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Safety by Design: Best Practices in IaC Security.


The dawn of the cloud era has been nothing short of a revolution, changing the landscape of how businesses conceive, design, and manage their infrastructure. Gone are the days when setting up a server required hands-on hardware configuration and weeks of meticulous planning. Today, a few lines of code can spawn an entire fleet of servers, databases, and network configurations in minutes. This transformation, made possible by the paradigm of Infrastructure as Code (IaC), is undeniably powerful. However, with such power comes a unique set of challenges, especially in the realm of security.


The following chart displays the leading cloud infrastructure service providers.



What is Infrastructure as Code (IaC)?

Infrastructure as Code (IaC) refers to the process of managing, provisioning, and configuring computing resources through machine-readable definition files rather than using physical hardware configuration or interactive configuration tools. It's like writing code to represent and instantiate your entire server environment.

This practice is vital for implementing and maintaining consistent and repeatable infrastructures. With IaC, infrastructure provisioning and management can be integrated into software development and deployment workflows, making it essential in the era of DevOps and continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD).


IaC brings a few benefits that cannot be overlooked.

1. Consistency: One of the significant challenges in infrastructure management is ensuring that every environment is set up similarly. In traditional setups, even slight configuration or software version variations between environments can lead to unexpected behaviors. This discrepancy is often humorously (and frustratingly) referenced as the "it works on my machine" problem.

With IaC, the same code is used to provision all environments, whether a developer's local setup, a staging server, or a production server. This means all configurations, dependencies, and settings are replicated precisely each time. The machine-readable definition files ensure a single source of truth for the infrastructure setup. This reduces the chances of discrepancies and environment-specific bugs, leading to smoother deployment

cycles and less time spent debugging environment-related issues.


2. Speed: Setting up infrastructure manually (mostly in large organizations) can be a time-consuming process. From provisioning servers, configuring network settings, and setting up databases to installing the necessary software, these tasks can sometimes take hours, if not days.

IaC tools automate these processes. A wholly configured environment can be provisioned with a single command or push of a button. This is especially beneficial in agile setups where environments might need to be provisioned and decommissioned rapidly, such as feature branches needing their own environments or quick scaling in response to traffic demands.


3. Documentation: Documentation is almost always a pain in the back. Traditionally, infrastructure documentation was maintained separately. This documentation could quickly become outdated, leading to discrepancies between the actual and documented setup.

With IaC, the code is the documentation. Every aspect of the infrastructure, from server types, sizes, and locations to network configurations, is written down in code. Anyone can read this code to understand the infrastructure's current state. This ensures the documentation is always up-to-date and reduces the overhead of maintaining separate documentation.


4. Version Control: Like any other code, IaC can be versioned in source control repositories, ensuring historical tracking, rollback capabilities, and collaboration. Infrastructure changes, especially in dynamic environments. Tracking these changes and understanding what was changed, when, and by whom can be crucial for debugging, auditing, and compliance.

Since IaC treats infrastructure setup as code, it can be stored in version control systems like Git. This offers a clear history of all changes, the ability to roll back to previous configurations, and collaboration tools to ensure that teams can work together efficiently and basically takes the benefits of code development to the infrastructure level.


5. Cost Effective: Traditional infrastructure setups often involve provisioning for peak usage. This means you pay for resources even when they're not necessary are in use, which can be inefficient and costly.

IaC, combined with cloud services, allows you to work in a dynamic environment, provisioning and de-provisioning resources. For example, a testing environment can be set up only when required and torn down afterward, ensuring you only pay for the actual usage. Saving you redundant resources.



Securing Infrastructure as Code

The concept of IaC, while being transformative, isn't merely about speed and scalability. It's about repeatability, reliability, and, most crucially, security. Infrastructure scripts can be vulnerable to various threats like any code, from misconfigurations to explicit malicious attacks. But unlike traditional code, a vulnerability in IaC can have immediate, wide-reaching, and catastrophic consequences. A single oversight can expose sensitive data, cripple essential services, or give attackers the keys to the proverbial kingdom.

As we delve deeper into the intricacies of IaC security presented by the owasp organization. We'll uncover how principles like the "Principle of Least Privilege", threat modeling, managing secrets, version control, and static analysis are no longer optional but foundational elements in the IaC playbook. And we’ll understand the steps for deploying secured infrastructure components.


Develop and Distribute


1. Threat Modelling: Threat modeling is a structured approach used to identify, quantify, and address the security risks associated with-in the IaC. It ensures there is enough visibility and flexibility for the high-risk, high-volume aspects of the code to include security throughout to ensure the assets are safely managed. Threat Modeling involves assessing potential threats to the infrastructure. By understanding possible vulnerabilities in the infrastructure code, teams can preemptively address issues, ensuring that deployments are secure.


2. Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP): PoLP is a computer security concept in which a user or process is given the minimum access levels necessary to perform its tasks. To ensure that IaC deployments run with the minimum necessary permissions, follow these priority items:

  1. Defining who is and is not authorized to create/update/run/delete the scripts and inventory.

  2. Limiting the permissions of authorized IaC users to what is necessary to perform their tasks.

Unnecessary permissions can lead to significant security vulnerabilities.


