Blog Insights Defending the CI/CD pipeline
Published on: November 19, 2019
5 min read

Defending the CI/CD pipeline

Speed to launch often comes at the cost of security – but it doesn’t have to. Here are four ways to achieve both by using a CI/CD pipeline


CI/CD is a way to release software as quickly as possible, which, unfortunately, often comes at the expense of security. Synopsys and 451 Research found the most significant application security challenges in CI/CD workflows include a lack of automated, integrated security testing tools, inconsistent methods, slowed workflows, and too many false positives.

There’s also the challenge of securing the pipeline itself. Traditional and manual security practices can’t scale to the level of CI/CD – the resulting delivery pipelines expand a company’s attack surface by a significant measure. The pipeline represents an end-to-end lifecycle for your software which makes it a prime target for hackers. It's clear CI/CD security can’t be an afterthought. DevOps teams must bring security issues to the forefront of their considerations throughout the SDLC.

Security risks in enterprise CI/CD

CI/CD significantly broadens your attack surface with a lengthy list of components – repositories, servers, containers, and for those who don’t use GitLab, a wide array of tools. A large number of moving pieces presents a tempting ROI for hackers – one compromised segment of the ecosystem could open up the entire infrastructure for exploitation. As tech journalist Twain Taylor explains, securing the CI/CD pipeline is not a straightforward process. Teams need to study the pipeline, understand what information the pipeline ingests, uncover any major vulnerabilities and find ways to eliminate those risks.

Also, tools that lack transparency, require frequent switching between platforms, and inhibit the overall workflow are less likely to be adopted – and more likely to be worked around. Workarounds can create friction in the pipeline which can mean inconsistent testing and remediation, all of which can allow more vulnerabilities to make their way through to production and launch.

Defending against CI/CD pipeline risks

Secure CI/CD can be achieved through DevSecOps but you’ll need a mature CI/CD solution to get you there. In addition to the stability of the solution, your lifecycle ecosystem must be well-maintained and easily monitored for suspicious activity. Four of the most important aspects of a secure CI/CD pipeline are automation, access management, positive user experience, and transparency.


Automation, at the very least, should allow you to bring your security practices (especially testing) up to the speed and scale of CI/CD. The value of automation magnifies when processes are standardized across teams and organizations. By introducing repeatability to your projects, you’re also creating expected functionality and operations within your pipeline. When there are behaviors or activities that don’t align to the expected, a red flag will be triggered alerting developers to potential threats.

Access management

Access rights should be considered for both human-to-tool and tool-to-tool interactions. Tripwire recommends requiring authentication for anyone to push changes to the pipeline, implementing login tracking, and confirming that builds reside on secure servers.

Communication between tools and components should be carefully managed to ensure that access is only granted on an as-needed basis. The New Stack's Twain also notes it’s important to consider what secrets are contained in pipeline scripts. He recommends removing any keys, credentials, and secrets from scripts and protecting them with trusted secrets managers. He also suggests implementing access control across your entire toolchain to revoke anything anonymous or shared, and to regularly audit the controls across the ecosystem.

User experience

Seamless integration between tools will make a night-and-day difference in securing your CI/CD pipeline (alternatively, you could also use [a single tool for the entire lifecycle]/handbook/product/single-application/)). Even though security is gaining traction in the minds of non-security professionals, it still remains a challenge for many development teams. Provide developers with tools and practices that are standard across the organization, and reduce friction between tools as much as possible.

With lower barriers to adoption, your team will be less likely to create workarounds that could jeopardize your business or customers. Providing users with immediate feedback on the security of their code will enable them to remediate on the spot and serve an educational purpose, showing developers what to watch out for when writing code.


It's vital to have a view into what happens throughout the CI/CD pipeline. Maintain a single source of truth that logs every change – as well as its origin – and include functionality that allows sign-off for any high-stakes updates. Transparency also builds accountability among team members, reenforcing the idea that everyone is responsible for security. Lastly, transparency is crucial to your team communication strategy. Methodologies and knowledge should be communicated openly and thoroughly, so that everyone on the team understands how to apply best practices and what the intended outcomes are.

Speed and security: No longer a paradox

Each of the above steps will help your security efforts shift left in the SDLC. Moving it all earlier in the process will enable you to release secure, quality software at the speed of the business. This can only happen if there is true collaboration between development, operations, and security. Set policies and standard practices, understand respective goals, and foster a culture of responsibility for the software as a whole – and not just one facet of its creation or performance.

The security benefits of a single CI/CD tool for the entire lifecycle

It’s extremely important to use established tools that have been thoroughly vetted by both your internal teams and the market at large. That being said, finding the best-in-class tools for every phase of the lifecycle and then successfully (and securely) stringing them together can be a nightmare and result in untold technical debt. A single CI/CD tool relieves much of that burden, by eliminating unnecessary platform switching and enabling high transparency throughout the pipeline. With GitLab in particular, security checks are embedded within the development workflow, which both reduces friction for developers and provides a single source of truth for the entire pipeline.

Regardless of your tool (or tools) of choice, it’s critical that you and your team prioritize security in all aspects of work.

Cover image by Boban Simonovski on Unsplash

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