April 24, 2023

What Is Shift-Left Security?


In software development, shift left is a practice that helps developers find vulnerabilities and coding errors earlier in the software development process. Shift-left security is an efficient approach that focuses on security and helps address any security issues in code long before the software is released. 

Here, we provide an overview of what is shift-left security and offer guidance on how a static analyzer can help you uncover security vulnerabilities early in the SDLC. 

Read along or jump ahead to the section that interests you most: 

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What Is Shift-Left Security? 

Shift-left security, or “taking a shift-left approach” to security, is the idea of undertaking security checking or security related tasks earlier in the software development life-cycle (SDLC). Often applied to testing, the aim of shifting left is to improve the efficiency of these tasks based on when they are performed, and also to ensure that these necessary tasks are not left until the end of the development cycle, and in a worst-case, omitted entirely. 

As opposed to a more traditional approach, where you wait until the final stages of deployment to test an application and scan for security vulnerabilities, shifting left within the SDLC helps to avoid lengthy delays downstream by allowing you to discover potential security risks in the code before that code is integrated, tested, documented, or even released! 

Part of the larger shift-left movement, shift-left security means checking for security issues earlier in the development process — or, to the left of the linear development timeline — so that you can identify coding problems and fix defects more quickly, before they become too costly or unmanageable. 

Shift-left testing is a method for improving code quality and reducing testing effort by avoiding rework in code and tests later in the cycle. This type of testing is already a well-established principle. 

Shift-left security, therefore, builds on the same basic procedures and concepts by prioritizing vulnerability detection and prevention early in the development cycle, forming part of the wider DevOps and DevSecOps automation.  

📹 Related resource: Watch a recorded webinar on Shift-Left Security Training.

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Why Is Shift-Left Security Beneficial for DevOps? 

Shifting security to the left aims to improve the security of the final product, encourage collaboration, reduce costs, and result in a faster time to market. 

Waiting until the end of the development process could result in a costly fix, especially if significant architectural changes are needed. Finding and fixing errors early, on the other hand, could mean less time and money spent on security flaws in the code. Modern DevOps teams are supporting developers with shift-left security processes by automating security gating and feedback systems for developers using the CI/CD pipelines for their projects.

Many developers also prefer the efficiency of this early approach, because they are not interrupted by switching tasks as often. The less time it takes to get static analysis, dynamic analysis, or testing results after checking in code, the more likely it is that the recently written code is still fresh in the developer’s mind. You can even use time-saving solutions such as the IDE and a Klocwork or Helix QAC plugin to get results even before checking in code, further streamlining the process. Getting results before you stop working on the task is much faster than waiting until you check in the code and continuous integration (CI) runs the analysis. 

As more organizations become aware of the benefits of shift left security, the application areas for shift left are growing. For example, shifting security to the left is becoming an important trend for cloud computing, according to Forbes.

Learn about using tools to find code vulnerabilities, ensure standards compliance, and reduce time-to-market early in the development process with Perforce's Shift Left 101 >>

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Shift-Left Security Best Practices 

If you’re ready to start shifting security to the left in your pipeline, here are some best practices you can start implementing: 

1. Assess your current software development process.

Where in the development pipeline are you currently testing for security vulnerabilities? Could it happen earlier in the process? Could any waterfall methodologies become more agile (for example, rather than iteratively testing for flaws, integrating security tools that can continuously monitor code and identify security bugs)?

Assess how the development pipeline works and how the code moves from development to production. A malicious actor could potentially find an opportunity to change the code in any one of these stages, so checking early and often could be built into your overall pipeline, as well as implementing technology such as version control and IP-centric design to keep development secure. A good place to start is to check existing documentation, and, where there are gaps, talk with DevOps and SecOps members to identify and document the missing components. 

2. Establish a new shift-left security strategy. 

Once you have a good idea about where current methodologies stand, create a document that defines your new shift-left strategy. This strategy could include your overall objectives in shifting security to the left, how your organization will define shifting left and the processes and tools involved, how you will measure success, and both individual and team responsibilities. 

3. Educate development teams in secure coding best practices.

Shift-left security training is a continuous process, and not just for the developer — organizations need to provide education to the right teams (such as product, development, and QA) who can support and optimize shift-left security. With more eyes on the code, and different team members knowing what to look for and which tools to use, security testing will become an important early step in your overall development strategy. 

Secure coding standards provide rules and guidelines compiled by security experts with years of knowledge that help prevent, detect, and eliminate errors that could compromise software security. Key security standards include CERT CWE, OWASP, DISA STIG, IEC 62443, and more. Educating your team about such standards and implementing static analysis tools to enforce coding standards across your codebase will safeguard your code from coding vulnerabilities early in the process. 

4. Automate security processes. 

As part of your CI/CD process, automation helps support the continuous testing needed throughout. There are several approaches fulfilled by tools you can use to automate security including Static Application System Testing (SAST), Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), Interactive Application Security Testing (IAST), and Runtime Application Self Protection (RASP). These approaches are all important in automating security, but for shift left, SAST is the most applicable. With SAST, you’ll be able to detect vulnerabilities earlier in the development pipeline.  

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How Perforce Static Analysis Tools Help with Shift-Left Security

Static analysis can be performed early in the development process, before software testing begins. This type of analysis finds issues by looking for known vulnerability patterns for internationally recognized coding standards for security, as well as detects early defects in the code. It also provides fast feedback and the exact location of vulnerabilities and their cause. 

Static analysis tools — like Perforce’s Helix QAC and Klocwork — integrate seamlessly with the developer toolchain (including IDE plugins) and CI/CD pipelines to automate continuous compliance for security. These types of tools enable you and your development team to check code for vulnerabilities even before you commit the code, or immediately afterward with security checks in the CI system. 

Helix QAC is a static analysis and SAST tool that helps uncover security vulnerabilities early in the SDLC by prioritizing coding issues based on the severity of risk, target the most critical defects, and deliver accurate diagnostics and actionable results — enabling you to fix the most important issues right away.

Klocwork is a static analysis and SAST tool that finds security vulnerabilities as they are introduced — helping you fix vulnerabilities early, and provide compliance to industry security standards, as well as your own organizational requirements. 

See for yourself how trusted tools Helix QAC and Klocwork can help your organization shift security to the left. 

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