3. Secrets Management: Hardcoding secrets in a code is a risk no developer should take. When talking about Infrastructure Code scripts, the risks grow exponentially. Exploited codes in infrastructure can expose an organization to a catastrophic cyber incident that can shut it down.

Instead, use secret management tools or platforms (e.g., HashiCorp Vault, AWS Secrets Manager) to dynamically and securely inject secrets when deploying infrastructure.


4. IDE Plugins: Integrated Development Environment (IDE) plugins are tools or extensions used within development environments. They can offer syntax highlighting, autocompletion, error detection, and other features tailored for IaC scripting languages. These plugins enhance the developer experience by catching syntax errors, suggesting best practices, and providing shortcuts. For instance, a Terraform plugin for Visual Studio Code might highlight misconfigurations before executing the code.


5. Version Control: Version control is the practice of tracking and managing changes to software code. Version control systems (e.g., Git) track and manage code-based changes, allowing multiple users to collaborate and maintain a history of changes. This provides an audit trail, supports collaboration, enables rollbacks, and ensures a single source of truth for the infrastructure code.


6. Static Analysis: Static Analysis concept analyzes the code in isolation. It identifies risks, misconfigurations, and compliance faults only relevant to the IaC. IaC tools like Checkov or TerraScan scan IaC scripts, identifying potential security and compliance issues before deployment.


7. Open Source dependency check: Many projects rely on open-source components, which may have known vulnerabilities. An Open Source dependency ensures that the open-source tools or modules used within your IaC scripts are routinely checked for vulnerabilities. Tools like OWASP Dependency-Check can help in identifying known issues.


8. Container Image Scan: If your IaC deployments involve containers, scan these container images for vulnerabilities before deploying.

Tools like Trivy, Clair, or Docker's built-in scanner will help you ensure the images are free from known vulnerabilities.


9. Artifact Signing: Artifact signing involves attaching a cryptographic signature to code artifacts, confirming the integrity and origin of the artifact. If you use or consume software artifacts (like packages or container images) in your IaC deployment, ensure these are signed and verified. This will help you guarantee that the artifacts haven't been tampered with and come from a trusted source.



Deploy IaC

While the development phase of IaC requires detailed planning and scripting, the deployment phase is where these scripts come alive, translating into actual, tangible resources in the cloud or on-premises environments. But this isn't a mere execution of predefined steps. It's a critical phase where oversight can lead to vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, or inefficiencies that could cost businesses in the long run.

The deployment of IaC is an orchestra of steps, each intricately tied to the other, harmoniously working together to paint the broader picture of the desired infrastructure. Here are five steps to track while deploying IaC.


1. Inventory Management: One of the first steps in a secure IaC deployment is understanding what assets you have and how they are configured. Proper inventory management is about maintaining an up-to-date catalog of all infrastructure assets. In IaC, the infrastructure’s blueprint is already in the code, giving organizations a clear record of what's being provisioned. With a centralized IaC repository, you can maintain a live inventory of their cloud assets and configurations.


2. Commissioning: This is the process of introducing new infrastructure assets into the environment. In an IaC paradigm, when new infrastructure components are needed, they are coded into the IaC scripts and deployed, ensuring that new assets are consistently configured and adhere to organizational security policies. Automated checks can be integrated to verify that the commissioning follows best practices.


3. Decommissioning: Similar to the commissioning process, the decommissioning process is the safe removal of infrastructure assets when they are no longer needed or have become obsolete. The decommissioning process in IaC means modifying the business core, removing code definitions, and re-running the script. It is crucial to ensure data is securely wiped and that no lingering access points or dependencies could lead to vulnerabilities.


4. Tagging: Tagging is a simple practice of adding metadata to infrastructure assets. These tags can include information about ownership, purpose, lifecycle stage, or other relevant data. When deploying with IaC, tags can be programmatically assigned to every asset, ensuring consistency. Proper tagging can aid cost allocation, security monitoring, and compliance reporting. For instance, a tag could indicate which assets store sensitive data, requiring stricter security controls.


5. Dynamic Analysis: Dynamic analysis involves studying systems during runtime. This approach can help identify vulnerabilities manifest only when the system is operational. Once the infrastructure is deployed using IaC, dynamic analysis tools monitor the running environment, checking for misconfigurations, potential breaches, or any signs of malicious activity. This live analysis can catch issues that static analysis might miss, ensuring a layered defense strategy.



The dawn of IaC heralded a new era for IT operations and development, fundamentally reshaping how we conceive, deploy, and manage digital infrastructure. We've unlocked unprecedented scalability, consistency, and speed by converting tangible hardware and software configurations into lines of code. However, we also encountered unique challenges and vulnerabilities with this newfound power.

Ultimately, the process of securing IaC mirrors the attributes of the infrastructure itself: it's continually changing, flexible, and focused on future needs. In our roles as businesses, developers, and technology experts, we have the responsibility and the ability to ensure that this emerging field remains secure, efficient, and robust.



Stay Safe!


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