Debunking the shift-left security approach in DevOps

Adam Cheriki, Co-founder & CTO, Entro
February 29, 2024

In recent years, the concept of ‘Shift-Left’ has gained substantial traction. If let’s say, you’re building yourself a brand new home, then shifting left is like inviting a locksmith to reinforce your locks during the construction of your house rather than after you’ve moved in. This approach, integrating security early in the software development cycle, promises a utopia of fortified code and impenetrable systems. However, like a complex jigsaw puzzle, the picture lacks half the pieces.

While shifting left has merits, relying solely on it is like having an advanced lock on the front door while leaving the back door wide open. This post will explore the underbelly of the widely acclaimed shift-left security approach. We’ll dissect its real-world challenges and its often-overlooked impracticalities, examining why the shift left strategy in DevOps singularly isn’t the silver bullet for keeping your secrets under lock and key.

Shift left and shift right explained

Both shift left and shift right are pivotal strategies in cybersecurity. Let’s understand them better so we have a clear idea before moving on:

Shift left

What does shift-left mean in DevOps? The shift left concept focuses on incorporating security measures and testing protocols at the outset of the software development process. This method is particularly useful in continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) environments, where rapid iterations are common. The core idea is to ‘shift’ critical tasks such as performance evaluation, quality assurance, and security checks towards the beginning of the development cycle. It usually includes the following:

  • Automating security in CI/CD pipelines: Integrating automated security checks within continuous integration and continuous delivery pipelines helps detect vulnerabilities that could expose secrets early.

  • Enhanced code reviews: Focusing on reviewing code for potential exposures of secrets like hard-coded API keys or passwords.

  • Shift left testing: Ensuring that performance testing in the development phase also includes verifying the secure handling of secrets under various load conditions.

Shift right

In contrast, shift right tests and monitors the application in production environments. This approach extends security practices beyond the pre-release stages, ensuring ongoing security and performance checks even after deployment. The key here is continuously monitoring and testing the application in real-life scenarios, identifying issues that only surface under actual usage conditions. Here are some of its key considerations:

  • Real-time monitoring of applications: Continuously monitoring applications in production to detect any unauthorized access or exposure of secrets through a secrets lifecycle management platform.

  • Production performance testing: Assessing how applications handle secrets under real-world operational conditions, ensuring their security is not compromised.

  • Feedback loops to development: Using insights gained from production to inform development practices, thereby improving the security of secrets in future releases.

Shift left in theory

In an ideal world, shifting left represents the zenith of preemptive security in software development. It mirrors the proverb’s wisdom, “prevention is better than cure.” By integrating security measures at the very start of the software development lifecycle, shifting left theoretically establishes a fortress of protection around the entire development process.

From the onset, shift left security principles dictate that every code is meticulously scanned for potential vulnerabilities that could expose secrets. Automated security tools play a major role as they continuously scrutinize code changes to ensure that even minor updates do not compromise the confidentiality of these secrets.

For example, when a developer commits a piece of code that integrates a new authentication system, shift left controls ensure that this integration does not inadvertently expose user credentials. The code is rigorously tested against potential security flaws, ensuring that every new feature upholds the sanctity of secret protection.

The shift-left security approach is a proactive defense mechanism in this theoretical model. It ensures that the protection of secrets is not a retrospective action but a preemptive strategy woven into the fabric of the development process. By the time the software reaches production, it has been fortified against many threats, significantly lowering the risk of secret exposure and data breaches.

Shift left in reality.

As discussed in the previous section, shift left security is often lauded for its proactive stance. However, the reality of its implementation often presents significant challenges and impracticalities.

Implementing a culture change

One of the primary hurdles in adopting shift left is altering the organizational culture to prioritize security. For instance, a large enterprise with a deeply ingrained focus on rapid feature deployment may struggle to integrate secrets security as a core aspect of its development process. Moreover, the transition is not just about adopting new tools or practices; it involves a fundamental shift in mindset, which can be particularly challenging in well-established organizations.

Engineers and developers, traditionally focused on functionality and performance, may view security considerations as secondary and, more often than not, as impediments to their primary objectives. This cultural inertia creates significant resistance to the shift left concept, leading to half-hearted implementations that fail to embrace the security-first mentality required for its full success. To top it all, most organizations lack the training resources required to make shift-left a reality across the organization. Without a change of culture shift-left remains a mere agenda item at meetings.

Developers and DevOps are  measured by features, not security

The key performance indicators for DevOps teams often revolve around feature delivery, uptime, and deployment frequency, with security playing a minimal role in their evaluation. This misalignment of incentives can lead to scenarios where development timelines precede security measures.

For example, in a high-pressure release cycle, a team might bypass certain security protocols to meet deadlines, inadvertently creating vulnerabilities. This conflict between development goals and security requirements is a significant barrier to the effective implementation of the shift left in DevOps, illustrating the need to reevaluate how DevOps success is measured and rewarded.

Dev timetables contradict the shift left approach

Strict development deadlines are often at odds with the principles of shift-left security, especially in the context of managing secrets. The rush to adhere to these timetables can result in inadequate attention to the secure handling of secrets, such as API keys and credentials. The need to balance rapid development with thorough security practices is a critical challenge in implementing the shift left strategy effectively, where compromises can lead to significant secrets sprawl, and, by extension, vulnerabilities.

The limitations of tools and compliance frameworks

While essential to the shift left methodology, reliance on tools and compliance frameworks is not a comprehensive solution, particularly in secrets security. The complexity and specificity of secret management tasks often limit the effectiveness of these tools. Their inability to fully address the nuances of managing sensitive information can leave gaps in security.

The benefits of shift left security

Despite its limitations, shift-left security does offer some notable advantages in certain scenarios. Its primary advantage lies in early vulnerability detection, particularly in safeguarding secrets like API keys and sensitive data. Implementing this strategy enables developers to uncover and rectify potential security flaws early on. This proactive stance contrasts with traditional methods, where issues are often only addressed after the software has been released.

While noteworthy, these benefits are part of a larger, more complex security puzzle. shift-left can contribute to a security-aware culture within development teams, fostering better coding practices. However, it’s just one piece of the comprehensive security strategy for robust protection.

So, how do we fix this problem?

The key to robust secrets security is an integrated, end-to-end security strategy. This approach intertwines security practices across all software development and deployment stages, ensuring no stage is left vulnerable. The strategy offers a continuous security blanket by merging the proactive early detection of shift-left with the continuous monitoring and adaptation of shift-right.

This comprehensive method ensures that security is not just a phase but an ongoing commitment, adaptable to emerging threats and changing environments. This holistic approach truly safeguards secrets and sensitive data throughout the software’s lifecycle.

Enter Entro

Addressing the gaps in the shift left security’s wake, Entro has become one of the leading secret management tools for security teams . With its consolidated, end-to-end offering in secrets management, it now has a strong foothold in security strategy and offers numerous nifty features such as seamless discovery and enrichment of secrets, continuous monitoring for anomalies, and misconfiguration alerts.

By enabling flexible vault integrations and offering a unified view of secrets, Entro discovers and enriches secrets across various platforms and ensures their continuous protection, effectively overcoming the shortcomings of a shift-left-focused approach. Click here to learn more about Entro.

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