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A Guide to Agile Security: Challenges and Approaches

A Guide to Agile Security: Challenges and Approaches

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Written by Brandon
Thursday, July 14th 2022

Agile and security can seem at odds with each other, and it can be confusing how to approach security in an Agile development environment. Since Agile development is all about speedy, efficient, adaptable software development, some Agile practitioners ignore security during active development.

But it’s the wild west out there, and the current cybersecurity reality is way too alarming to ignore. Cyber incidents are the number one concern for organizations in 2022, with corporate cyberattacks up 50% in the last year. Always assume that malicious actors are trying to breach any weak points to gain entry to your software systems. There are many ways to implement Agile security practices without compromising speed and efficiency. Start by building a security-first culture and streamline code review. Add a secret management tool like Onboardbase, to keep your environment configurations, secrets, and credentials safe from malicious actors at all times.

Agile Methodology

It’s been 20 years since the Agile Manifesto was first signed. The manifesto proclaimed four core values to streamline the development process and deliver better software on faster timelines. Agile’s four core values are:

  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Responding to change versus following a plan
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

By focusing on these values, Agile development is well agile in nature. The very definition of agile is ‘able to move quickly and easily.’ Agile prioritizes efficiency, speed, and flexibility.

Agile arose from the need to expand beyond the outdated Waterfall methodology. Waterfall was the original software methodology, first defined in 1970. But Waterfall has clear limitations and inefficiencies that don’t promote adaptability and rapid development. Teams commit to a clearly defined end goal and work through a clear linear development progression. Waterfall makes it hard for teams to pivot when application scope or end-goal changes. This methodology operates siloed and internally, meaning no collaboration with stakeholders or teams outside the core development team.

Agile changed the game by entirely reimagining development as a lean process. Strong Agile teams can change development direction with ease as stakeholder needs emerge and evolve. Agile teams typically work in a development cadence of sprints. Sprints are short time periods to complete a defined goal, typically lasting one to four weeks.

Challenges of Agile Security

Agile security presents some unique challenges for your team. With the focus on rapid development, other essential components can get left in the dust. Sometimes security is one of these components that gets left behind with major consequences.

Cybersecurity attacks pose a real risk to any organization. The business implications of a data breach are significant. Besides the productivity losses associated with remediation following an attack, the reputation damage can be catastrophic. Consumers want to know that their data is safe when using your application and aren’t afraid to take their business elsewhere in pursuit of security.

Because Agile works and works well, it’s often more suitable to adjust security practices to meet agile ends than the other way around. This means finding solutions that can keep up with the speed and flexibility of Agile teams.

Approaching Security in Agile Development

If your team is trying to change how you approach security within an Agile environment, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind. Avoid incorporating overcomplicated security processes and opt to improve security in ways that save more time than is invested. Remember that cutting security corners too much can waste more time later on when a security breach halts development. Find simple but effective tools that add security early into the development life cycle.

1. Security Culture

Obviously, a developer’s primary focus is meeting their sprint end goal, but they need to think about security from the jump. It’s way easier to build features securely than it is to protect insecure features. If you want to successfully build a secure application, then you need a security culture within your organization.

Security is everyone’s job, not just the security team. Everyone on the development team needs to know the foundational components of secure applications. Foster the relationship between security engineers and developers so that information and help are shared freely.

2. Code Reviews

One component of traditional software development that should remain is code review. Code review is too valuable to leave in the past, even though it slows development. Abandoning code review means you’re relying highly on your developer’s skills to carry the sprint, which is not a good idea. Developers are intelligent and talented individuals, but software development isn’t easy, and it’s best to have all code checked by another pair of eyes. It’s easy to miss things or overlook security vulnerabilities.

Keep code review agile by using automated review tools, streamlining the process, and focusing on a few specific points. Anyone engaging in a code review should check for application breaking code, that the code is not overly complex, and that security is built into each feature.

The time saved by catching security and other issues early fits the very essence of agile development.

3. Secrets Management

Any sensitive data should be stored securely and managed closely, especially secrets and environment configurations. Many agile operations completely lack the tools to protect their asset, but you don’t have to be one of those organizations. Sensitive data is best stored in a way that improves productivity and speeds up production. Your customers deserve to have their data stored safely and to work with a company that protects their assets at every step of the way.

Secret management solutions like Onboardbase, can help. Onboardbase will encrypt application secrets and environment configs, which team members can access using Onboardbase’s CLI. Secrets are encrypted using the same standard that the United States government uses, AES-CBC. With Onboardbase, your team members can access secrets securely and efficiently, improving productivity by 75%. No more waiting to hear back from a colleague on Slack. By moving away from insecure messaging platforms for sensitive data sharing, you’re limiting the chance for malicious actors to steal secrets.

Onboardbase is great for teams of all sizes. Small teams with limited budgets will appreciate Onboardbase’s competitive pricing plans. At the same time, larger organizations can receive custom pricing based on their unique needs.

Onboardbase works with all frameworks and offers integrations with all the most popular software development tools, including Docker, GitHub Actions, and Jenkins.

4. Incorporate Extreme Programming (XP)

Extreme programming is an agile framework that supports the goals of agile development with a specific focus on the technical components of software development. XP programming is best for adapting to changing stakeholder needs. XP programming can help prioritize safety with pair programming and test-first development.

5. Pair Programming

With pair programming, two developers work closely together to develop a single feature. Having two heads working on the same feature reduces the number of bugs and security vulnerabilities. The short feedback loop promotes continuous improvement and code review. Each team member brings different strengths to the pair, meaning that an individual’s weaknesses are less impactful to the quality of the resulting code.

6. Test-First Development

At each stage of development, each pair of programmers must run their work against automated tests. Tests are designed before development even starts, with a keen focus on security. If the code doesn’t pass the automated tests, it moves back to the pair for edits.

Test-first development requires more coding at the beginning of development to create automated tests. But this approach pays back tenfold by catching bugs and defects early and removing them before they can be integrated and deployed.

7. Zero Trust Model

All organizations should be moving towards a zero trust security model. As more organizations move outside the traditional local network setting, it’s vital that access to the network is continuously validated. Zero trust understands that networks are no longer contained and extend into the cloud, more often than not.

Zero trust is the best way to secure development environments and live applications, requiring multi-factor authentication and continuous verification. Every time developers access a resource, tool, or project, they must verify their credentials. Fine-tuned management of permissions is possible, so only those that need access to an asset have access. The zero trust model does not interfere with Agile development core values.

Wrapping up Security in Agile Development

You don’t need to be worried about emphasizing security practices in an Agile development setting. Security principles can be integrated without compromising the speed and adaptability of high-performing Agile teams, in many different ways.

Start changing the culture, incorporating a security focus in everything the team does. Consider practicing extreme programming to benefit from pair programming and test-first development while streamlining the code review process to focus on security vulnerabilities and broken code.

Keep your secrets and environment configurations safe with Onboardbase. Onboardbase supports a zero-trust security approach while keeping the agile spirit by improving productivity significantly. Organizations that take these steps will develop software that is better prepared to withstand emerging cybersecurity threats.

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