Security and the Rise (and Fall?) of DevOps

As I’ve been involved with DevOps and its approach of blending development and operations staff together to create better products, I’ve started to see similar trends develop in the security space. I think there’s some informative parallels where both can learn from each other and perhaps avoid some pitfalls.

Here’s a recent article entitled “Agile: Most security guys are useless” that states the problem succinctly. In successful and agile orgs, the predominant mindset is that if you’re not touching the product, you are semi-useless overhead. And there’s some truth to that. When people are segregated into other “service” orgs – like operations or security – the us vs. them mindset predominates and strangles innovation in its crib.

The main initial drive of agile was to break down that wall between the devs and the “business”, but walls remain that need similar breaking down. With DevOps, operations organizations faced with this same problem are innovating new approaches; a collaborative approach with developers and operations staff working together on the product as part of the same team. It’s working great for those who are trying it, from the big Web shops like Facebook to the enterprise guys like us here at NI. The movement is gathering steam and it seems clear to those of us doing it this way that it’s going to be a successful and disruptive pattern for adopters.

But let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much just yet. We still have a lot of opportunity to screw it up. Let’s review an example from another area.

In the security world, there is a whole organization, OWASP (the Open Web Application Security Project) whose goal is to promote and enable application security. Security people and developers, working together!  Dev+Sec already exists! Or so the plan was.

However, recently there have been some “shots across the bow” in the OWASP community.  Read Security People vs Developers and especially OWASP: Has It Reached A Tipping Point? The latter is by Mark Curphey, who started OWASP. He basically says OWASP is becoming irrelevant because it’s leaving developers behind. It’s becoming about “security professionals” selling tools and there’s few developers to be found in the community any more.

And this is absolutely true.  We host the Austin OWASP chapter here at NI’s Austin campus, and two of the officers are NI employees. We make sure and invite NI developers to come to OWASP. Few do, at least not after the first couple times.  I asked some of the devs on our team why not, and here’s some answers I got.

  • I want to leave sessions by saying, “I need to think about this the next time I code”. I leave sessions by saying, “that was cool, I can talk about this at a happy hour”. If I could do the former, I’d probably attend most/all the sessions.
  • A lot of the sessions don’t seem business focused and it is hard to relate. Demos are nicer; but a lot of times they are so specific (for example: specific OS + specific Java Version + specific javascript library = hackable) that it’s not actionable.
  • “Security people” think “developers” don’t know what they are doing and don’t care about security. Which to developers is offensive. We like to write secure applications; sometimes we just find the bugs too late….
  • I’ve gone to, I think, 4 OWASP meetings.  Of those, I probably would only have recommended one of them to others – Michael Howard’s.  I think it helped that he was a well-known speaker and seemed to have a developer focus. So, well-known speakers, with a compelling and relevant subject..  Even then, the time has to be weighed against other priorities.  For example, today’s meeting sounds interesting, but not particularly relevant.  I’ll probably skip it.

In the end, the content at these meetings is more for security pros like pen testers, or for tool buyers in security or sysadmin groups. “How do I code more securely” is the alleged point of the group but frankly 90% of the activity is around scanners and crackers and all kinds of stuff that is fine but should be simple testing steps after the code’s written securely in the first place.

As a result there have been interesting ideas coming from the security community that are reminiscent of DevOps concepts. Pen tester @atdre did a talk here to the Austin OWASP chapter about how security testers engaging with agile teams “from the outside” are failing, and shouldn’t we instead embed them on the team as their “security buddy.” (I love that term.  Security buddy. I hate my “compliance auditor” without even meeting the poor bastard, but I like my security buddy already.) At the OWASP convention LASCON, Matt Tesauro delivered a great keynote similarly trying to refocus the group back on the core problem of developing secure software; in fact, they’re co-sponsoring a movement called “Rugged” that has a manifesto similar to the Agile Manifesto but is focused on security, availability, reliability, et cetera. (As a result it’s of interest to us sysadmin types, who are often saddled with somehow applying those attributes in production to someone else’s code…)

