Shift left: Proactive security, embedded early in development

Dominykas Linkus

March 19, 2024

Sensitive information on your phone, computer, or smartwatch is at risk every time you use an application that isn’t properly secured. To ensure the safety of user data and a robust application, developers and security specialists are increasingly embracing the “shift left” approach. In this blog post, we'll explore what it means and how shift left isn’t only about integrating tools and testing from the start, but a collaborative mindset that empowers developers and security specialists to build applications together.

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What is shift left?

Shift left is a methodology that aims to prevent software vulnerabilities by integrating security testing and analysis earlier (the “left” on a planning board) in the software development lifecycle. This is opposed to the classical checklist security approach, which usually pushes testing to the end (the “right”) of the process. With shift left, security specialists and developers are able to catch and fix vulnerabilities before they snowball into bigger issues later on in development. Shift left is particularly relevant for organizations involved in cybersecurity, where a secure application is crucial.

Advantages of shifting left

But why bother shifting left? Here are a few of the key advantages:

  • Safer products: By identifying potential vulnerabilities early on and addressing them proactively throughout the entire development phase, security risks are minimized, resulting in a more robust end product.

  • Cost savings: Fixing security issues later in development can be significantly more expensive than addressing them early on. Reworking or recreating parts of the app codebase is costly and a major time sink. With shift left properly implemented, companies can avoid extensive code modification. Additionally, it can save on potential costs associated with security breaches, like fines or lawsuits.

  • Enhanced developer skills: Shifting left also provides opportunities for developers to learn more about secure coding practices, as well as the latest security threats and trends. This can enhance their skills and knowledge, which contribute to better-quality products and improved job performance.

  • Increased collaboration: Shifting left encourages collaboration between developers and cybersecurity experts. Close cooperation leads to more efficient communication, increased knowledge-sharing, and a deeper understanding of the other's role. The result is a more effective development process.

  • Competitive advantage: By prioritizing security earlier in the software development lifecycle, companies can differentiate themselves from their competitors and build a reputation for creating stable, secure, and reliable products, which attracts more customers and clients.

Where’s the catch?

Fair question. Many companies have been slow to adopt shift left. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Cost: Implementing a shift left approach can require an investment in time, resources, and tools. Some companies aren’t willing or able to make this investment, especially if they haven’t experienced any security breaches in the past.

  • Difficulty measuring ROI: It’s challenging to measure the return on investment (ROI) of a shift left approach because it’s impossible to quantify the impact of preventing security incidents. If an incident never happens, that’s a good result. But that can be a hard sell to stakeholders.

  • Resistance to change: Shifting left requires a change in company culture, as it involves rethinking the traditional development process. This can be a difficult adjustment for some teams.

  • Lack of training: Developers or security experts don’t have the necessary skills or knowledge to implement it. Providing training and resources and time to developers with security specialists can help overcome this barrier.

  • Lack of awareness: Some companies simply aren’t aware of the shift left approach or the benefits it can bring.

Overall, while there are some challenges associated with implementing a shift left approach, the benefits can outweigh the costs in terms of improved security and customer satisfaction. Companies need to consider the long-term benefits and invest in secure coding practices to protect their assets and reputation.

First steps to shift left

There are multiple approaches open to organizations for getting started with shift left. For example, providing developers with interactive learning platforms can enhance their specific programming language or technology knowledge with virtual machines, created labs, and challenges. This helps them learn about secure coding practices and how to incorporate security into their workflow. Additionally, knowledge-sharing sessions and security conferences can help developers embrace best practices for a security-focused culture.

Threat modeling sessions are a useful way to help developers anticipate and prevent security issues. During a threat modeling session, developers work closely with AppSec and WebSec engineers, pentesters, and security architects to identify vulnerabilities and prioritize them based on risk, probability, and potential impact.

Teams can also use automated tools to scan code for potential security vulnerabilities. These tools help identify vulnerabilities early in the development process before they become larger issues. There are a variety of automated security testing tools available, including static analysis tools or dynamic analysis tools.

  • Static analysis tools (SAST) help maintain code quality and identify security vulnerabilities, bugs in the code, libraries before it’s released.

  • Dynamic analysis tools (DAST) help ensure the application behaves as expected under automated conditions, improving user experience and security.

Closing tips

Building a strong team is crucial because properly implementing shift left is no small task. It requires cooperation, dedication, and patience – from all team members. Support and ideas from colleagues are essential to solving emerging challenges, adapting to increased workloads, and sharing the responsibility of ensuring a secure software development process.

If an incident does occur with a product, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow and take advantage of the chance to use the incident as a catalyst for promoting the shift left idea within the company. Adoption can be accelerated by demonstrating the real-world consequences of security breaches.

In conclusion, embrace the challenges and leverage the opportunities that arise in the process of implementing shift left in companies. Keep pushing forward, knowing that every step you take brings you closer to a more secure and efficient software development process. So let's get to work and clean up the dust!