What is Shift-Left Security?

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A 2020 report by ESG about Modern Application Development Security revealed some startling results. Up to 48% of developers in the survey admitted pushing vulnerable code into production on a regular basis. In addition, 66% of developers said their application security tools covered less than 75% of their codebase.

These stats and others reveal the fact that security challenges in software development are persistent and often difficult to overcome. 

The shift-left security approach is one way to address these challenges in the software development pipeline.

This guide shift-left security, benefits and challenges, as well as some of the best tools to implement it. 

Defining shift-left security

The term «shift left» comes from the waterfall or sequential software development process, which is typically represented as a line from left to right. It flows from system design to implementation, software testing, and deployment. In this workflow, security usually falls under the testing and deployment phases, i.e., on the right end of the line. 

Shifting left means moving security to the first stages of development to address software vulnerabilities in the code-building phase. We can classify it under the larger SecDevOps concept, which emphasizes the incorporation and prioritization of security into the software development life cycle.

Shift-left security cannot be attributed to any organization or individual. However, the concept gained recognition in the early 2010s as the evolving cybersecurity landscape demanded a new DevOps approach.

The key aspects of shift-left security include:

  • Integrating security guidelines and best practices at the initial coding stages
  • Automating security testing to detect vulnerabilities as code is written
  • Automating security incident responses in real-time
  • Collaborating between development and security teams to create effective workflows
  • Stakeholder training

In the traditional software development pipeline, developers often rush through security assessments at the last minute. But the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) warns against applying security measures too late or as an afterthought.

Integrating security early on and throughout the development process is the better approach. It eliminates misconfigurations early enough, safeguarding applications from threats upon release rather than firefighting the damage. 

Benefits of shift-left security for businesses

Shift-left security is mainly driven by the increased number and sophistication of cyber threats facing organizations today. 

According to Statista, there were nearly 16,000 cybercrime incidents detected across the globe between November 2021 and October 2022.

Also read: The Latest Statistics on Cyber Crime and Cybersecurity

These involved large and small businesses, as well as organizations in the public sector. Shift-left security can offer proactive measures to mitigate cyber threats in the following ways:

1. Shift-left security enables the creation of higher-quality applications 

When security is at the forefront of development, applications have fewer critical vulnerabilities and perform better overall.

Developers detect bugs, defects, and outdated components early, resulting in cleaner code that's easier to maintain. This improves application speed and customer satisfaction.

2. Shift-left security saves costs

The Systems Science Institute at IBM estimates that fixing an application's vulnerabilities after release can cost up to five times more than fixing them during the design phase.

It costs even more (up to 100x) to fix a vulnerability during the maintenance phase. These costs range from extended outsourced team contracts to downtime that leads to lost revenue. Shifting security left can avoid these losses and save money in the long run.

3. Shift-left security reduces risk

In DevOps terms, a vulnerability becomes a risk if a threat exploits it. According to Crowdstrike, 37% of cyber threats exploit known vulnerabilities in internally developed cloud-native applications.

This means that businesses should empower their in-house DevOps teams to shift left and eliminate application vulnerabilities as early as possible. Otherwise, you risk exposing customer information, intellectual property, and other sensitive data to hackers.

4. Shift-left security accelerates time-to-market 

With a shift-left approach, businesses benefit from faster software delivery since security testing happens early in the pipeline.

SecDevOps teams focus on continuous feedback, automation, and rapid patch rollouts between iterations. 

This creates a more secure codebase that minimizes last-minute fixes and schedule delays, leading to on-time software releases. 

5. Shift-left security aligns with agile practices

As development cycles get faster with agile methodology, security teams can shift left to keep up with the continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) process

Shift-left security ensures that collaboration begins early, communication becomes consistent, and security testing is automated. This way, your organization can have robust applications delivered well within production timelines and budgets. 

Challenges of shift-left security

While great, shifting left is no easy task. DevOps and security teams often butt heads over aspects such as deployment pace, compliance requirements, and limited resources. 

Here are the main challenges of shift-left security that should always be addressed: 

1. Prioritizing speed over security

Agile development teams that work in sprints may find it difficult to integrate security seamlessly into their workflows. 

Shifting left can potentially slow down development because of testing and patching, even with automated tools. If you add the pressure of getting to market and making a profit, organizations may opt to develop and launch applications first and fix security issues later.

You can overcome this challenge by creating a shift-left security roadmap that includes: 

2. Finding the appropriate tools for seamless integration 

There are two main categories of shift-left tools:

  • Security scanning tools that integrate vulnerability checks into DevOps processes 
  • Runtime tools that secure an application during development and release.

Knowing which tools to use at which stage is challenging for both DevOps and security teams. These integrations can add complexity to coding because of notifications, reports, updates, and patches. Organizations often require additional training for teams to enable smooth execution.

3. Training developers about security awareness

There's a significant shortage of software developers with cybersecurity expertise, with an estimated skills gap of about three million people.

Another report indicates that this talent gap will keep growing unless organizations invest in training their developers about cybersecurity. 

When shifting left, one of the initiatives you can take to address this challenge is to partner with schools and institutions to nurture talent. It’s also important to dedicate company resources to building a security-first mindset.

For overall security awareness in the organization, please check the importance of security awareness training.

Also read:

4. Managing organizational culture shift

Shifting left is a significant cultural change for companies that thrive on agile DevOps. Coding processes and workflows must change to accommodate security, as must team attitudes when collaborating on applications. 

Additionally, shift-left initiatives need buy-in from all stakeholders, especially regarding roles, standards, and expectations. This culture shift takes time and resources to balance between development speed and security. 

