The Magic of DevOps

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The Magic of DevOps
By Bob Aiello

Recently, a well-respected colleague of mine reacted to an article that I had written regarding the Equifax data breach and suggested that I had made it sound as if DevOps “magically” could solve problems. I was stunned at first when I saw his comments, because everything that I have written has always gone into specific details on how to implement DevOps and CM best practices including the core functions of source code management, build engineering, environment management, change control, and release and deployment engineering. At first, I responded to my colleague that he should get a copy of my book to see the detail in which I prescribe these principles and practices. My colleague reminded me that he not only had a copy of my CM best practices book, but had reviewed it as well – and as I recall it was a pretty positive review. So how then could he possibly believe that I viewed DevOps as magically solving anything? The more I pondered this incident, the more I realized that DevOps does indeed have some magic and the effective DevOps practitioner actually does have some tricks up his sleeve. So, unlike most magicians I am fine with sharing some of my magic and I hope that you will write back and share your best practices as well.

DevOps is a set of principles and practices intended to help improve communication and collaboration between teams, including development and operations, but equally important are other groups including quality assurance, testing, information security and of course the business user and the groups who help us by representing their interests. DevOps is all about sharing often conflicting ideas and the synergy we enjoy from this collaboration. At the core of DevOps systems and application delivery is a set of practices based upon configuration management, including source code management, build engineering, environment management, change control, and release and deployment engineering.

Source code management is fundamental and without the tools and processes you could easily lose your source code, not to mention, have a very difficult time tracking changes to code baselines. With robust version control systems and effective processes, you can enjoy traceability to know who made changes to the code – and back them out if necessary. When you have code in version control you can scan that code using a variety of tools and identify open source (and commercial) code components which may have one or more vulnerabilities as identified in CVEs and the VulnDB database. I have written automation to traverse version control repositories and scanned for licensing, security and operational risks – actually identifying specific code bases which had zero-day vulnerabilities much like the one which impacted Equifax recently. Build engineering is a fundamental part of this effort as the build process itself may bring in dependencies which may also have vulnerabilities. Scanning source code is a good start, but you get a much more accurate picture when you scan components which have been compiled and linked (depending upon the technology). Taking a strong DevOps approach means that your security professionals can work directly with your developers to identify security vulnerabilities and identify the best course of action to update the code. With the right release and deployment automation you can ensure that your changes are delivered to the production as quickly as necessary.

Environment management is the function which is most often forgotten and understanding your environment dependencies is an absolute must-have. Sadly, we often forget to capture this information during the development process and discovering it after the product has been deployed can be a slow and painful process. Similarly, change control should be your first line of defense for identifying and mitigating technical risk, but most companies simply view change as a “rubber stamp” which focuses mostly on avoiding calendar collisions. Change control done well can help you identify and mitigate technical risk, deliver changes more quickly and avoid costly mistakes so often the cause of major outages.

As news reports emerge claiming that Equifax actually knew that they had code which contained the Struts vulnerability, the focus should be on why the code was not updated. Sadly, many companies do not have sufficient automation and processes in place to be able to safely update their systems without introducing significant technical risk. I have known of companies who could not respond effectively to a disaster, because their deployment procedures were not fully automated and failing over to a DR site resulted in a week-long set of outages. Companies may “test” their DR procedures, but that does not guarantee that they can actually be effectively used in a real disaster. You need to be able to build your infrastructure (e.g. infrastructure as code) and deploy your applications without any chance of a step being missed which could result in a systems outage.

DevOps and CM best practices actually give you the specific capabilities required to identify security vulnerabilities and update your code as often as needed. The first step is to assess your current practices and identify specific steps to improve your processes and procedures. I would like to say that really there is no magic – just good process engineering, picking the right tools and of course rolling up your sleeves and automating each and every step. But maybe the truth is that there is some magic here. Taking a DevOps approach, sharing the different views between development, operations, security and other key stakeholders can make this all possible. Please drop me a line and share your challenges and best practice too. Between us, we can see magic happen as we implement DevOps and CM best practices!

Bob Aiello (bob.aiello@ieee.org)