Is DevOps the Holy Grail for information security?

DevOps is the computing philosophy that, through unified agile software development and business operations, you can improve your products and time to market. But does it actually improve information security?

holy grail
Credit: Alexander Boden

DevOps refers to the “integration of development, IT operations, security, and quality assurance under a single automated umbrella”. In short, it is a cross-business effort to turn software development on its head with shorter cycle times, faster testing times, more automation – and better (and more secure) code.

DevOps looks to do this by establishing a continuous loop where teams across the business work together to plan, code, build, test, deploy, operate and monitor.By doing this, software development becomes more flexible and efficient, and finished products are of better quality.

The benefits of DevOps are well-publicized, from improving the quality of software and the speed to market to reducing the governance and compliance risks.

[ ALSO ON CSO: CSO Survival Guide: Securing DevOps ]

And yet, for all of this, there remains a huge question on the role information security plays in this whole process. There has been a big push for companies to go beyond DevOps and adopt DevSecOps – the process of involving information security in all parts of application development.

This is not easy however. The tricky relationship between security and IT teams is well-documented (and reportedly sometimes even worse in organizations with DevOps teams), while it’s worth noting too that DevOps and DevSecOps have different operating models and objectives.

With DevOps, the aim is to bring the operations team into the development team so that it wasn’t just something to be added on to the end of a project. Sending a release “over the fence” to Ops is now no longer something any sensible company does.

The same applies with DevSecOps – there is a need to ensure that security is not an afterthought for an isolated department to look into, but rather integrated at all stages of a development project and beyond.

Google and Amazon lead the way

Most companies that have adopted a DevOps model have seen a number of early benefits; a recent survey found that companies that embraced a DevOps methodology increased their speed to market by 20 percent, leading to a 22 percent boost in customer relations and a 19 percent increase in revenue.

Another survey revealed that 52 percent of companies to have adopted DevOps methods increased their customer satisfaction and conversion rate, with 38 percent increasing their sales.

Google and Facebook are arguably the early pioneers of DevOps, using DevOps to innovate with their new and existing cloud products, and the same is true of Amazon with its cloud platform AWS.

Yammer cites continuous delivery as key to improving its iPhone app, while US retailer Walmart launched its cloud-based OneOps platform so that developers could develop and launch new products faster, “and more easily maintain them throughout their entire lifecycle.”

Video streaming site Netflix, meanwhile, created the Simian Army, a suite of automated tools used to stress-test Netflix's infrastructure. This allows the company to proactively identify and resolve security flaws before they become serious issues for customers.

Other firms, both big and small, have used DevOps methods to shorten software development from days to hours and it looks like there will be many more adopters later this year; Gartner predicts that a quarter of 2,000 global companies will have adopted DevOps by the end of 2016 as the concept evolves from a “niche to a mainstream strategy.”

A security win?

Despite these early examples, there has been some question as to if DevOps can improve information security, especially with infosec teams demanding complete visibility over the entire computing environment, and constricted by stringent regulation.

Most experts believe that security can benefit from DevOps, with the ‘security by design’ ethos integrated from the start and with security also always balanced with the business objectives.

In addition, by automating security and regulatory compliance tests throughout development, deployment and production cycle, it has been claimed that security can reach a level never seen before.

“DevOps is actually a boon for security folks, who can, with the right automation and operational tools, inject security earlier into the development process, and increase the security of the code that ultimately reaches production,” wrote James D. Brown, chief experience officer at JumpCloud, in an article for Wired.

Simon Chapman, director of UK-based penetration tester Ambersail, told CSO Online that it tests applications this way, saying that a DevOps approach helps his firm to detect and fix security vulnerabilities.

He says that flaws can be fixed faster than before.“Where vulnerabilities are found [fixes] are quick to be implemented. So I guess it's a net security win overall.”

No more Heartbleeds?

Andy Chakraborty, a London-based DevOps and security consultant, and the former global security manager for The Office of Tony Blair, added in an interview: “With modern DevOps there’s a much closer relationship between the people developing the applications and the people who operate the infrastructure systems the application relies on.

Devops flow chart

“This allows a much better understanding of what the application does and where its weaknesses lie, making it easier to secure. And with the proliferation of security bugs like Heartbleed and Shellshock, a good understanding of development ultimately allows operations personnel to make more informed decisions.”

“As security people, I hear many pushing back on the DevOps movement,” blogged information security consultant Jay Schulman late last year.

“I suggest the opposite. DevOps is about bringing development and infrastructure together to make the process work better. By bringing development, infrastructure and security together, DevOps can make a huge security impact on the environment. Participate in or create cookbooks for security.  Create Audit scripts to check for known security items you don’t want going into production.

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