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Vardhan NS

last updated on May 13, 2024

Why prioritize CI/CD pipeline best practices?

CI/CD pipeline is the heartbeat of a well-oiled DevOps process. If a CI/CD pipeline breaks, then much of what engineering does comes to a stand still. Because of the CI/CD pipeline’s ability to support automation, cross-collaboration(b/w Dev, QA, Ops, and Sec teams), and prevent serious errors, a broken CI/CD pipeline can render even a high-performing engineering team toothless. 

The need for Security & 100% Compliance of CI/CD pipelines

How do CI/CD security practices contribute to DevOps culture?

The very fact that the world’s leading engineering teams at Amazon, Netflix, Airbnb deploy code thousands of times per day is a testament to how important automated delivery/ deployment is. According to some reports, engineering teams in those companies deploy code 125k times daily. So it’s fair to say that the most advanced engineering teams are over-reliant on CI/CD pipelines, albeit for all the good reasons. 

What role does automation play in enhancing CI/CD security?

Since engineering teams at big companies have a lot riding on automated delivery pipelines (a.k.a CI/CD pipelines), utmost care has to be taken to ensure that secure software development practices are in place. While the severity of compliance and policy adherence may vary depending on the organization and industry they are catering to, their very existence can neither be questioned, nor undervalued. 

Now that the need for security & compliance in software pipelines is established, without further ado let me get started with the main talking point of this blog – Security and Compliance best practices for CI/CD pipelines.

Security and Compliance best practices for CI/CD pipelines

Security and Compliance Best Practices for CI/CD Pipelines

Since this is a lengthy list, I’ve first listed down all the best practices that teams should follow for the benefit of you, the readers. And below that, I’ve expanded on each of the points, so that you can jump to the respective section based on your liking.

Security-specific Best Practices for CI/CD Pipelines

1. Implementing DevSecOps principles

     a. Shift-Left Security

     b. Collaborative approach between development, security, and operations teams

2. Code Scanning and Analysis

     a. Static Application Security Testing (SAST)

     b. Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST)

     c. Threat Modeling, Code Provenance and Software Composition Analysis

     d. Bringing together data & results from SAST, DAST, SCA, etc.

3. Container Security and Infrastructure as Code (IaC) Security

4. Secrets Management

     a. Implementing proper access controls

     b. Separation of duties to enforce permissions

Compliance-specific Best Practices for CI/CD Pipelines

1. Policy Enforcement

     a. Policy-as-Code

     b. Policy-enforcement Engine

2. Compliance Adherence 

     a. Automation of Compliance checks

     b. Implementing Compliance-as-Code

3. Auditing & Attestation

Security-specific Best Practices for CI/CD Pipelines

There are a number of CI/CD pipeline best practices which are security-related. Let me address them first and foremost.

1. Implementing DevSecOps principles

Securing your DevOps pipeline starts with implementing and/or embracing DevSecOps. While DevOps advocates for the need to bring together Development and Operations, DevSecOps advocates for the need to bring another team closer to the process i.e Security. Essentially, there are two core principles of DevSecOps: 

A. Shift-left Security

You might already be aware of the notion, Shift-left Testing. Born from the same school of thought, Shift-left Security emphasizes the need to prioritize security considerations from the early stages of software development. In failing to do so, organizations are at the risk of re-architecting design patterns/ codebase in accordance with security frameworks at the very end of the project.

At this point, I urge all readers to understand how to Shift-Left Security for 100% Compliance.

B. Improved collaboration between Dev, Sec, and Ops

Software engineering is a complex process involving multiple teams, each with different priorities. Development team, QA team, Operations team and Security teams need to come together and find cohesion to not only deliver a working software, but also to provide reliability and security of the software. 

2. Application Security Posture Management (ASPM) with Code Scanning & Analysis

Ensuring a healthy security posture of your application pre and post deployment is very critical. Code Scanning and Code Analysis are two of the most important security practices to address AppSec challenges among other practices. 

