Pentagon’s Enterprise DevSecOps Initiative Presents an Ambitious Model for the Future of Software

Three Romanian F-16s fly alongside a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, England, over Romania July 22, 2020.

Three Romanian F-16s fly alongside a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, England, over Romania July 22, 2020. Benjamin Cooper/Air Force

The Air Force’s chief software officer provided insights into the operation of Platform One, a project at the beginning of what could be a profound transformation for cybersecurity.

Nicolas Chaillan has his work cut out for him. His title alone—chief software officer for the Air Force—bears the weight of an entire concept, where the talents of specialists in development, security and operations, are fused to make and maintain more sound products faster, and his supervisors want him to produce 100,000 people from his mold within a year. 

“I was the first chief software officer. I don't think there's any others yet,” Chaillan said. “When I first started, we had dozens of teams doing all that work in disparate and uncoordinated environments.” 

Chaillan is now also co-lead for the Defense Department’s Enterprise DevSecOps initiative. He spoke with Nextgov about the effort, which got its start back in August 2018 while he was at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.

In a traditional stepped “waterfall” model of software production and use, tasks associated with security and operations—such as testing and maintenance—are at the bottom end. The concept of DevSecOps puts them on an even plane with the design and coding phases of the process. With all these intrinsically linked activities happening at the same time, security experts can play a more proactive role.

It “could represent a sea change in how we do cybersecurity,” the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Ron Ross told Nextgov. Ross, the computer scientist behind foundational NIST publications such as those containing the Risk Management Framework and Federal Information Processing standards, said NIST is in the early stages of creating a DevSecOps framework and expects to publish it in a draft special publication of guidance within the next 12 months.  

Using the framework won’t be mandatory for federal agencies or their contractors, but Ross hopes the document will help broaden awareness of the concept and encourage its adoption. 

A few weeks ago, Defense Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy officially designated the Air Force to lead the Defense DevSecOps managed service and a host of civilian federal agencies, along with private companies and DOD entities, are already participating, Chaillan said. 

The initiative provides a platform—Platform One—where scores of programs from across the ecosystem, are hosted by a centralized Air Force team within a highly automated, cloud-agnostic software “factory.” It comes with tools and talent to support baking security into software as it’s constructed and timely, continuous distribution of upgrades as they become necessary.

“My team can push a button on a cloud—Amazon, Azure, whatever—and it would set up the whole DevSecOps environment a team can then use in a matter of hours,” Chaillan said. 

Good Things Come in Small Packages

As the DOD adjusted to the pandemic, the DevSecOps initiative showed off what’s possible, spinning up a communications platform to cater for the increase in remote work within two days and deploying code and security updates with remarkable agility.

An important aspect of the service is its reliance on smaller, easily portable packages of code. These are transported in containers that include settings and tools, are ready to run on multiple operating systems and are managed by an open-source system called Kubernetes.      

“We really want to be abstracted and not locked into a company, or to a specific product,” Chaillan said. “Which is why we picked Kubernetes and containers, open-source technology that lets us run on any environment, any cloud so we're not getting locked into a provider and we can move the same lego block of software from a jet, to a cloud, to a classified cloud, to a disconnected on-premises environment at the edge. It can really be deployed pretty much anywhere. A sensor for example, could be reused across the Navy, the Air Force and the Army, without having to rebuild the software.”

Apart from the demonstrated security benefits, a significant incentive for participating in the initiative, from the beginning, has been the opportunity to bypass a government contracting process that could take more than a year to complete.

“Continuous Authority to Operate [ATO] was a big carrot for the program,” Chailllan said, “to be able to allow [the use of] software multiple times a day as needed instead of waiting 12 to 18 months.”

The acquisition model challenges a system that is sometimes criticized for skewing toward established providers and limiting the participation of startups. Platform One works on security with a small business innovation research contractor that quality controls for best practices in development and scans containers for known vulnerabilities. Going forward, they’ll be working to develop technology that can detect malware and viruses. 

The environment also includes feeds from the Pentagon’s vulnerability disclosure programs.  

