Security and compliance standards are of paramount importance for organizations in many industries. There is a growing need to seamlessly integrate these standards in an application release cycle. From a DevOps standpoint, an application can be subject to these standards during two phases:

  • Pre-deployment – Standards are enforced in an application deployment pipeline prior to the deployment of the workload. This follows a shift-left testing approach of catching defects early in the release cycle and preventing security vulnerabilities and compliance issues from being deployed into your AWS account. Example of service/tool providing this capability are Amazon CodeGuru Reviewer and AWS CloudFormation Guard for security static analysis.
  • Post-deployment – Standards are deployed in application-specific AWS accounts. They only operate and report on resources deployed in those accounts. Example of a service providing this capability is AWS Config for runtime compliance checks.

For this post, we focus on pre-deployment security and compliance standards.

As a security and compliance engineer, you’re responsible for introducing guardrails based on your organizations’ security policies, ensuring continuous compliance of the workloads and preventing noncompliant workloads from being promoted to production. The process of releasing security and compliance guardrails to the individual application development teams who have to incorporate them into their release cycle can become challenging from a scalability standpoint.

You need a process with the following features:

  • A place to develop and test the guardrails before promotion or activation
  • Visibility into potential noncompliant resources before activating the guardrails (observation mode)
  • The ability to notify delivery teams if a noncompliant resource is found in their workload, allowing them time to remediate before guardrail activation
  • A defined deadline for the delivery teams to mitigate the issues
  • The ability to add exclusions to guardrails
  • The ability to enable the guardrail in production in active mode, causing the delivery pipeline to break if a noncompliant resource is found

In this post, we propose a continuous compliance workflow that uses the pattern of continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) to implement these capabilities. We discuss this solution from the perspective of a security and compliance engineer, and assume that you’re aware of application development terminologies and practices such as CI/CD, infrastructure as code (IaC), behavior-driven development (BDD), and negative testing.

Our continuous compliance workflow is technology agnostic. You can implement it using any combination of CI/CD tools and IaC frameworks such as AWS CloudFormation / AWS CDK as IaC and AWS CloudFormation Guard as policy-as-code tool.

This is part one of a two-part series; in this post, we focus on the continuous compliance workflow and not on its implementation. In Part 2, we focus on the technical implementation of the workflow using AWS Developer Tools, Terraform, and Terraform-Compliance, an open-source compliance framework for Terraform.

Continuous compliance workflow

The security and compliance team is responsible for releasing guardrails implementing compliance policies. Application delivery pipelines are enforced to carry out compliance checks by subjecting their workloads to these guardrails. However, as the guardrails are released and enforced in application delivery pipelines, there should not be an element of surprise for the application teams in which new guardrails suddenly break their pipelines without any warning. A critical ingredient of the continuous compliance workflow is the CI/CD pipeline, which allows for a controlled release of the guardrails to the application delivery pipelines.

To help facilitate this process, we introduce the workflow shown in the following diagram.

continuous compliance workflow

The security and compliance team implements compliance as code using a framework of their choice. The following is an example of compliance as code:

Scenario: Ensure all resources have tags Given I have resource that supports tags defined Then it must contain tags And its value must not be null

This compliance check ensures that all AWS resources created have the tags property defined. It’s written using an open-source compliance framework for Terraform called Terraform-Compliance. The framework uses BDD syntax to define the guardrails.

The guardrail is then checked into the feature branch of the repository where all the compliance guardrails reside. This triggers the security and compliance continuous integration (CI) process. The CI flow runs all the guardrails (including newly introduced ones) against the application workload code. Because this occurs in the security and compliance CI pipeline and not the application delivery pipeline, it’s not visible to the application delivery team and doesn’t impact them. This is called observation mode. The security and compliance team can observe the results of their new guardrails against application code without impacting the application delivery team. This allows for notification to the application delivery team to fix any noncompliant resources if found.

Actions taken for compliant workloads

If the workload is compliant with the newly introduced guardrail, the pipeline automatically merges the guardrail to the mainline branch and moves it to active mode. When a guardrail is in active mode, it impacts the application delivery pipelines by breaking them if any noncompliant resources are introduced in the application workload.

Actions taken for noncompliant workloads

If the workload is found to be noncompliant, the pipeline stops the automatic merge. At this point, an alternate path of the workflow takes over, in which the application delivery team is notified and asked to fix the compliance issues before an established deadline. After the deadline, the compliance code is manually merged into the mainline branch, thereby activating it.

The application delivery team may have a valid reason for being noncompliant with one or more guardrails, in which case they have to take their request to the security and compliance team so that the noncompliant resource is added to the exclusion list for that guardrail. If approved, the security and compliance team modifies the guardrail and updates the exclusion list, and the pipeline merges the changes to the mainline branch. The exclusion list is owned and managed by the security and compliance team—only they can approve an exclusion.

Application delivery pipelines run the compliance checks by first pulling guardrails from the mainline branch of the security and compliance repository and subjecting their respective terraform workloads to these guardrails. Only the guardrails in active mode are pulled, which is ensured by pulling the guardrails from the mainline branch only. This workflow implements the integration of the application delivery pipelines with the security and compliance repository, allowing it to pull the guardrails from the compliance repository on every run of the application pipeline. This integration enforces each AWS resource created in the terraform code to be subjected to the guardrails. If any resource isn’t in line with the guardrails, it’s found to be noncompliant and the pipeline stops deployment.

Customer testimonials

Truist Financial Corporation is an American bank holding company headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. The company was formed in December 2019 as the result of the merger of BB&T and SunTrust Banks. With AWS Professional Services, Truist implemented the Continuous Compliance Workflow using their own tool stack. Below is what the leadership had to say about the implementation:

“The continuous compliance workflow helped us scale our security and operational compliance checks across all our development teams in a short period of time with a limited staff. We implemented this at Truist using our own tool stack, as the workflow itself is tech stack agnostic. It helped us with shifting left of the development and implementation of compliance checks, and the observation mode in the workflow provided us with an early insight into our workload compliance report before activating the checks to start impacting pipelines of development teams. The workflow allows the development team to take ownership of their workload compliance, while at the same time having a centralized view of the compliance/noncompliance reports allows us to crowdsource learning and share remediations across the teams.”

—Gary Smith, Group Vice President (GPV) Digital Enablement and Quality Engineering, Truist Financial Corporation

“The continuous compliance workflow provided us with a framework over which we are able to roll out any industry standard compliance sets—CIS, PCI, NIST, etc. It provided centralized visibility around policy adherence to these standards, which helped us with our audits. The centralized view also provided us with patterns across development teams of most common noncompliance issues, allowing us to create a knowledge base to help new teams as we on-boarded them. And being self-service, it reduced the friction of on-boarding development teams, therefore improving adoption.”

—David Jankowski, SVP Digital Application Support Services, Truist Financial Corporation

Conclusion

In this two-part series, we introduce the continuous compliance workflow that outlines how you can seamlessly integrate security and compliance guardrails into an application release cycle. This workflow can benefit enterprises with stringent requirements around security and compliance of AWS resources being deployed into cloud.

Be on the lookout for Part 2, in which we implement the continuous compliance workflow using AWS CodePipeline and the Terraform-Compliance framework.

About the author

Damodar Shenvi Wagle

 

Damodar Shenvi Wagle is a Cloud Application Architect at AWS Professional Services. His areas of expertise include architecting serverless solutions, ci/cd and automation.

 

 

sumit mishra

 

Sumit Mishra is Senior DevOps Architect at AWS Professional Services. His area of expertise include IaC, Security in pipeline, ci/cd and automation.

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