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The Ins and Outs of Secure Infrastructure as Code

The move to IaC has its challenges but done right can fundamentally improve an organization's overall security posture.

Infrastructure as code (IaC) has become a core part of many organizations' IT practices, with adoption of technologies like HashiCorp's Terraform and AWS CloudFormation increasing rapidly. The move to IaC sees companies moving away from either manually configuring servers or using imperative scripting languages to automate those changes and toward a model in which declarative code is used to outline a resource's preferred final state.

As with any change in approach to IT, there are security considerations to understand. The move to IaC presents some risks along with opportunities to improve the way companies secure their environments. Given IaC's key role in configuring the security parameters of an organization's systems and the speed at which a flawed template could be rolled out across a large number of systems, ensuring that good security practices are adhered to is vital to making the best use of this technology.

IaC Security Risks and Opportunities
With the move to IaC, there are new security risks to consider. The first is secrets management. When creating and managing resources, credentials will often be needed to authenticate to remote systems; when IaC code is written to automate these tasks, there is a risk that credentials or API keys may be hard-coded into the code. Care should be taken to ensure that proper secrets management processes are followed to avoid this. Secrets should be held in a secure location, such as a cloud key management service (KMS), and retrieved on demand by scripts as they run.

A second risk is that misconfigurations may creep into the IaC templates — for example, if code is copy/pasted in from an external source — and then propagate throughout an environment quickly as the IaC is used. Avoiding this risk requires both automated and manual review, as with any other source code.

The opportunity inherent in moving to IaC-driving environments is that once all of your infrastructure is defined in code, it's possible to apply common automated linters and review tools to it to ensure that good practices are followed. Tooling can draw from common libraries of good practice and be supplemented with custom rules that apply organization-specific practices.

Additionally, with an IaC-based approach, all configurations should be stored in version- controlled source code repositories. This provides improved tracking of changes so that companies can track modifications over time and also ensure appropriate access control and that auditing is in place.

Lastly, IaC-based deployment means that test environments should be able to effectively mirror production, meaning that security testing can be safely conducted with higher confidence that any results will be meaningful in production.

IaC Technology Stacks
There are a variety of options for IaC. Typically, large organizations will use many of these at the same time, as different tools have different strengths and weaknesses.

Terraform from HashiCorp is one of the most widely used IaC toolsets. It has the advantage of being open source and not tied to any one cloud platform or infrastructure provider, meaning that it works across a range of environments.

Unsurprisingly, the major cloud service providers also have IaC toolsets that focus on their clouds. Amazon's CloudFormation, Microsoft's ARM and Bicep, and Google's Cloud Deployment Manager all provide a means for users of that company's cloud to take advantage of the IaC paradigm.

Another popular option for cloud-native IaC is Pulumi, which allows developers to use programming languages they already know (e.g., JavaScript or Golang) to write their IaC templates.

IaC Review Tools
There are a number of open source tools that can help with the process of security reviews of IaC code. These tools take a similar approach in providing a rule set of common security misconfigurations for a given set of IaC languages. In addition to the main IaC format, some of these tools will review other formats, like Kubernetes manifests and Dockerfiles. Some of the commonly used tools in this arena include the following:

  • Trivy is a vulnerability and misconfiguration scanner that includes rules from the tfsec and cfsec projects covering Terraform and CloudFormation, as well as a set of rules for Kubernetes and Docker. It can be easily integrated into a CI/CD pipeline and run by developers as part of the coding environment.
  • Checkov is a tool written in Python that covers a wide range of IAC languages, including Terraform, CloudFormation, Azure Bicep and ARM, and Kubernetes manifests. It also helps with the challenge of ensuring that IaC files don't hard-code secrets by scanning for instances where this can occur.
  • Terrascan is another popular option for IaC scanning. Despite the name, it supports a range of IaC formats in the same way as Trivy and Checkov. Similarly to Trivy, Terrascan is written in Golang and can be integrated into CI/CD pipelines and run as a standalone program.

Smoothing the Security Path
The move to IaC is well underway at a variety of organizations. While it does bring challenges, the process — if well handled — can fundamentally improve organizations' overall security posture by allowing all of their system configurations to be held in version-controlled source code repositories and regularly checked for misconfigurations.

Given the power of IaC, it is vital that its adoption be accompanied by strong security practices, with scanning and validation key to those processes. By using open source review tools like the ones mentioned above, companies can help to smooth their path in adopting this technology.