“We have real-time access to all the bounty and hackathons and have essential teams that can update these lego blocks which are then spread across DOD, across teams, so that if there's a zero day or a new exploit in one of the containers, we can patch across DOD within a few hours,” Chaillan said, noting the process could otherwise sometimes take years. “We can push the containers across all classification levels so in effect that gives us the ability to fix and address issues in a matter of four hours maximum. We can really react to these kinds of events with a central team instead of having 20, 50 or 100 teams do the same thing.”

Everyone’s Invited 

Part of the price of admission to the DevSecOps environment is complete transparency and submission to verification. If an entity wants to bring software onto the factory floor, it has to pass a testing gate. And continuous operating authority means continuous monitoring. 

All logs are centralized and accessible to Platform One. Participating entities also have to provide a software bill of materials, so the Air Force team can know what’s inside the software, its source, and whether it’s dependent on third parties or open-source code, Chaillan said, noting there are scripted tests that are completely automated to check factors such as integration, for example, in addition to traditional dynamic code analysis. 

“If a bad actor is able to access one of the systems we would detect it, alert cyber teams and kill the issue,” Chaillan said. “The prime focus of the CIO is to get that visibility, continuous monitoring and zero trust, which would be a default for DevSecOps programs.”

The platform facilitates all levels of classification. Programs like the F-35, or the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center would likely need a “big bang” that creates a dedicated enclave.  

“These bigger teams often need specific tools, they need access to a classified cloud environment, so Platform One can instantiate a DevSecOps environment on demand and customize it to their needs, get the licenses they need, get the talent support they need.” The Air Force team in fact becomes a managed service provider, Chaillan said. “Instead of a program spending something like twelve and a half million and a year to build that by themselves, we can do it in a few weeks for much cheaper and benefit from the continuous ATO at the same time.”

But there’s also the factory “party bus.” Platform One also manages a multi tenant space where “everyone is sharing sort of the same environment with the same tools and we get to benefit from the continuous ATO but teams don't get to build their own tools, they just use what's there,” Chaillan said. 

The model is attractive for those who want to work with the government but don’t necessarily want to spend all the time getting through security clearances or traditional contracting protocol. The focus on open-source tools also helped with adoption. And Ellen Lord, under secretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, wants to take full advantage of that and be prepared to welcome all comers. 

Train, Train, Train, and Then Train Some More

“Ms. Lord wants us to train 100,000 people in one year, which is obviously easy, right?” Chaillan joked.

The massive, if incredulous-sounding, goal reflects the zeal behind the potential of DevSecOps to revolutionize the industry, and the huge lift it would take to scale it.

Chaillan’s training mission is crucial, especially against the backdrop of a persistent cyber workforce shortage.

“The concept of training people to get software from a large system, what used to be a monolith, down to containers that are small and reusable [requires] a big culture shift both for the technical people and for the architects, the cyber teams, the testing teams, they have to learn to code. You have to code the test in order to automate the test so there's deep training that we're doing in providing access to core providers so they can not do it in a vacuum but have access to a sandbox environment to play and learn.”

Continuous learning is critical to meeting the challenge, Chaillan said, noting the speed with which technology moves. His own team has an hour a day to just go and learn. 

“It used to be a five- to ten-year cycle and now it's every one to two years, so even what you learn at school, by the time you come out of school it's already obsolete, so that's a little scary for people,” he said.

It’s also important that the training use “self-learning capabilities with unbiased commercial content that's not pushing one product more than another,” Chaillan said. “Being open source and leading when it comes to innovation really creates a community, you have a two-way streak between the [established] companies, and startups, between industry and different agencies.”  

The pieces are falling into place for a software future where DevSecOps flourishes, but it’s going to be a while.

“We have all of the largest DOD programs now, on the business and cyber side, the weapons side, whether it's F-35, [Joint Artificial Intelligence Center], whether it's the Unified Platform, we have all the meaningful programs,” Chaillan said, but, he added, “It's going to take time for all of these to completely get to DevSecOps, probably a few years.”