Security Experts:

Advancing DevSecOps Into the Future

If DevOps represents the union of people, process, and technology to continually provide value to customers, then DevSecOps represents the fusion of value and security provided to those same customers. The philosophy of integrating security practices within DevOps is obviously sensible (and necessary), but by attaching a different label perhaps we are likely admitting that, despite best efforts, this “fusion” is more of an emulsification.

DevSecOps incorporates discrete security elements and capabilities throughout the development process; “security as code” is the hymn recited by development and security operations teams alike. But when you look closer, the security elements of DevSecOps are discrete, like the tiny immiscible spheres of oil suspended within a tasty vinaigrette — incorporated rather than invisibly entwined within the fabric of DevOps.

Today’s DevSecOps can largely be divided into two core functions: the automated checking and gated prevention of known and potential security flaws throughout the continual integration and continual deployment (CI/CD) workflow, and the operational monitoring and response to security-imbued telemetry generated by the deployment and surrounding protection technologies.

Rightly, we cocoon the applications that flow from our CI/CD workflows with further layers of discrete security tooling to monitor, alert, and ideally protect against broad categories of threats — threats that may be more economically and reliably prevented from outside than within the workflows. Those layers of security almost always operate independently from the application they are defending. This needs to change if we’re to “level up” security and roll DevSecOps back into DevOps.

Although security operations (SecOps) teams are becoming vastly more efficient at managing and responding to the alerts generated by their perimeter, server, and behavioral defense systems, there is a need to incorporate this same telemetry, response workflows, and decision-making into both the CI/CD workflow and the application itself if businesses are to successfully battle advancing threats such as Adversarial AI, data lake tainting, and behavioral poisoning. 

Too many DevSecOps workflows depend upon humans being in them. They’re the “bump in the wire,” and when adversaries switch to newer automated or AI-enabled attack and exploitation modes, system compromise and data breaches will (repeatedly) occur before fixes can be created, defenses tweaked, and patches applied.

The future lies in moving beyond the independent operations of “secure the code” and “protect the app,” and into the realm of self-defending applications.

It sounds grandiose, but there are some core elements and opportunities to progress toward applications that can defend themselves.

• Telemetry from the security technologies that cocoon the application need to be available and consumable to the application and the CI/CD workflow.

• Applications must know when external security tools and monitors suspect or alert when attacked and be capable of responding if advantageous to do so. For example, an application may be capable of natively securely parsing a fund transfer request, but by knowing that a WAF had identified and blocked the previous 12 HTTP POST submissions due to malicious SQL injection payloads for the same session in the past 500 milliseconds, it could leverage the information in handling this 13th transfer and user session — perhaps by deceiving the attacker with a fake and evidentiary traceable response.

• Security technologies need to standardize on nomenclatures, severity, and impact for both threats and behaviors. The new generation of cloud-based SIEM, through normalization of data connectors and telemetry, is capable of providing a degree of (vendor-specific) standardization and is primed for being the source of real-time security telemetry for CI/CD and application consumption. Application development frameworks need to understand this nomenclature and, ideally, come pre-armed with libraries and functions to respond with best practices.

• Increased AI adoption and fusion within the CI/CD workflow can accelerate the pace at which workflows can respond to security telemetry. For example, a server-based security agent identifies a memory overflow and subsequent unwanted process startup, while the SIEM is able to reconstruct the session sequence to highlight the transaction string (0-day exploit). An intelligent and automated CI/CD process should be able to use that information to identify the vulnerable code and correct the logic flaw or bug, and proceed with an update to the live application with a fix — without developer involvement.

Security responsibility must, and will continue to, “shift left.” To enable that, security telemetry needs to be both accessible and incorporated into the application and the DevOps workflow, and the developers themselves must be comfortable and knowledgeable in integrating the information. Better developer tooling — such as secure coding languages and frameworks, accessible best-practice libraries and functions, and smart in-line developer guidance and correctors — will help close the gap.

Rapid advancement of AI and ML technologies and incorporation into the CI/CD workstream will be able to increase the pace of security integration and secure deployment. There is still much work to be done, and subsequently there are great opportunities for innovative companies to add significant value to the process. 

In the meantime, CISOs and DevOps leaders should press hard on technologies and processes that remove the human speed bumps from the CI/CD workflow. Adversaries are advancing at a fast pace in their development of fully automated and autonomous attack engines. Soon, defense and response will be measured in milliseconds, not in days and weeks as it is now.

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Gunter Ollmann is currently the CSO of Microsoft’s Cloud and AI Security division. He is a seasoned information security leader who has defined and trailblazed new security markets through his work with globally recognized companies, including Microsoft and IBM X-Force, and startups, including IOActive and Damballa. As a seasoned C-level executive and technologist, Mr. Ollmann has been instrumental in several dozen M&A deals (as acqui-hire, acquirer, consultant, or adviser) ranging from tens-of-millions to billion dollar transactions.