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The Rocky Road To More Secure Code

Secure application development initiatives are all the rage now, but will developers get 'religion'?

Homeland Security's Build Security In, Microsoft's Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC), BSIMM, and now OpenSAMM: Secure application development programs are spreading amid calls for more secure code.

The practice of writing applications from the ground up with security in mind remains in its infancy, even with software giant Microsoft leading the charge by sharing its internal Software Development Lifecycle framework in the form of free models and tools for third-party application developers and customers in the spirit of promoting more secure software. Now financial services firms are comparing notes and sharing their secure coding strategies and experiences in the new Building Security In Maturity Model (BSIMM) program spearheaded by Cigital and Fortify Software.

But in a recession fraught with shrinking budgets, it's unclear whether companies can afford to invest in secure development initiatives. In an as-yet unpublished survey by Forrester Research and Veracode, 45 percent of organizations said that application security is a significant part of their overall security strategy, but that they will likely be scaling back those initiatives in their next budget cycle. Around 18 percent of these organizations said their funding for app security will remain intact.

Funding is just one of the wild cards. Retooling application development also often requires a big cultural shift. While efforts like BSIMM and OpenSAMM have raised the profile of secure code-writing, security experts say, widespread deployment of such efforts within enterprises won't be easy.

"It's a good thing for the marketplace, this heightened security awareness [in application development]. But how do you implement it? It's like the early days of network vulnerability scanning -- there's so much output that you need a security expert to implement it," says Matt Moynahan, CEO of Veracode. "It's a difficult problem to solve."

BSIMM provides benchmarks for establishing an organizationwide software security program, based on real-world security software initiatives at the likes of financial firms Wells Fargo and Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. (DTCC), as well as Adobe, EMC, Google, Microsoft, and Qualcomm, and input from Cigital and Fortify. Jim Routh, CISO for DTCC, says his firm's internal secure development initiative saves the firm money labor and other costs. "This savings is reallocated to higher-value activities," Routh says. "Our controls identify defects or vulnerabilities early in the [development] life cycle."

But Veracode's Moynahan, whose company provides application security testing services, says BSIMM alone isn't enough. "What needs to happen is that appsec secure coding has to find a way into the mass market. The recommendations are a good set of guiding principles," he says. But for organizations with no knowledge of security, limited funds, or a small start-up, will they really go implement these best practices?

Another similar initiative, OpenSAMM (Software Assurance Maturity Model) launched last week, boasts an open-source model aimed at becoming an industry standard for secure software development. Led by OWASP member Pravir Chandra, OpenSAMM was initially funded by Fortify, which later helped develop BSIMM.

These models for building a secure app program, as well as DHS's Build Security In and others, also serve as a reality check that developing safer software takes more than scanning tools and penetration tests. "I think we are coming to the realization that application security requires a significant investment in all phases of the development life cycle, and while many organizations have been hoping that there was some 'silver bullet' for this problem, the publication of these maturity models show that it takes much more commitment," says Cory Scott, vice president of technical security assessment for ABN AMRO Bank.

NEXT: Off to a "good start" Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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