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CI/CD / Security

Managing Secrets in Your DevOps Pipeline 

This article will discuss best practices for secrets management in the context of continuous integration delivery workflow.
Aug 4th, 2022 8:36am by
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Secrets are the keys to your digital kingdom.

Pavan Belagatti
Pavan Belagatti is a global DevOps influencer, technology writer and storyteller.

They can unlock doors, authorize access and provide admission to your data. But if secrets aren’t managed correctly, they can lead to potential disaster for an organization.

If your credentials are not secured, you are doomed. Hackers are always looking for loopholes to enter your system and misuse the important information that should be kept secret.

Today, we will see what secrets management is and related best practices.

What Is Secrets Management?

Secrets management is a process of securely storing and protecting sensitive data. The need for secrets management arises when a company’s data is at risk of being compromised. The company may have to deal with the repercussions of a security breach that could result in the loss of confidential information, customer data and financial loss. Secrets management is a process that helps reduce the risks associated with sensitive data by identifying, classifying, labeling and storing it securely.

Secrets Management in CI/CD

In a CI/CD pipeline, secrets are used to authenticate and authorize applications, services and systems. Managing authentication credentials for the technologies used in your CI/CD pipeline is a challenging, time-consuming and frequently performed task. Therefore, security and reliability are the most critical features of CI/CD pipelines. Security is generally improved by securing secrets in protected areas, such as with private keys and tokens.

Securing secrets is a fundamental and necessary element of a great CI/CD platform. Confidential data and credentials must be safeguarded from unauthorized access. However, secrets management is often considered difficult because they are not immutable. They are complex and can rotate in and out of scope at any time.

There are many benefits to managing secrets in your CI/CD pipeline, such as standardization of credential storage, offline credential storage for failsafe use during emergencies and the ability to enforce strict access policies. This article will discuss secrets management in the context of continuous integration-delivery workflow and best practices for implementing secrets management.

Types of Secrets

Many types of secrets can be used in a CI/CD pipeline. Some popular kinds of secrets include:

  • API keys: These are used to access external services or APIs.
  • Database credentials: These are used to connect to databases.
  • SSH keys: These are used to authenticate with remote servers.
  • Git credentials: These are used to access private git repositories.

Managing Secrets: General Guidelines

There are many ways to manage secrets in a CI/CD pipeline. Of course, the best approach depends on your specific needs and the tools that you are using. However, there are some general guidelines that you can follow to help you choose the best approach for your situation.

  1. Make sure that all secrets are encrypted.

This is the most important rule. All secrets should be encrypted so they cannot be accessed by unauthorized users.

  1. Store secrets in a secure location.

Secrets should be stored in a secure location, such as a password manager or a secure file storage system. They should not be stored in plain text files or source code repositories.

  1. Use different secrets for different purposes.

Don’t use the same secret for multiple purposes. For example, don’t use the same database password for your development, staging and production environments. This makes it easier to rotate passwords and helps prevent accidental disclosure of sensitive information.

  1. Rotate secrets regularly.

Secrets should be rotated every month or every quarter. This helps to ensure that if a secret is compromised, it can be quickly replaced. It is a good practice to rotate your secrets every 90 days. Every security professional’s primary job is to ensure the teams often rotate their secrets. In addition, if any secret is compromised, the organization should be able to revoke it and stop any further misuse.

  1. Have RBAC in place.

Ensure that access to your project is limited to the authorized people only using role-based access (RBAC). This way, you can keep track of who is doing what and have complete accountability if something goes wrong.

  1. Incorporate zero-trust security.

The zero-trust security model is where anything and everyone is considered hostile. It grants the least privileged access to people working on the project. Strict protocols are followed to gain more access to the project.

  1. Never hard-code secrets.

Never include secrets in your code. If someone gains access to your code, they will also have access to your secrets. Make sure to ask for a code review from your peers.

  1. Use a secretless approach.

In a “secretless” CI/CD pipeline, all secrets are stored outside the CI/CD pipeline and referenced by name only. This can be a good option for organizations that want to simplify their pipeline configuration or don’t have many secrets to manage. But it can be cumbersome when the number of secrets grows.

  1. Use tools.

Use a tool like Hashicorp Vault or AWS KMS to encrypt secrets. This way, even if someone gains access to them, they will not be able to read them without the proper decryption key.

As more organizations adopt CI/CD pipelines, the need to securely manage secrets becomes more critical. There are a few different approaches to managing secrets in CI/CD pipelines, and the best approach depends on the organization’s needs.

Harness Secrets Management

Harness includes a built-in secrets management feature that enables you to store encrypted secrets, such as access keys, and use them in your Harness applications.

Let us see how to add a text secret to our project from Harness.

Your MongoDB string URL can be easily stored in an encrypted fashion that no attacker can guess. This can be done by going to Project setup and clicking on Secrets.

There are primarily three secret types you can employ with Harness: Text, File and SSH Credential. Also, you can pass the secrets via YAML builder. For the above example, we will use a Text-based secret type.

You can name it whatever you wish and store it securely.

You can see above that it is impossible for anyone to see your MongoDB URL string.

Also, you can see the type of secret management tools that can be easily integrated with Harness by going to Connectors and selecting Secret Managers.

You can see more about each secret manager — Azure Key Vault, AWS KMS, HashiCorp Vault, and Google KMS — in this Harness document.

Conclusion

DevSecOps is the most talked-about topic in the cloud native space today. Keeping secrets secure is one of the most important aspects of a DevOps pipeline. Managing your credentials and secret keys should be a high priority in any organization. If the secrets get leaked, it costs a fortune to bring back credibility and trust. Hence, investing in a platform that is well-equipped with a robust secrets management system is very important. Security is an aspect you cannot ignore.

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