A. Static Application Security Testing (SAST)

Static Code Analysis and code reviews are a useful means to identify vulnerabilities such as code injection, insecure coding patterns, and more by scanning the codebase for security gaps. It is performed during the development phase of software by analyzing the source code, bytecode, or binary code of an application without actually executing it. There are various tools that can be used to perform SAST.

B. Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST)

Dynamic testing of applications is, however, done in runtime environments to identify vulnerabilities that might not be caught through static analysis. This involves testing the application as if it were being attacked by an actual malicious actor. Similar to SAST, there are numerous tools that can be leveraged for DAST too.

C. Threat Modeling, Code Provenance and Software Composition Analysis

Threat modeling is another process that helps identify structural vulnerabilities, inconsistencies in the codebase, and the absence of security guardrails among others to identify weaknesses and take countermeasures. Code provenance is the act of knowing where the code originated from, and the owner. Software Composition Analysis refers to the act of identifying all the open source components in your codebase to evaluate security, license compliance, and code quality. 

D. Bringing together data & results from SAST, DAST, SCA, etc.

All of these practices put together make the bulk of ASPM. However, just collecting the scan results and performing these tests in silos just to complete the checklist is merely not enough. You need to make sense of the results from the scan and analysis. Ideally, a tool like OpsMx Deploy Shield that can integrate with various AppSec tools, compare post-build and post-deploy scan results, evaluate the vulnerability score, identify provenance of the code which is susceptible to vulnerabilities/ threats, and flag production issues in real time, etc. Contact us to know more about how OpsMx can join hands with your AppSec tool and improve your security posture.

3. Container Security and Infrastructure as Code (IaC) Security

Given how sophisticated software engineering has become these days, Container Security and Infrastructure as Code (IaC) Security are critical aspects of securing modern software development and deployment practices. 

Containers have revolutionized the way applications are developed, tested, and deployed by packaging code and dependencies into isolated units called containers. However, ensuring the security of these containers is essential to prevent vulnerabilities and breaches. Activities such as Image Scanning, Image Signing and Verification, Container Runtime Security, and Orchestration Security are among the prominent activities that ensure container deployments are secure. 

IaC is the practice of defining and provisioning infrastructure using code and automation tools. Security in IaC is crucial as misconfigurations or vulnerabilities can have a significant impact on the entire infrastructure. Activities such as Secrets Management, Least Privilege, Automated Compliance Checks, Secure Deployment Pipelines, and Continuous monitoring of infrastructure configurations are a few activities that need to be exercised effectively to ensure IaC security.

4. Secrets Management

A. Implementing proper access controls

Managing Secrets – Implementing proper access controls is at the heart of security operations. Dedicated tools for managing secrets must be implemented. Such tools are HashiCorp Vault, AWS Secrets Manager, or Kubernetes Secrets, which can securely store and manage sensitive information like API keys, passwords, and certificates. 

Approval Workflows – Implementing approval workflows for critical actions, such as deploying to production or promoting changes between environments should be a mandate in large teams. Depending on the size of the team, multiple individuals or teams may be required to approve before proceeding with deployments. This concept is often called Deployment gates enforced by Automated Policy Enforcement. 

B. Separation of duties to enforce permissions

  • RBAC (Separation of duties) – Implementing RBAC within your secrets management tool can ensure that only authorized individuals and services can access and retrieve secrets. These practices help ensure that only authorized individuals or teams can perform specific actions within the CI/CD pipeline, reducing the risk of security breaches and ensuring compliance with organizational policies and regulatory requirements. 

MFA/ 2FA – An upstream best practice to implement RBAC is setting up MFA or 2FA. This should be in place especially for individuals or teams with elevated permissions, like deploying to production or modifying critical pipeline settings. 

Separation of Environments – Setting up different environments for different stages (such as development, testing, staging, production) of the CI/CD pipeline is another best practice that teams can follow. 

Compliance-specific Best Practices for CI/CD Pipelines

Security and Compliance go hand in hand. While Security is more focussed on the ‘current posture’ of the application, the focus of Compliance is about the ‘future posture’ of the application. In other words, by enforcing Compliance you can ensure that the security posture is maintained even in the future. Infact Compliance works in conjunction with Policies. Let me address these concepts as part of the other CI/CD pipeline best practices.

