DevOps' Inevitable Disruption of Security Strategy

Black Hat USA programming will dive into the ways DevOps-driven shifts in practices and tools are introducing both new vulnerabilities and new ways of securing enterprises.

With DevOps principles taking root and reaching greater maturity at an increasing number of enterprises today, security strategists are in for some major disruption of the status quo in the coming years. That's the message being brought forward by a number of talks at next month's Black Hat USA, which will feature discussions on the impact that DevOps-driven practices and tools will have on the security world.

"The way software is being delivered is fundamentally changing. Security, frankly, just has to catch up," says Kelly Shortridge, vice president of product strategy for Capsule8, who will be co-presenting a talk titled "Controlled Chaos: The Inevitable Marriage of DevOps & Security." "There is almost a Copernican revolution right now where the primitive models that we've held dear for decades and are the basis for a lot of security strategies no longer apply to this cloud and microservices world. So we have to rethink things in a lot of ways." 

One of the most obvious fronts needing rethinking is with containerized workloads, which are self-encapsulated instances of application components that are changing the face of IT architecture. Containers aren't explicitly a DevOps tool per se, but the DevOps philosophical push to make small, incremental changes to software through automation and microservices — breaking up large applications into smaller, reusable chunks — has been a catalyst for recent container adoption.

On the whole, enterprises are experiencing a stratospheric explosion in containers and an increasing reliance on container orchestration tools as a crucial part of the software delivery and operational toolchain. As evidenced by sessions scheduled at Black Hat, security researchers are already starting to probe the security and resilience of containers and container orchestration platforms like Kubernetes. For example, Ian Coldwater, lead platform security engineer at Heroku, and Duffy Cooley, staff cloud native architect at VMware, will present "The Path Less Traveled: Abusing Kubernetes Defaults," a talk that will explore the attack surface exposed by running a default configuration of Kubernetes — essentially exploiting the as-designed features of the platform. 

Early exploration and research such as this notwithstanding, the average security practitioner still remains largely in the dark about container architecture, its unique peccadillos, and its inherent risks, says Shortridge's colleague, Brandon Edwards, chief scientist for Capsule8.

"A lot of people sort of just group them up with [virtual machines] or similar technology, but they're not,” says Edwards, who is co-presenting his own talk, "A Compendium of Container Escapes," which will offer a primer for security professionals to get their arms around the basics of the container attack surface. "Containers have completely different security properties, so we're just going through a variety of different ways of how they can be broken and where the security properties of containers exist and where they don't."

Edwards will also bring forward some predictions about the kinds of hacks and vulnerabilities we're likely to see in the next 12 months as security researchers and attackers start truly digging into containers.

The mystery of containers for security people is a microcosm of the larger ripples caused by the disruptions wrought by rapidly changing software delivery methods. Security teams struggling to keep up are still wont to apply old models to the new technologies, which comes down to misperceptions about them, Shortridge says. For example, the false equivalency that Edwards mentioned about containers being perceived as lightweight virtual machines will throw off strategists' thinking. 

"So if you're operating off that assumption, then your threat models are going to be all wonky and wrong — particularly if you weren't mapping the workloads and understanding how different systems are working with each other,” she says, explaining that misunderstandings about new technologies also lead to a naïve belief that old technologies can be ported to these modern systems. "So they might think, 'Is there a firewall just for containers?' But that doesn't make any sense, and it's not what we actually need." 

That lack of understanding is a microcosm of the larger industry ripples caused by DevOps software delivery methods.

The good news is that for security people who can accept this is where IT is going and are willing to make the pivot to support it, it quickly becomes apparent that DevOps practitioners share many of their goals and that the new mode can open a lot of opportunities to simplify security work, Shortridge explains. This includes foundational principles like system resilience, repeatability, and traceability of processes. She says that the security triad of CIA — confidentiality, integrity, and availability — is likely to morph into what she calls the DIE triad in the modern DevOps world: distributed, immutable, and ephemeral. 

"They roughly involve the same characteristics. Distributed computing is similar to availability — you want to make sure that none of your resources are centralized," Shortridge says. "For immutable, that's like integrity. You want to make sure that data stays the same, right? You don't want tampering or modification. And then for ephemeral, you also want to try to drive the value of assets down to zero, to make persistence less valuable, which you can do with a modern infrastructure. In a lot of ways, your job as a security person becomes a lot easier under this paradigm." 

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About the Author(s)

Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.

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