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Agile & Security: How to keep it safe when you’re moving fast

February 28, 2013 No Comments

Talk to any software developers and they’ll tell you about the importance of security.  A key component of development, effective security practices that prevent compromised data, exploited vulnerabilities and other breaches are critical for creating a solid product that satisfies and protects customers at the same time.

Plenty of developers will also tell you about the multiple benefits of Agile methodology. By addressing issues from scalability to cost to time-to-market, Agile development can offer a significant advantage over waterfall development in many ways.

So do security and Agile go together? Yes, they do. But some developers don’t know that. They see Agile’s speed as a stumbling block when it comes to implementing effective software security. Agile’s rapid development cycles means that releases occur in often just two to four weeks – and the process is so dynamic that many teams think they don’t have time to follow a long and complicated security checklist. As a result, some developers skimp on security measures, opening the door to a host of possible threats.

In fact, smart security practices can and should work in tandem with standard Agile methodology – and teams can build secure code without sacrificing time or resources. Because Agile technique involves detecting defects early in the development lifecycle and quickly making course corrections, in some ways it’s uniquely suited to building software tailored to the customer’s specific security needs.

Team Training: The Foundation of Secure Development

To incorporate security practices smoothly into Agile methodology, the first step is understanding the difference between development methods. Teams using waterfall or other methods usually feature one or two security experts who play a defined and critical role. This is in stark contrast to Agile, where hierarchy is discarded in favor of skilled and nimble teams.

What this means for your team: training. Thorough, ongoing, up-to-date training. While you’ll want to assign your strongest, most experienced developers to the most security-sensitive parts of the project, the entire team must understand secure development. What’s also critical: ensuring that whoever is in charge of prioritizing the project tasks grasps the importance of security.

Security concerns must be addressed from the beginning. Smart and effective measures need to be included in design and coding at the start; the team must be able to foresee possible problems and vulnerabilities to choose the right software design and platform. Security dialogues should be included in all daily meetings, with any impediments addressed like any other obstacle.

One of the top criteria for a security-savvy Agile team is knowing the right risks to watch for during the development lifecycle. To identify possible attack vectors, they should consider the software’s purpose and deployment, as well as the kind of data it will involve. As the software evolves, practices like pair programming and automated testing can catch and remove defects; changes to high-risk code should be manually reviewed against security coding checklists. Your team might even consider doing a security sprint focused on identifying and fixing security issues.


Delivering Speed and Security Together

All of this might sound burdensome, but it can and should become a part of Agile methodology. Don’t think it has to slow you down, either. With the right training, Agile teams can move as quickly as ever. In fact, Agile’s adaptability and accelerated delivery cycle can be an advantage when it comes to security.

Why? Well, think back to the days when software was developed over many months, then pushed out via a packaged disc. Security flaws weren’t exposed until it was too late. Agile releases, on the other hand, offer an opportunity to revisit the security of your product and identify any vulnerabilities, thereby minimizing post-production security risks. Just as efficient teams use a roadmap of customer challenges to deliver user-oriented solutions in their products, they can utilize the real-time feedback and review process to cater to unique customer security needs.

Of course, part of what makes security threats so tricky is their tendency to keep mutating. It’s not enough to incorporate a set of security measures into your development lifecyle; to address the latest threats, your team must stay knowledgeable on industry security standards. Regulatory bodies like PCI DSS and HIPAA have guidelines that are changing and evolving all the time – and those guidelines have a strong impact on security, especially when it comes to cloud infrastructure.

To guarantee a secure product, your team leaders must not only monitor those standards closely, but align your development practices with them. Remember when we said your team would need ongoing training? Keeping up with the evolution of those guidelines is one reason why. Agile developers must understand the latest security requirements and weapons for every project.

Customer Satisfaction, Company Success

Agile development is known for several traits: accelerated market time, technical excellence, and a commitment to customer satisfaction. Implementing smart and current security measures should be a mandatory aspect of Agile methodology for all developers – and by following the right steps, they can partner those practices with their customary speed to offer a truly exceptional product.

Cliff Schertz is the CEO of Tiempo Development a nearshore software development company that focuses on cloud enterprise software.  Cliff is a recognized leader in Agile methodology for both engineering and corporate strategy. Cliff works with universities in the US and Mexico along with the government of Mexico to create a regional strength in software engineering. His work has brought many professional jobs to the border region of the US and Mexico.

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