4 Essential Security Skills for Modern Application Development

Modern application development strategies provide a range of benefits, such as faster release cycles and applications that are easy to port from one environment to another.

But modern applications also present some steep challenges, not least in the realm of security. In order to thrive in the modern development landscape, developers and AppSec pros alike must be sure that their security skills can address the variety of threats that teams face today – a time when cyberattacks are growing steadily in frequency and scope.

Here’s a list of four essential security skills that anyone involved in modern application development should possess.

IaC Security

Infrastructure-as-Code (or IaC) tools have become an essential part of many modern application development workflows. Using IaC, teams can automatically provision large-scale software environments, which maximizes scalability and minimizes the risk of configuration mistakes due to human error.

But the downside of IaC is that, if the configurations applied using IaC templates contain security issues, those issues will be proliferated across your entire environment. And in most cases, the IaC tools themselves do nothing to alert you to potential security issues.

That’s why developers and AppSec teams must learn to follow security best practices when configuring IaC templates, such as:

  • Secure your secrets: Don’t hard-code passwords or other secrets into IaC templates. Store them in an external secrets manager instead.
  • Modularity: Keep IaC templates short and modular. Trying to cram too much configuration into a single template increases the risk of making a mistake.
  • Use default settings with care: Don’t blindly trust default IaC settings. Make sure you tailor templates to your environment.

Just as important, teams should use IaC scanning tools to validate their IaC configurations prior to applying them. IaC scanners automatically check IaC templates for misconfigurations that could create security issues.

Open Source Security Risks

There are many excellent reasons for modern development teams to leverage third-party open source code. Open source saves time because it allows you to reuse code that someone already wrote rather than having to write it yourself from scratch. It is also often easy to customize. And it’s usually free of cost, which is never a bad thing.

Yet open source also poses some significant security risks when you incorporate it into your applications. You can’t guarantee that third-party open source developers adhere to the same security standards that you do when they write their code.

For that reason, it’s critical to know where in your application you incorporate open source code, and also to scan that code to identify known vulnerabilities within it.

Container Security

Modern applications are often deployed using containers. Because containers – and the orchestration platforms used to manage them (like Kubernetes) – add another layer of infrastructure and complexity to your software stack, they create a variety of potential security risks that would not be present if you were deploying applications directly on a host OS, without having a container runtime and orchestrator in the equation.

Modern developers and AppSec teams need to know what these risks are and take steps to address them. A full discussion of container security is beyond the scope of this article, but basic concepts include:

  • Image security: Securing container images by ensuring that any external components on which they depend are secure, as well as using a container image scanner to check for vulnerabilities.
  • Configuration security: Scanning the configuration files that are used to deploy and orchestrate containers. Like IaC templates, these files can contain configuration mistakes that enable security breaches.
  • Runtime security monitoring: Using monitoring tools that can collect and analyze data from across complex containerized environments (which means collecting data from various containers, from all of the operating systems running within the cluster of servers that hosts your containers, and from the orchestration platform) to detect signs of breaches at runtime.

Microservices Security Risks

Microservices have become massively popular because they make it easy to build agile, scalable applications that lack a single point of failure, among other benefits.

But microservices also significantly increase the complexity of application architectures, which in turn increases the risks of security issues. Because microservices rely on the network to communicate with each other, there is a higher risk of sensitive data exposure. Insecure authentication and authorization controls between microservices could enable a breach to spread from one microservice to an entire app. Security problems with the tools used to help manage microservices (like service meshes) create another set of security risks to manage.

As with container security (which, by the way, is a closely related topic, because microservices are often deployed using containers), there is more to say about microservices security than we can fit into this article. But some core microservices security best practices for developers and AppSec teams to follow include:

  • Microservices isolation: When designing your microservices architecture, strive to isolate each microservice as much as possible. Allow interactions between services only where strictly necessary.
  • Authentication and authorization: Always require authentication and authorization for microservices to communicate with each other.
  • Network isolation: Isolate the internal networks that microservices use from the public Internet, and never expose a microservice directly to the Internet unless it needs to be.

Conclusion: Modern Application Development Requires Modern Application Security

Most of the security challenges discussed above simply didn’t exist ten years ago. Back then, no one was provisioning hundreds of servers using IaC templates or deploying applications with highly complex architectures based on microservices and containers.

But those practices are the norm for modern application development. Developers and AppSec teams must respond by ensuring that they are able to leverage the tools and skills necessary to meet the modern security risks that go hand-in-hand with modern application development.

Chris Tozzi has worked as a journalist and Linux systems administrator. He has particular interests in open source, agile infrastructure, and networking. He is Senior Editor of content and a DevOps Analyst at Fixate IO. His latest book, For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution, was published in 2017.

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