Automation Critical to Securing Code in an Agile, DevOps World

The world’s biggest hack might have happened to anyone. The same software flaw hackers exploited to expose 145 million identities in the Equifax database – most likely yours included – was also embedded in thousands of other computer systems belonging to all manner of businesses and government agencies.

The software in question was a commonly used open-source piece of Java code known as Apache Struts. The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) discovered a flaw in that code and issued a warning March 8, detailing the risk posed by the flaw. Like many others, Equifax reviewed the warning and searched its systems for the affected code. Unfortunately, the Atlanta-based credit bureau failed to find it among the millions of lines of code in its systems. Hackers exploited the flaw three days later.

Open source and third-party software components like Apache Struts now make up between 80 and 90 percent of software produced today, says Derek Weeks, vice president and DevOps advocate at Sonatype. The company is a provider of security tools and manager of the world’s largest open source software collections The Central Repository. Programmers completed nearly 60 billion software downloads from the repository in 2017 alone.

“If you are a software developer in any federal agency today, you are very aware that you are using open-source and third-party [software] components in development today,” Weeks says. “The average organization is using 125,000 Java open source components – just Java alone. But organizations aren’t just developing in Java, they’re also developing in JavaScript, .Net, Python and other languages. So that number goes up by double or triple.”

Reusing software saves time and money. It’s also critical to supporting the rapid cycles favored by today’s Agile and DevOps methodologies. Yet while reuse promises time-tested code, it is not without risk: Weeks estimates one in 18 downloads from The Central Repository – 5.5 percent – contains a known vulnerability. Because it never deletes anything, the repository is a user-beware system. It’s up to software developers themselves – not the repository – to determine whether or not the software components they download are safe.

Manual Review or Automation?

Performing a manual, detailed security analysis of each open-source software component takes hours to ensure it is safe and free of vulnerabilities. That in turn, distracts from precious development time, undermining the intended efficiency of reusing code in the first place.

Tools from Sonatype, Black Duck of Burlington, Mass., and others automate most of that work. Sonatype’s Nexus Firewall for example, scans modules as they come into the development environment and stops them if they contain flaws. It also suggests alternative solutions, such as newer versions of the same components, that are safe. Development teams can employ a host of automated tools to simplify or speed other parts of the build, test and secure processes.

Some of these are commercial products, and others like the software itself, are open-source tools. For example, Jenkins is a popular open-source DevOps tool that helps developers quickly find and solve defects in their codebase. These tools focus on the reused code in a system; static analysis tools, like those from Veracode, focus on the critical custom code that glues that open-source software together into a working system.

“Automation is key to agile development,” says Matthew Zach, director of software engineering at General Dynamics Information Technology’s (GDIT) Health Solutions. “The tools now exist to automate everything: the builds, unit tests, functional testing, performance testing, penetration testing and more. Ensuring the code behind new functionality not only works, but is also secure, is critical. We need to know that the stuff we’re producing is of high quality and meets our standards, and we try to automate as much of these reviews as possible.”

But automated screening and testing is still far from universal. Some use it, others don’t. Weeks describes one large financial services firm that prided its software team’s rigorous governance process. Developers were required to ask permission from a security group before using open source components. The security team’s thorough reviews took about 12 weeks for new components and six to seven weeks for new versions of components already in use. Even so, officials estimated some 800 open source components had made it through those reviews, and were in use in their 2,000-plus deployed applications.

Then, Sonatype was invited to scan the firm’s deployed software. “We found more than 13,000 open source components were running in those 2,000 applications,” Weeks recalls. “It’s not hard to see what happened. You’ve got developers working on two-week sprints, so what do you think they’re going to do? The natural behavior is, ‘I’ve got a deadline, I have to meet it, I have to be productive.’ They can’t wait 12 weeks for another group to respond.”

Automation, he said, is the answer.

Integration and the Supply Chain

Building software today is a lot like building a car: Rather than manufacture every component, from the screws to the tires to the seat covers, manufacturers focus their efforts on the pieces that differentiate products and outsource the commodity pieces to suppliers.

Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer at Veracode, said the average software application today uses 46 ready-made components. Like Sonatype, Veracode offers a testing tool that scans components for known vulnerabilities; its test suite also includes a static analysis tool to spot problems in custom code and a dynamic analysis tool that tests software in real time.

As development cycles get shorter, the demand for automating features is increasing, Wysopal says. The five-year shift from waterfall to Agile, shortened typical development cycles from months to weeks. The advent of DevOps and continuous development accelerates that further, from weeks to days or even hours.

“We’re going through this transition ourselves. When we started Veracode 11 years ago, we were a waterfall company. We did four to 10 releases a year,” Wysopal says. “Then we went to Agile and did 12 releases a year and now we’re making the transition to DevOps, so we can deploy on a daily basis if we need or want to. What we see in most of our customers is fragmented methodologies: It might be 50 percent waterfall, 40 percent agile and 10 percent DevOps. So they want tools that can fit into that DevOps pipeline.”

A tool built for speed can support slower development cycles; the opposite, however, is not the case.

One way to enhance testing is to let developers know sooner that they may have a problem. Veracode is developing a product that will scan code as its written by running a scan every few seconds and alerting the developer as soon as a problem is spotted. This has two effects: First, to clean up problems more quickly, but second, to help train developers to avoid those problems in the first place. In that sense, it’s like spell check in a word processing program.

“It’s fundamentally changing security testing for a just-in-time programming environment,” Wysopal says.

Yet as powerful and valuable as automation is, these tools alone will not make you secure.

“Automation is extremely important,” he says. “Everyone who’s doing software should be doing automation. And then manual testing on top of that is needed for anyone who has higher security needs.” He puts the financial industry and government users into that category.

For government agencies that contract for most of their software, understanding what kinds of tools and processes their suppliers have in place to ensure software quality, is critical. That could mean hiring a third-party to do security testing on software when it’s delivered, or it could mean requiring systems integrators and development firms to demonstrate their security processes and procedures before software is accepted.

“In today’s Agile-driven environment, software vulnerability can be a major source of potential compromise to sprint cadences for some teams,” says GDIT’s Zach. “We can’t build a weeks-long manual test and evaluation cycle into Agile sprints. Automated testing is the only way we can validate the security of our code while still achieving consistent, frequent software delivery.”

According to Veracode’s State of Software Security 2017, 36 percent of the survey’s respondents do not run (or were unaware of) automated static analysis on their internally developed software. Nearly half never conduct dynamic testing in a runtime environment. Worst of all, 83 percent acknowledge releasing software before or resolving security issues.

“The bottom line is all software needs to be tested. The real question for teams is what ratio and types of testing will be automated and which will be manual,” Zach says. “By exploiting automation tools and practices in the right ways, we can deliver the best possible software, as rapidly and securely as possible, without compromising the overall mission of government agencies.”

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