What is DevSec

DevSec is a emerging trend to move developers closer to security experts, akin to DevOps. In this blog post we argue that this is necessary and how this will improve security, while simultaneously lowering the costs (time and monetary costs). We will also cover briefly how we have been moving to this direction in practise.


How often have you heard that “you just can’t add security afterwards” and “security has to be thought of all the time”? This is the main concern DevSec aims to address. Most people realize that you can’t add security afterwards, any more than you can add usability or quality after the product is “done”. Recently, bug bounty programs have received a lot of attention and there are even companies running these, such as Hacker One. These are not useless, but bug bounties work on released software products, and do not help building secure products in the first place.

To improve the development process, DevSec is not the only solution, as there are plenty of presentations about integrating security related work to agile development cycle. Even somewhat formalized processes, like Microsoft’s “Security Development Lifecycle”. The crucial difference with DevSec is that we feel the process is not the answer. Rather, we prefer to make developer teams capable of taking responsibility for the security. Changes in the process are a good thing, but they are a result, not the starting point.

What is “security” actually?

The so called CIA triangle consists of confidentiality, integrity and availability. These are not technical concepts, they are important business concerns. Lose confidentiality, and you’ll lose customers. Unavailable services do not make money and if you lose integrity, you can’t rely on your data.


The attackers have a number of potential routes to affect the system’s CIA qualities:

  • Physical security of data center and client machines
  • Hardware security
  • Network security
  • BIOS security
  • Operating system security
  • Application server security
  • Language and framework specific security
  • Component security
  • Code
  • Data integrity

Sofware architects and developers design software architecture that affects these issues. Security should be one consideration when operating systems and technology are chosen for a software system. The development team usually doesn’t need to worry about BIOS security or physical security of the data center, but many security controls are their responsibility.

What is DevSec?

Like DevOps, this is about the culture. It’s about responsibility. It’s about knowing the right thing and having the power, resources and ability to do it. And of course It’s about hacking yourself first. A somewhat mechanical implementation would be to add a “security specialist” to development team, as you could add some “system operation specialist” and say you’re now doing DevOps. In our opinion, this approach is a minor improvement and totally misses the point about culture. A culture is about values and beliefs shared by everyone. It is not enough that a “security expert” sits with the team, if that person is the only one concerned about security. The DevSec goal is to make every developer think about security and acknowledge it is necessary. Not everyone needs to be an expert, but everyone needs to understand that security is essential and important.

Security conscious developers

As we said, DevSec calls for developers to become conscious about security. We recommend a secure development lifecycle model as a starting point for practical everyday work. It dictates what needs to be dealt with, but the team decides what is the proper thing to do in their particular context. If you are a wildling, and do not like processes, you can also try “hack yourself first” motto as your starting point. Here’s an example list of actions and decisions to make:

  • Train your personnel.
  • Know the policies and laws that affect your project.
  • Document your architecture and understand your attack surface.
  • Do a threat analysis and risk assesment.
  • Follow vulnerability feeds for your technology stack.
  • Keep on track about dependencies and their possible vulnerabilities.
  • Know the best practices with your technologies.
  • Analyze your code and configurations.
  • Do inhouse penetration testing, try to break your system.
  • Monitor your application.
  • Automate alerts for anomalies in the usage patterns.
  • Do incident & response handling.
  • Prepare and plan for compromise.
  • Revalidate on changes.

It’s important to understand that cybercriminals estimate payoff/risk and payoff/effort before they seriously attack a system. If your system is difficult to crack, it won’t get attacked unless there’s a very big payoff. The criminals take the easy money, always. Hackers and hacktivists might have other motivations, but here’s a rough model for calculating “criminal value” of a system:

expected value = (effort / direct payoff) / risk factor

Threat analysis will give insight into payoff and risk factors and you can tune the security practices accordingly. As a software designer, you can’t do much about the direct payoff usually, but you can directly affect the effort and to some extent the risk factor faced by a would-be attacker.


What about automation?

Automation has been all the rage recently among developers and some of the security testing can be automated. Actually, many of the attacks are automated bots trying to take over systems. Existing continuous integration pipelines can be extended by adding a few extra testing steps. Bear in mind that some security testing products do not have a programmer friendly API, but increasingly the vendors are going to support automated testing.

Automated tests are not a substitute for manual testing, but can find real problems for a very low cost. Here are things we have automated to some degree:

  • Static code analysis
  • Web application penetration testing
  • Attack surface analysis
  • Virus scanning
  • Known vulnerability analysis
  • Performance testing
  • Monitoring setup

The cost/benefit ratio depends a lot on the solution and the technology stack you are using. All automated tools generate a lot of noise and false positives. Therefore, the reporting should concentrate on the delta of findings between builds to measure if the security is improving or getting worse. You might need to do some extra scripts to support this sort of reporting, depending on the tools you use.

Here’s a rough outline of our current cyber security pipeline.


Our experiences

We have embraced DevSec. Our customers have been pleased that have been able to discuss and bring up relevant security issues. While doing security testing we often find logical flaws in the software, not just security issues. In our experience, third party penetration testers are expert hackers obsessed with “pwning” the system, and may disregard non-security related bugs. Or they might miss the implications of logical bugs as they have a superfluos understanding of the system context.

Training, threat analysis, tools etc. cost money, but this should not become a problem. A discussion with stakeholders is necessary as ultimately these costs have to be covered by the customers. It may be necessary to explain to people why a threat analysis or penetration test is beneficial, but as news about cyber attacks are common everyone kind of understands that security is important. In our opinion DevSec is a very cost-effective and rational way to improve security in the coming years.