It’s time to really put the Sec in DevSecOps

Feb 2, 2023 · 5 min read
Francis Ofungwu GitLab profile

We all know that DevOps and security are intertwined. And a lot of lip service is paid to surface integrations between the two. But until your organization goes all-in on a DevSecOps strategy – where Sec is wholly embedded with Dev and Ops, you will miss out on the benefits a holistic approach brings.

Today, the friction between DevOps and security teams comes from objectives that, at first glance, seem diametrically opposed (spoiler alert: they aren’t). Developers want to create great products at the velocity the business requires, and security teams want to effectively manage risks using methodical frameworks that require some level of structure. Day-to-day collaboration between the two groups can be challenging because their workflows and incentives differ.

In GitLab’s 2022 Global DevSecOps Survey, we found that developers are seeing security scanning increasing across all categories (SAST, DAST, container scanning, dependency scanning, and license compliance), but this uplift is not translating into vulnerability reduction, as 56% of respondents said it was difficult to get developers to actually prioritize fixing code.

And so they stay in silos.

Separation between security and DevOps doesn’t work

We know through our experiences that security and DevOps often only come together in emergencies. When there is a high-risk incident, such as a breach, security and DevOps teams are forced together on endless incident calls that function more like a “get to know you” exercise driven by rudimentary questions: What does that app do? Why are you using that library with a vulnerability from 2010? What do you mean it’s not exploitable?

We can – and should – agree that emergencies are not the best time for this level of discovery. You wouldn’t want a firefighter asking if your building is up to code before they start putting out a fire. But due to the lack of frequent collaboration, development and security teams use incidents as the time to play catchup and really dig into the basics of the development lifecycle.

Sec is more than just a few letters between Dev and Ops

Confusion in the industry hasn’t helped. The industry has come to recognize – and in some cases, exploit – the frustration of these silos. They will plop the “Sec” in between Dev and Ops and market a laundry list of point solutions that solve only a small portion of the problem, and leave DevOps and security teams with a complex toolchain to manage and maintain. The alarming rate of cyber attacks and breaches in the headlines makes it obvious this approach is not working. So what’s the issue?

I liken where we are now to the challenges that the healthcare industry faced a decade ago in trying to convince physicians of the benefits of hand hygiene. At the time, in the U.S., healthcare-associated infections affected more than 2 million people every year, while compliance with required hygiene standards by healthcare workers was below 40%, an article from that time period states. A Los Angeles hospital, aiming to solve this problem, was requiring a 100% hygiene compliance rate among its physicians – should have been a simple task among a population that understands the poor outcomes related to noncompliant behavior, right? No. Several carrot-and-stick approaches to changing behavior of the physicians yielded mixed results.

Relying on humans to change their behavior can be fruitless, the researchers found, according to the article: “Organizations should focus instead on innovations through technology or design.” In other words, we should not rely on behavior change from individuals to drive meaningful, long-lasting transformation. We need to use technology as the invisible hand that reinforces the right behavior and enacts course correction when we deviate from expected actions.

The corollary is that in the tech industry, we have evangelized for security and DevOps to be together and have talked about why it makes sense (improved software supply chain security, management of threat vectors, and adherence to compliance requirements, for example). When we share the vision of DevSecOps there are head nods and agreements that this unification is the right thing to do for the good of the business, but when it comes down to it, the actual implementation is lacking.

What it means to be fully DevSecOps

DevSecOps has to be a practice in every sense of the word. It can’t be theory or an academic exercise. DevSecOps should be an implementation of cultural, organizational, and technical changes designed to optimize delivery and maintenance of software. Characteristics of DevSecOps will include:

For DevSecOps as a practice to work, all stakeholders involved in the design, development, and maintenance of software need to commit to transparent collaboration at scale.

What this means in action:

At GitLab, we believe we are strongly positioned to accelerate your organization’s DevSecOps transformation. Our platform helps unify DevSecOps teams and drive the cultural, process, and governance programs required to deliver value to organizations seeking a more effective and sustainable way to develop better, more secure software faster.

Cover image by Georg Bommeli on Unsplash

“DevSecOps requires more than just adding the "Sec" to DevSecOps. Here's what is necessary to truly embed security in your DevOps team and why.” – Francis Ofungwu

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