Compliance specific Best practices for CI CD

1. Policy Enforcement

A ‘policy’ in the context of software security refers to the defined rules and regulations specific to the organization and industry they are operating in. These rules and regulations are established based on the acceptable behavior of the application and serve as a framework for ensuring integrity and security of the application, system, and processes.

By enforcing policies for development teams to adhere to, you are eliminating any chance of malpractice, unauthorized access, and reducing the scope of human error. This is an essential best practice to secure CI/CD pipelines.

A. Policy-as-Code

Policy-as-Code (PaC) is a powerful approach that brings automation, consistency, and security to the enforcement of organizational policies. It is done by means of defining, managing, and enforcing governance rules using machine-readable code instead of manual processes or documentation.

B. Policy-enforcement Engine

In order to enforce policies, you need 1) a set of rules and 2) data upon which rules are governed/ enforced. While the PaC serves as a set of rules, data is basically the actions performed by end users which need governance. 

With the help of PaC and an enforcement layer, teams can achieve data-driven policy governance. This will ensure that the security posture of the application is never compromised.

2. Compliance Adherence

Policies and Compliances are closely related concepts in the context of security and governance. While Policies serve as a foundation by defining rules and standards, Compliance refers to the act of adhering to the established policies/ standards. The role of Policies is to set expectations, and the role of Compliance is to demonstrate adherence to these policies. 

Compliance supports organizational goals and is measured against policies. Compliance assessments evaluate whether the policies are adhered to correctly and consistently. By definition, Non-Compliance can result from policy violations and potentially lead to security breaches, regulatory penalties, and reputational damage.

A. Automation of Compliance checks

It’s common knowledge that manual tasks are error-prone. Riding on that understanding, is the need to automate compliance checks. Teams that are able to define policies and display adherence through automated checks, not only ensure security, but also show efficiency in their DevOps and CI/CD processes.

B. Implementing Compliance-as-Code

This is just an extension to Policy-as-Code. While PaC focuses on automating security and governance policy checks within code and CI/CD pipelines, Compliance-as-Code(CaC) deals with automating compliance assessments and enforcement at the infrastructure level, ensuring that the organization’s IT resources and configurations comply with external regulations, industry standards, and internal policies.

Teams that automate Compliance checks and implement Compliance-as-Code are more likely to display a healthy security posture. This is among the foremost of best practices that secure your CI/CD pipeline. 

3. Auditing & Attestation

Auditing and attestation plays a vital role in software development and deployment. Auditing helps verify the security and integrity of the system by examining code, configurations, and access controls. This helps identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses that may lead to security breaches. Organizations will thus not only reduce the likelihood of security breaches, they can also minimize the impact of incidents and prevent reputational damage.

In highly regulated industries, companies are subjected to periodic audits to validate if they are adhering to compliances and policy standards. HIPAA, HITRUST, etc., are a few of the popular security compliances that companies need to adhere to depending on the industry they are operating in. If found non-compliant, companies are at the risk of suffering heavy penalties and sometimes even losing their license to operate.

With the help of a tool like OpsMx, you can conduct frequent audits & generate Attestation reports that display the security posture with transparency and showcase adherence to compliances when regulators come knocking. This is an extension to Application Security Posture Management (ASPM) that was discussed earlier in the blog

Parting Notes

In total, these are the top Security and Compliance best practices for CI/CD pipelines in 2024. However this is an ever-evolving list and I will be re-visiting this blog and making changes as time passes. If you have any valuable additions to this list, please feel free to leave it in the comments section below or reach out to one of our CI/CD experts

Vardhan NS

Vardhan is a technologist and a marketing professional, currently working as a Sr. PMM at OpsMx. His strength lies in understanding complex technologies, and explaining them in un-complicated ways. Vardhan is a passionate Product Marketer with a keen focus on Content, helping brands Position themselves uniquely with clear messaging and competitive differentiation. Outside of work, he is an athlete that is passionate about Football, Swimming and Surfing.



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