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Shift Left Security: A Complete Guide 

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The speed at which software development companies deliver their products has become a paramount differentiator. Amidst the rush to deploy cutting-edge solutions, teams tend to push software security to the later stages of development. 

Why? Some believe prioritizing security standards doesn’t mesh well with accelerated development methods. The truth is somewhere in the middle. 

Throwing security checks into your process without a well-developed plan can cause friction and confusion among your developers. However, when implemented correctly, prioritizing security early in the development process enhances team agility. A security-first approach empowers your team to mitigate security risks early, avoiding future disruptions. 

Purveyors of “shift left security” recognize that waiting until the end to address security concerns is a dangerous gamble. 

What is Shift Left Security? 

The concept of shift left security advocates for integrating security practices earlier in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), ideally starting from the initial stages of design and development. By "shifting left," security considerations are addressed as early as possible, which helps identify and mitigate security vulnerabilities before they become costly issues later in the development process or after deployment.

A big part of the process is shift left testing, which involves moving testing activities earlier in the development process to detect defects and issues sooner, including security vulnerabilities.

Shift left security is considered an integral part of DevSecOps—an extension of Development Operations (DevOps), which emphasizes integrating security practices into the DevOps pipeline.

Shift left security emphasizes the early integration of security practices in the software development lifecycle, aligning with the overarching goal of DevSecOps, which is to embed security throughout the entire development process. 

By implementing shift left security principles, DevSecOps teams ensure security is a fundamental aspect of the development process, not an afterthought. However, achieving this shift isn't merely about distributing lists of vulnerabilities to developers or deploying tools designed solely for the security team. A holistic approach is required to truly embed security into the DNA of your development. 

The Benefits of Shifting Security Left

A recent survey performed by the Ponemon Institute found that about half (52%) of the organizations they polled have adopted a shift left security policy. 

One of the main reasons companies delay security reviews is that traditional reviews tend to be time-consuming and expensive. According to a recent Crowdstrike State of Application Security (AppSec) report, 81% of organizations said security reviews take longer than a full business day, and 35% said they take more than three.   

The process is often so slow that some choose to skip it entirely. The survey found that “only 54% of major code changes go through full security reviews.”

Implementing shift left security offers solutions to many of these problems through several key benefits, including:

  • Early detection of vulnerabilities that reduce the likelihood of costly security breaches later in the development lifecycle or after deployment. The two most significant DevSecOps challenges or pain points in the aforementioned app sec report were a growing vulnerability backlog (52%) and growing application security vulnerabilities (43%).

  • Reducing costs associated with security remediation, regulatory fines, and potential damage to the organization's reputation. Addressing security issues earlier is generally less expensive than fixing them later. Insufficient budget (36%) was the third biggest DevSecOps challenge in the Crowdstrike report. 

  • Improving time-to-market by avoiding last-minute security fixes that may delay product releases. 

  • Enhancing collaboration between development, operations, and security teams. Developers gain valuable insights and guidance by involving security experts from the outset.

  • Increasing customer trust by showing a commitment to data protection and privacy and reassuring customers that their sensitive information is handled securely.

Adopting and implementing a shift left in security can do wonders for your development process, but prioritizing security early in the software SDLC can also present challenges.

Common Challenges of Shifting Security Left  

The Ponemon Institute study asked organizations that have shifted left what challenges they face. More than half (51%) said “a lack of integrated security tools,” 43% said an increased workload for their developers, and 40% said that their biggest challenge is having “too many vulnerabilities to fix.” 

Shifting left comes with many potential obstacles. 

Providing adequate education and training to developers on security practices and tools is essential but can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. Cultural resistance is another common challenge. Shifting security left requires a cultural shift within development teams, emphasizing collaboration and shared responsibility for security. Resistance to new ideas or a lack of buy-in from team members can impede progress.

Legacy systems may lack built-in security features, making retrofitting security measures retrospectively challenging. Integrating security tools and processes seamlessly into existing development workflows can also be challenging. Developers may also struggle to adopt new tools or methods that disrupt established workflows. 