The DevOps community is already running the risk of “leaving the devs behind” too.  I love all my buddies at Opscode and DTO and Puppet Labs and Thoughtworks and all. But a lot of DevOps discussions have started to be completely sysadmin focused as well; a litany of tools you can use for provisioning or monitoring or CI. And that wouldn’t be so bad if there was a real entry point for developers – “Here’s how you as a developer interact with chef to deploy your code,” “Here’s how you make your code monitorable”. But those are often fringe discussions around the core content which often mainly warms the cockles of a UNIX sysadmin’s heart. Why do any of my devs want to see a presentation on how to install Puppet?  Well, that’s what they got at a recent Austin Cloud User Group meeting.

As a result, my devs have stopped coming to DevOps events.  When I ask them why, I get answers similar to the ones above for why they’re not attending OWASP events any more. They’re just not hearing anything that is actionable from the developer point of view. It’s not worth the two hours of their valuable time to come to something that’s not at all targeted at them.

And that’s eventually going to scuttle DevOps if we let it happen, just as it’ll scuttle OWASP if it continues there. The core value of agile is PEOPLE over processes and tools, COLLABORATION over negotiation. If you are leaving the collaboration behind and just focusing on tools, you will eventually fail, just in a more spectacular and automated fashion.

The focus at DevOpsDays US 2010 was great, it was all about culture, nothing about tools. But that culture talk hasn’t driven down to anything more actionable, so tools are just rising up to fill the gap.

In my talk at that DevOpsDays I likened these new tools and techniques to the introduction of the Minie ball to rifles during the Civil War. In that war, they adopted new tools and then retained their same old tactics, walking up close in lines designed for weapons with much shorter ranges and much lower accuracy – and the slaughter was profound.

All our new DevOps tools are great, but in the same way, if we don’t adapt our way of thinking to them, they will make our lives worse, not better, for all their vaunted efficiency. You can do the wrong thing en masse and more quickly. The slaughter will similarly be profound.

A sysadmin suddenly deciding to code his own tools isn’t really the heart of DevOps.  It’s fine and good, and I like seeing more tools created by domain experts. But the heart of DevOps, where you will really see the benefits in hard ROI, is developers and operations folks collaborating on real end-consumer products.

If you are doing anything DevOpsey, please think about “Why would a developer care about this?” How is it actionable to them, how does it make their lives easier?  I’m a sysadmin primarily, so I love stuff that makes my job easier, but I’ve learned over the years that when I can get our devs to leverage something, that’s when it really takes off and gives value.

The same thing applies to the people on the security side.  Why do we have this huge set of tools and techniques, of OWASP Top 10s and Live CDs and Metasploits and about a thousand wonderful little gadgets, but code is pretty much as shitty and insecure as it was 20 years ago? Because all those things try to solve the problem from the outside, instead of targeting the core of the matter, which is developers developing secure code in the first place.  And to do that, it’s more of a hearts-and-minds problem than a tools-and-processes problem.

That’s a core realization that operations folks, and security folks, and testing folks, and probably a bunch of other folks need to realize, deeply internalize, and let it change the way they look at the world and how they conduct their work.

4 Comments

Filed under DevOps, Security

4 responses to “Security and the Rise (and Fall?) of DevOps

  1. EinsamSoldat

    IMHO, it is about speaking up and open communication between Sec Pro, Dev & Admin. It takes 2 to tango. Kinda hard to make a balance sometimes when speaking a topic with passion.

  2. KivaWalker

    How do you propose that the collaboration you mention in your last paragraph should be carried out? The proposal is great(!) what would be a basic ‘how to’ outline?

    thanks for posting your thoughts,

    KW

    • 90% attitude, 10% mechanics. You can see the techniques we’re using for DevOps in other posts here (using the same spec and bug trackers, etc.) but culture change is the largest and first step.

      Having shared goals, shared values, and shared tools then brings it all home.

  3. Pingback: Agile Operations

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