Shift Left Security: An Introduction

For a long time, security and development were two distinct aspects of programming. As organizations started to leverage software and technology as differentiating factors, the speed and quality of development became more important than ever. Organizations no longer had time after development was complete to address security vulnerabilities.

Catching vulnerabilities too late opens companies up to unnecessary risk and can be costly to fix. In fact, security is a problem for many companies: 79% pushed a vulnerable code to production, even though they rated their application security as good.

Many organizations have started incorporating security practices from the beginning of development — known as shifting left. A shift left approach to security allows companies to:

  • Keep their software secure during development.
  • Catch issues before they become problems.
  • Provide a better-quality product.

This article will cover what you need to know about shift left security, including what it is, why it is critical, and best practices for implementing a shift left approach for your development team.

What is Shift Left Security?

Shift left security is the practice of implementing security measures over the entire development cycle rather than waiting until it is nearly complete. It enables teams to uncover vulnerabilities, defects and bugs earlier in the development process to improve systems' speed and quality.

The Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) comprises four steps:

  1. Development
  2. Build
  3. Test
  4. Deployment

Developers are at the left part of this cycle, so moving anything towards their domain requires shifting left. Organizations shift security left with a series of tests throughout the development process. That way, they can catch and amend any weaknesses before moving on to the next stage. Let’s take a brief look at these tests.

1. Software Composition Analysis

The first test starts on the developer’s desktop. The Software Composition Analysis (SCA) tests the external libraries and components and answers critical questions about the integrity of the software. Used effectively, it catches potential security concerns and bugs before the developer even writes code.

2. Static Application Security Testing

Once the developer starts writing the coding and completes a function, the second test is Static Application Security Testing (SAST). It ensures the code is secure with white box testing. For example, it might ensure that the developer inputted verification or that the libraries are up to date.

This testing is completed after each line of code. Automation has made this test faster and easier than ever. In fact, it can even catch issues while the developer is typing.

3. Infrastructure as Code Security Inspection

After passing the two tests, the developer now has a version and created a feature ready for the test environment. The third test, Infrastructure as Code (IAC) security inspection, ensures that the test environment is not vulnerable to security lapses. It checks for two primary things:

  • Open ports or buckets
  • Secure images (since images online could be embedded with a virus)

4. Dynamic Application Security Testing

Once the code is in the test environment, Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) provides the next layer of security. It runs the code in an effort to manipulate it in black-box testing. By inputting different decodings, large-size inputs, and stress loading, it can identify problems before it becomes public.

5. Embedded Secrets

The last test runs the code to check for secret keys or application secrets, such as API keys, database credentials, and security certificates, before it moves on to production. Developers accidentally leave important authentication keys embedded in their code. This can lead to problems: over 5 million secrets were detected in public repositories in 2021, up 20% from the previous year.

These tools have become faster and easier for developers to use with the rise of automation. By automatically checking for weaknesses, developers are no longer forced to manually check code, leading to faster software creation.

(Read our software testing introduction.)

Why shift left security matters

Catching problems early makes them much easier to fix for all involved:

  • Developers don’t have to apply workarounds to flawed implementations.
  • Operations/DevOps don’t have to maintain a flawed application in production.

Discovering issues during production also means that developers can get to the root cause of the problem instead of continuously putting bandaids on the issue. It means that they can modify the application architecture of underlying components and enhance the overall application.

(Explore cloud native security.)

Best practices for shifting security left

A shift left strategy requires organizations to rethink their approach to security and impacts the very company culture. Here are some best practices to ensure your strategy is successful:

Identify your goals

Defining clear security policies will help pave the way and shape shift left security. Creating these policies will consistently set boundaries before beginning work, delivering critical information for all development processes.

A shift left approach is a change at the cultural level of an organization. Each tool or process added to the development cycle will have broader implications for all stakeholders. Every team leader must make crucial decisions together to ensure changes are established.

Understand how software is created

For many organizations, the most challenging of the shift left approach is understanding how and where your software creates organization. The complexity here depends mainly on the size of your organization. If development is outsourced to vendors, it might require contract reviews and more work. Enterprises that have not organized this process will likely spend months unpacking the process.

Step back and get an organizational-wide look to document the flow of the software. Larger companies should start at a big-picture level and then move into individual business units. From there, they’ll likely find that each unit has separate software development tools and processes.

Critical items to include in your research include:

  • The people developing and managing code
  • How it moves from development laptops to production (the CI/CD pipeline)
  • The technology devs use during the process

Train your development teams

While your development team may know how to code, it’s critical to ensure they know how to do so securely. You’ll also have to provide the right tools and environments to maintain that security. In fact, 70% of developers said they were expected to write code securely, but just 25% said their organization had “good” security practices.

Part of the process of shifting left your security is ensuring the ones who create your coding know what it takes to do it securely. Create objective measurements to see where their skills are and identify a plan to improve over time.

Fix security when building the code

The faster developers can implement fixes, the quicker and easier the process will be. Strive to introduce security as the development process occurs and give feedback as quickly as possible.

Shift security left for the future of development

As organizations look to produce high-quality software quickly, shift left security becomes essential. By enabling developers to catch problems, bugs, and potential security issues in advance, it becomes faster and easier to address them.

While shift left security has become a cornerstone DevSecOps strategy, it must be done responsibly to be effective. Implementing the right tools and empowering developers with the information they need will ensure a seamless and automated process. It will help them work faster and avoid the frustrations of the shift right approach.

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Kayly Lange
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Kayly Lange

Kayly Lange is a freelance writer. As a tech and SaaS specialist, she enjoys helping companies achieve greater reach and success through informative articles. When she’s not writing, she enjoys being out in nature, cooking, and reading a wide range of novels. You can connect with Kayly on LinkedIn.