. 

1. Foster a pervasive security mindset in DevOps teams

For DevSecOps to flourish, a security mindset and culture need to permeate an organization, especially among the stakeholders and the DevOps team responsible for implementing it. 

For it to be accorded the importance it merits, the emphasis on security should come with the heft of upper management imprimatur. So, the culture shift ought to come from the top, with management at the forefront of promoting the goals of strategic security initiatives in DevSecOps. 

Where necessary, this should also incorporate training to strengthen the institutional knowledge of DevSecOps practices and all it entails.

2. Start early, start small

In order not to be overwhelmed with the scale and speed of changes required, it is prudent for organizations to commence with small steps at first. This ensures the organization doesn’t bite off more than it can chew, especially at the initial stages of DevSecOps implementation. 

Therefore, organizations can establish pilot teams mandated to deliver moderate security goals. Once they start showing benefits, they can be held up as a model for others to follow. 

This also applies to the tools deployed for the purpose of DevSecOps. For instance, while introducing static application security testing (SAST), it is better to turn on only one or two security checks at a time. This incremental step allows engineers to gradually get used to the concept of having security incorporated into their workflow. 

On the other hand, turning on checks for a slew of security problems could very well be overwhelming and ultimately counterproductive. For one, too many alerts and unearthed vulnerabilities at once mean development teams are suddenly inundated with an outsized number of security tickets in their queue. This would consequently make it difficult to resolve them all over a short sprint, fueling frustration and reluctance with the process. 

So, starting small with DevSecOps is the best strategy. As everyone gets comfortable with small increments of the process, the scope of implementation can be increased to full scans and tests with entire rulesets. 

This will go a long way to ingrain security in day-to-day functions that a successful DevSecOps implementation requires.

3. Automate early, and automate often

Automation is a cornerstone of DevSecOps because it helps ensure that security is baked into the SDLC process and becomes part of the workflow. In so doing, it solidifies the notion that security is an integral part of software development and not an afterthought.

With automation, it becomes easier to embed security tests and controls everywhere so security is incorporated early, often, and throughout the process.

Fortunately, businesses now have a range of automation tools that assist in security, from source-code static analysis, including unit, regression, and integration tests, all the way through post-deployment monitoring.

4. Don’t pursue perfection

Although it should be apparent and self-evident, it still deserves mentioning — don’t chase perfection and always keep in mind the DevSecOps process will come with hiccups. But if organizations resolutely stick with DevSecOps, the process will eventually mature over time. 

Likewise, don’t compromise security for speed. Speed and security aren’t mutually exclusive. Practiced judiciously, DevSecOps makes it possible to support product innovation cycles while eliminating security bottlenecks, especially manual ones, without sacrificing productivity.

As a result, don’t always expect perfection but secure your environment at the speed your business requires.  

Challenges in transitioning to a DevSecOps model and how organizations can overcome them

Transitioning to a DevSecOps model is challenging and initially shows some growing pains because it takes DevOps teams out of their comfort zone. Implementing DevSecOps is also difficult because it invariably upends the traditional notions of how, when, and where security controls should be integrated into the software.

While technology leaders understand the critical nature and importance of security, it nevertheless often cramps a development team’s style. Part of the reason is that development has an agile methodology mindset, while security doesn’t. Security is frustrating because, most often than not, it tends to lag behind. 

Automation is one way to keep security from slowing down the workflow. The challenge is creating security as a collaborative framework which essentially becomes a shared responsibility among all shareholders. 

However, the challenging transition to DevSecOps can be ameliorated by identifying all the key moments in the SDLC process where security, development, and operations intersect. Once these have been highlighted, the next step is to map these moments to ensure security is adequately integrated throughout the process. 

Another manner of transitioning to DevSecOps is through choosing the right tools that integrate security; for instance, opting for an integrated development environment (IDE) with security features. This helps integrate the work of security teams sooner rather than later, and on a more continuous basis. Embedded automation in the form of dynamic application security testing (DAST), which searches for vulnerabilities in real-time, as the application runs, is also immensely useful.

Finally, there’s also the tried and true practice of training and ongoing improvements for DevOps employees. 

Learn how Panoptica can bolster your DevSecOps practices

Integrating security and DevSecOps into the software development cycle doesn’t only make products more secure, it also provides them with a distinct competitive advantage. 

Panoptica is a partner that understands DevSecOps security challenges at a fundamental level. But what’s more, Panoptica is capable of providing maximum security value, with minimal effort.

So, try our demo today to learn what we have to offer.