Shift Left: DevSecOps and the Path to Continuous Authority to Operate

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DevSecOps, containerization and cloud native security methods are here, but streamlining their use is an ongoing challenge in government.

The faster a Defense Department of Defense organization can conceive, build and provide value to warfighters, the higher the probability of rapid mission success. However, obtaining authority to operate, or ATO, for DOD IT systems is typically a long, challenging—yet critical—process to ensure warfighters’ confidence in the technologies they use. 

For many DOD IT leaders, the idea of obtaining Continuous ATO, C-ATO, inspires hope of dramatically streamlining efforts to ensure warfighters have the most advanced, secure technologies. That idea may seem out of reach, but it’s not. 

The winning formula for continuous development and security is found in leveraging what’s been done before to remove duplication and streamline processes rather than specific applications. Adopting a DevSecOps methodology, enhanced by containerization and cloud native technologies, can help DOD IT leaders safely expedite software development and deployment by automating an already familiar environment.   

Adopting these principles requires breaking the mold on some old habits. The DOD’s traditional methods for integrating security into applications under development can take a long time, even for the smallest changes to be approved. In the legacy model, a developer builds an application and then hands it off to security, which hands it off to operations, which finally deploys it in a completely different production environment. That process can take months or even years to complete. 

What’s more, there are often varying layers of underlying software between the development and production environments, so the application may not work when it’s deployed or could lack effective security. There’s also the human element, which can increase the likelihood of process inefficiency or things being missed. 

Shift Left

DevSecOps, sometimes referred to as “shifting left,” offers a powerful and proven alternative that will reorient how software is built to a consistent and expedited process, not just a waterfall of cascading steps. By moving security upstream or to the left (i.e., earlier) in the development lifecycle and automating the workflow, security is applied at every level of the process. Everyone is responsible for the security of the entire system.

Containers—self-contained apps and services that are easily deployed and updated (such as lightweight virtual machines)—offer an excellent vehicle for implementing that process. Containers keep the entire development and security stack portable, ensuring artifacts remain consistent, and simplifying application management and security independently of the supporting infrastructure.

The real security value in containerization is enabling a security model that's defined from the very beginning of the application development phase. Anything that is not policy compliant is actively prevented from progressing further down the pipeline, forcing designers to resolve problems at the cheapest and lowest risk point in the development process. 

Enforcing security policies from the very beginning is a fundamentally different way of integrating security for DOD organizations. This approach modernizes a historically lengthy and inefficient process whereby there is no visibility into security until the application is deployed. 

This could be especially useful for components that the DOD regularly needs to deploy across diverse and challenging physical environments—on the surface, in the air, on water, or even in space.

Multiple contractors are regularly involved in creating systems to run in these complex situations. Streamlining these disjointed efforts is where the real value of an automated DevSecOps process is proven. 

Security Wherever It’s Needed

Cloud native security applications, which can be implemented in secure environments like SIPRNet, further provide a robust level of automation and collaboration that isn’t possible using local development and limited server-based software delivery. Offering complete flexibility in operating environments, cloud native security protects against threats to virtual machines, containers, and serverless computing in public, private, and hybrid clouds.

Enhanced cloud native capabilities enable dynamic workloads and pay-per-use compute time in milliseconds, allowing for ongoing spending adjustments as user demand varies. 

Cloud native security also enables development in a fully air-adapted environment, which is especially important for many sensitive DOD missions. Components retain full custody of data because there is no information or telemetry sent outside of the secured network. 

Carry Security Into Production

Yet another important advantage of DevSecOps automation is forcing the security policy into deployment and production. 

All software will inevitably have some vulnerabilities. If an issue is discovered after an application moves into production, it can be quickly remediated across the entire pipeline. The entire loop can be automated so updates are consistently applied, removing considerable friction from the process of determining how to solve problems after deployment—a very important and often overlooked DevSecOps benefit. 

What Does This Mean for C-ATO?

DevSecOps, containerization, and cloud native security methods and tools are already well tested and proven in the commercial sector. DOD adoption can accelerate critical outcomes to help keep warfighters safe and enable mission success. 

By elegantly and unambiguously securing the entire application lifecycle—from design through production—shifting left and automation will give IT leaders throughout the DOD, and their commercial partners, a significant advantage in their C-ATO quest.

John Morello is vice president of product Management for Palo Alto Networks.