By Venkat Thiruvengadam, founder and CEO of DuploCloud, shortlisted for the Best Security Innovation in a SaaS Product (B2B, Small Business / SMB) category at The SaaS Awards 2022

Before the advent of microservices, applications were largely monolithic with very few moving pieces. It was fairly easy for security teams to come up with a deployment topology and secure them. The topology also largely remained unchanged through the release cycles. All this changed with microservices – be it in the form of Docker Containers or dozens of platform services offered by the cloud providers.

The impact of microservices on application security

DevOps is the discipline that is responsible for deploying, securing, and maintaining applications in the cloud. An overwhelming majority of Payment Card Industry (PCI) controls fall in the purview of the DevOps team. This is a skill that demands a single individual be proficient in operations and security, as well as programming (i.e. Infrastructure-as-Code). Amazingly, 70% of PCI controls are actually provisioning time controls and changing them requires a substantial amount of rework. Thus, adding PCI compliance to an existing infrastructure becomes a 6-12 month process. This is especially true with a detailed and prescriptive standard like PCI versus a more abstract one like SOC 2.

Building out a modest-size infrastructure of 50 VMs can take one DevOps and one InfoSec engineer working full-time for at least 3-6 months, and require their continued support for ongoing compliance maintenance. These have traditionally been independent job profiles. Developers are not operators, operators’ programming skills are limited to basic scripting and most operators don’t have a good grasp of compliance standards.

The role of DevOps in PCI compliance

Today most automation workflows in a highly regulated industry cut developer access to infrastructure. PCI controls like those in sections 7 and 8 in the PCI DSS standard explicitly mandate a ‘Just-in-time’ need basis access control implementation. Implementing this in a highly distributed microservices-based cloud infrastructure is a herculean task. Imagine the complexity of AWS IAM policies to achieve this on a per user per login basis for dozens of services and environments. The end result is either developers have no access or they have too much access in violation of compliance. Due to this reason, many organizations approach PCI compliance after a substantial part of the product has been built, which has its own set of challenges.

There are now scores of touchpoints for security configurations all distributed in the cloud infrastructure. There is also a high degree of volatility. From Kubernetes, Virtual Networks, application endpoints, WAF to host operating systems the sheer number of systems to be secured is overwhelming and requires many disparate tools that need to be stitched together in complex workflows by humans, which is both error-prone and laborious.

Implementing PCI controls is a time-consuming and exhaustive process, but necessary given that cloud applications must be PCI DSS compliant in order to accept, transmit, or store cardholder data while avoiding theft, fraud, and misuse. Even with today’s automation tools and scripting languages, implementing a highly secure and compliant cloud infrastructure within PCI applications is far from a solved problem.

The limitations of Infrastructure-as-Code (IAC)

While IAC has become a new trend in terms of automating and maintaining Infrastructure, it is at the end of the day a scripting language. It does not tell the user what configurations to apply, the onus on writing IAC is still on the user. While there are ready-made libraries or modules for some standard functions, an engineer without a sound operations background cannot build and maintain IAC.

As an organization’s infrastructure needs grow, it becomes more complicated to guarantee that all the created infrastructure is secure, compliant, and in line with today’s best practices. Given the increasing diversity of tools and configurations, it gets harder to write, test, review, and roll out code. In fact, the 2020 Cloud Threat Report released by Palo Alto Networks identifies around 200,000 potential vulnerabilities in existing Infrastructure-as-Code templates.

New solutions for DevSecOps-as-a-Service

The level of automation that is required to maintain an agile development of products in the cloud while also adhering to compliance standards like PCI, is beyond the reach of most organizations. This is especially true in the case of fast-growing companies with limited resources. Product development and go-to-market strategies tend to be top priorities, so the foundation for the infrastructure provisioning and automation architecture at the DevOps layer is often in place before compliance requirements are even considered.

Fortunately, most companies realize these challenges exist and are working rapidly to solve them through things like no-code/low-code automation and compliance. These new solutions claim to deliver DevSecOps-as-a-Service where security and compliance are baked into the system while engineers focus on building their product and are not required to be compliance or DevOps gurus. These new solutions will greatly ease the lives of Developers and DevOps teams allowing them to get past the compliance hurdle in order to focus on what they’re good at – building tomorrow’s next great applications.

Automation and scripting languages like IAC have helped to streamline infrastructure provisioning, but they are not a panacea. As cloud infrastructure becomes more complex, it gets harder to write, test, review, and roll out code. It is clear that more needs to be done to guarantee that all created infrastructure is secure, compliant, and in line with today’s best practices. No-code/low-code automation and compliance solutions are the way forward, providing a simpler and more effective way for organizations to maintain an agile development of products in the cloud while also adhering to compliance standards like PCI.

In conclusion, the advent of microservices has transformed the way applications are built and deployed. The benefits of microservices architecture in terms of scalability and agility are undeniable, but it has also brought about new security challenges. Ensuring PCI compliance in a highly distributed microservices-based cloud infrastructure is a herculean task, and traditional approaches to DevOps and InfoSec are no longer sufficient. Organizations need to adapt to new solutions that deliver DevSecOps-as-a-Service, allowing engineers to focus on building their product without being compliance or DevOps experts.