Main types of shift-left security technologies 

Various factors determine an organization's choice of shift-left security technology or tools, including: 

  • Compliance requirements: Choose shift-left tools that deliver industry-specific security controls, compliance reports, and recommendations.
  • Desired features and capabilities: Choose tools with user-friendly features, useful tutorials, and documentation to guide DevOps teams.
  • Vendor reputation: The best shift-left security vendors actively maintain their tools and offer continuous support.  
  • Existing development frameworks: Shift-left tools should integrate seamlessly with the CI/CD platforms currently used by DevOps teams.  
  • Cost of ownership: Consider how much shift-left tools cost over the implementation lifespan, including licenses or subscription fees, additional infrastructure, training, customization, and maintenance.

The following are the main types of shift-left security technology to consider, as recommended:

1. Static application security testing (SAST)

Example: Checkmarx SAST 

A Static Application Security Testing (SAST) tool looks at an application's source code, design documents, and databases

In shift-left security, SAST is performed at the start of the development pipeline to spot coding errors and potential vulnerabilities. SAST tools also integrate relatively easily and scan large codebases. 

They also align with security compliance requirements for software quality assurance. However, their accuracy depends on their underlying algorithms. Developers using SAST tools should look out for false positives or false negatives. They should also support their security assessments with other manual and automated techniques.

2. Dynamic application security testing (DAST)

Example: Invicti DAST

A Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) tool analyzes an application's front end after deployment. It essentially targets an application like a hacker would, recording the resulting responses.

In shift-left security, DAST is performed before the application is released to the public. It catches vulnerabilities before they can hurt an organization, e.g., through a data breach. The DAST attack simulations generate comprehensive reports and recommendations for developers to implement during the CI/CD lifecycle. 

DAST is usually done through a combination of manual and automated verifications, on demand or on schedule.

Note: SAST is called «white box testing» or «structural testing» because developers apply their expertise to examine the internal workings of an application. DAST is called «gray box testing» because a developer examines the application from an external standpoint, using their expertise to identify how it behaves and responds to attacks. «Black box testing» is performed by developers who have no knowledge of or access to the application's source code or other internal information. All three approaches are essential for shift-left security.

3. Web Application Firewalls (WAF)

Example: Qualys Web Application Scanning (WAS) 

A Web Application Firewall (WAF) is a barrier between a web application and external networks, both for incoming and outgoing traffic. It identifies and prevents the most common attacks, such as:

  • SQL injections: malicious queries targeting vulnerable databases
  • Malicious payloads: malware, viruses, trojans, spyware, or ransomware
  • DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service): flooding the network with traffic to slow down or crash an application
  • Brute force attacks: repeatedly trying login combinations to access vulnerable user accounts, network devices, or other web services
  • Session hijacking: malicious interception between a user and the server to access website cookies that store credentials or sensitive data
  • Zero-day exploits: unknown vulnerabilities that developers haven't detected or patched yet because of poor maintenance and security.

WAF tools reduce the risk of data breaches from known and unknown attacks. For more comprehensive application-layer security, combine WAF with other forms of testing to keep up with sophisticated, automated attacks.

4. Container scans

Example: Synk Container 

A container scan analyzes all standalone packages that carry an application's code, libraries, and tools needed to run it. Containers are particularly vulnerable because of misconfigurations, limited visibility into their components, as well as outdated images and libraries.

Hackers can exploit containers by injecting malicious code or tampering with vulnerable or insecure images. Container scanning in shift-left security assesses an application's containers before deployment. It improves security for developers working with containerization tools like Kubernetes, Docker, and OpenShift.

Also Read:

6. Dependency scans

Example: Sonatype Lifecycle 

A dependency scan evaluates the security of all components in an application that rely on each other to function. Dependencies take different forms, such as networking libraries, user modules, or build tools. 

They can be vulnerable to attacks if they're out of date, have indirect connections to each other, or are linked to third-party components. Running dependency scans in shift-left security enables developers to identify, monitor, update, and patch databases and frameworks along the CI/CD pipeline. It also enables them to reduce dependencies, therefore creating a smaller attack surface and eliminating complexities. 

7. Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP)

Example: tCell by Rapid7

A Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) tool detects and prevents security threats when an application is actively running. It offers real-time monitoring and analysis of an application's behavior as end users interact with it, including those with malicious intentions. 

Instead of implementing RASP technology at the final stages of development, shifting it left offers more proactive threat protection long before releasing the application. RASP tools are particularly useful for detecting security misconfigurations, authentication issues, data leaks, and privacy violations in a runtime environment. 

5. Compliance scans 

Compliance scanning in shift-left security refers to incorporating compliance checks as early as possible during software development. While the specific compliance requirements vary by industry, the most common include: 

  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)
  • Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP)
  • ISO 27001 for Information Security Management Systems (ISMS)

Neglecting compliance scans not only increases security vulnerabilities but also places the organization at risk of hefty legal and financial penalties. Non-compliance also harms a company's reputation. Shifting left ensures your application's compliance is airtight, always in alignment with relevant regulations and standards.

Overall, shift-left security minimizes the risk of flawed software!

Shift-left security puts security at the forefront of application development to detect and resolve vulnerabilities from end to end. It minimizes the risk of releasing flawed software that hackers may take advantage of, putting a company's data, reputation, and finances at risk. This proactive approach can also lead to significant cost savings by eliminating last-minute fixes.

DevOps and security teams that integrate shift-left security practices are able to deliver high-quality applications and respond faster to cybersecurity threats, which are inevitable and rapidly evolving. Please check the latest cyber security stats.

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