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Security as Code: Creating a New Cybersecurity Paradigm Amid Growing Cloud Use

  • Evan Morris 

As more data move to the cloud and more organizations embrace cloud computing, it is clear that there is a corresponding need to improve cybersecurity strategies. One of the improvements being considered is security-as-code (SaC), which Google has been promoting actively. Many organizations have been supportive of this relatively nascent but promising cybersecurity approach.

In a blog post in early 2022, Google Cloud VP and CISO Phil Venables identified megatrends that are driving cloud adoption and the need for enhanced security. One of these trends is the rise of software-defined infrastructure, which makes it necessary to encode security configuration as code that can be introduced during application development and deployment.

This allows organizations to analyze their security configuration and implement changes whenever necessary and redeploy apps more quickly while continuously monitoring their security configuration to ascertain that they stay in line with the organization’s security policies.

The rise of security-as-code

Security as code was introduced in 2020 as a toolset of resources designed to help secure the software development lifecycle. It has since gained some degree of traction and is now slowly being adopted as part of modern security posture. mainly because it results in analyzable security configuration with continuously verifiable controls.

SaC integrates security as a crucial part of DevOps to put up effective security controls by identifying where they are needed during the development process. It ensures cost-effective implementation of security checks, tests, and gates without delays and unnecessary changes to code and infrastructure by requiring developers to specify infrastructure platforms and configurations in the code instead of working on them after the code has already been completed.

As Google CISO Phil Venables explained in his blog post, security-as-code has the advantage of providing a security configuration that corresponds to what an organization has determined to be necessary for meeting unique security requirements. While many security breaches occur because of unexpected and unknown risks, there are those that happen because of the failure of the organization to deploy specific security controls, which they would have deployed if they carefully analyzed their needs and continuously tested their security posture effectiveness.

SaC is associated with the infrastructure-as-code strategy, which emerged out of the need to veer away from manual processes to more effectively secure software-defined networks and systems, particularly virtual machines, containers, and their associated software.

Security pundits believe that organizations will need security-as-code as they continue to shift towards cloud-native infrastructure. Conventional systems, especially those that are perimeter-based, are considered unsustainable and less effective against the rapidly evolving threats that hound software-defined cloud networks. Security-as-code is dubbed as the fuel for the future of application security.

How SaC is implemented

Security-as-code is not that difficult to implement. One basic way to do it is to set security rules, tools, policies, tests, scans, and agents within the CI/CD pipeline and the code. This entails the automatic undertaking of tests whenever a piece of code is committed. As such, security testing results are available to developers for evaluation and rectification whenever necessary.

The main goal is to continuously perform security testing while the development team is writing the code to make sure that issues are fixed and performance is optimized while the code is being prepared, not after completion. When done properly, organizations save time, effort, and resources.

Some mistakenly equate SaC to DevSecOps, but it is only a part of it—a considerable step towards the integration of security in DevOps. It is not DevSecOps instead, but it involves a number of components that align with the framework of DevSecOps. These components are access control and policy management, vulnerability scanning, and security testing.

Access control and policy management – A critical first step in SaC implementation is defining access control and policy management. Organizations need to formulate a formal governance decision-making and policy adherence system to provide an unambiguous reference for security requirements. With this, development teams can focus on key functionality as they get to offload authorization to external libraries (that comply with the established security policies).

This expedites the development process without compromising security with the establishment of a central repository for security policy and a common platform through which developers can monitor and verify authorization.

Vulnerability scanning – As the phrase suggests, this is about verifying the security of every component of an application and its deployment throughout the app’s entire life cycle. The threat intelligence used to determine vulnerabilities does not have to be developed by the organization itself. It can be based on OWASP vulnerabilities and other threat intelligence sources or cybersecurity frameworks.

Vulnerability scanning has to be an automatic and continuous process, though, for it to be sustainable and effective. The detection of cross-site scripting and SQL injection, for example, can be complex, repetitive, and tedious. SaC implementation requires automation and continuity.

Security testing – Lastly, SaC needs to have a security testing component to detect issues that may lead to problems involving the integrity of an app, its availability, and the privacy or confidentiality of the data it contains or processes. To be clear, security testing is not a redundancy of vulnerability testing. Security validation goes beyond the detection and plugging of security weaknesses that can be exploited by threat actors. It also addresses configuration errors, data insecurity, the possibility of having exposed company secrets, application bugs, and unacceptable downtime rates.

Significant changes and benefits

Security-as-code is not designed to replace the cybersecurity systems used by organizations to secure their IT assets. It focuses on application security, providing greater depth in securing apps. For one, it enables rapid and comprehensive adaptation to changes in security requirements. With security continuously given due weight throughout the development life cycle, developers attain greater security visibility and reduce the costs associated with application patching and cyber attack damages by ensuring prompt automatic security fixes.

Moreover,  SaC lays out a framework that promotes improved collaboration among security, development, and operations teams. It aligns with the “shift left” goals advocated by many cybersecurity experts. Ultimately, these result in shorter release cycles, lower costs, and seamless operations that benefit not only the organization but also its customers. Quicker product releases, security patches, and other app updates, and better overall security create better customer experiences.

Embracing SaC is also not a complex process. Organizations that prefer to avoid working on too many technicalities and doing trial-and-error runs to achieve the best configurations can turn to third-party security-as-code solutions. Leading security firms offer SaC or SaC-oriented solutions that operate seamlessly with existing developer tooling to address coding errors, configuration issues, security vulnerabilities, and compromised secrets. These solutions can comprehensively scan security issues, enable robust policy enforcement, conduct real-time verification, and present actional testing results.

In summary

Again, security-as-code is not a substitute or alternative to existing comprehensive security posture management systems. It highlights the need to bring more emphasis on security during the app development process to create palpable benefits in the security of the app and overall enterprise IT. While some may see it as an additional security burden, the advantages and benefits it creates definitely outweigh the challenge of embracing a new cybersecurity paradigm.