Shift Left Security Tools 

While developers can struggle to adopt and learn new tools, integrating automated tools into the workflow is an essential step in effectively shifting security left. The Ponemon survey found that 90% of security teams use three or more tools to detect and prioritize security threats. 

Some of the most essential types of tools needed for implementing shift left security policies include: 

  • Static Application Security Testing (SAST) tools that analyze source code or compiled binaries to identify security vulnerabilities, such as code injection, buffer overflows, and insecure coding practices. 

  • Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) tools assess running applications for security vulnerabilities by sending crafted requests and analyzing responses. They simulate real-world attacks to identify weaknesses such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and broken authentication. 

  • Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST) tools that combine elements of SAST and DAST by analyzing application code during runtime to detect vulnerabilities in real time to provide deeper insights into application behavior and security issues. 

  • Software Composition Analysis (SCA) tools that scan software dependencies to identify and manage security vulnerabilities in third-party libraries and components, helping prevent risks associated with outdated or vulnerable dependencies. 

  • Static Code Analysis tools that analyze code as developers write it and provide immediate feedback on code quality and security, detecting security issues such as injection vulnerabilities and insecure coding practices.

  • Container security tools that assess the security of containerized applications and their runtime environments to identify vulnerabilities in container images, enforce security policies, and monitor container activity for suspicious behavior. 

  • Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) platforms that automate security processes like incident detection, analysis, and response. They integrate with various security tools to streamline workflows and improve incident response capabilities.

To speed up and ease the education and training process, it’s also a good idea to use security training and awareness platforms that offer educational resources, interactive courses, and simulated exercises to enhance developers' understanding of security best practices. According to our 2024 State of Software Quality survey, 46% fo respondents said that they provide ongoing security training for developers, indicating a proactive approach to cultivating a security-conscious culture within development teams.

Strategies for Successful Implementation 

While developers play a crucial role in shifting security left, achieving a successful shift requires collaboration and support from all levels of the organization. Full organizational buy-in makes it easier for teams to overcome common challenges associated with shifting left. 

One of the best ways to encourage complete buy-in is to designate security champions within development teams who are responsible for promoting security awareness, providing guidance, and facilitating communication between development and security teams. Foster collaboration between development, operations, and security teams throughout the development lifecycle. Involve security experts early in the design and planning phases to identify potential security risks and provide guidance on mitigation strategies.

As we’ve already discussed, education and training are paramount. Provide comprehensive education and training programs to developers on security best practices, common vulnerabilities, and the importance of integrating security early in development. Foster a continuous learning and improvement culture by encouraging developers to stay updated on emerging security threats, technologies, and best practices. Provide opportunities for training, workshops, and knowledge-sharing sessions focused on security.

Implement automated security testing tools and processes to integrate security checks into the CI/CD pipeline. This ensures that security assessments are conducted consistently and efficiently throughout the development lifecycle. Provide developers access to user-friendly security tools that integrate seamlessly into their workflows. Choose tools that offer actionable insights and facilitate quick identification and resolution of security vulnerabilities.

Establish and implement secure coding standards and guidelines tailored to your organization's technology stack and development environment. Provide developers with resources and references to adhere to these standards effectively.

Implement a robust vulnerability management process to track and prioritize security issues identified during development. Define transparent workflows for remediation and ensure timely resolution of identified vulnerabilities. Define key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the effectiveness of your shift left initiatives. Track metrics such as the number of security vulnerabilities identified and remediated, time to resolution, and overall improvement in the security posture of software products.

Accelerate Development Processes By Shifting Security Left 

When done correctly, Integrating security practices at the beginning of the development lifecycle allows for quicker issue resolution and reduces the risk of security breaches later in the process.

It also enables faster feedback loops. Developers receive timely information about security vulnerabilities, allowing them to make necessary adjustments promptly, thus accelerating the development cycle.

At the same time, shifting left helps prevent the accumulation of technical debt by proactively resolving security issues iteratively to strike the perfect balance between speed and security.

Looking for the right automated tool to kick off the process of shifting security left? Try Codacy Security, a “DevSecOps in a Box” solution that helps your team find and fix vulnerabilities early within your code review process. Sign up today to see how it works.


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