By Musa Nadir Sani.
Software development has continued to evolve over the years, with developers pushing to release applications in the shortest time-frame possible. In an increasingly digital world, we rely on apps to optimize our lives more and more. Recent statistics show that the average company uses around 110 SaaS applications at any given time. This has led to advancements in the DevOps approach which has aimed at speeding up the production of software by means of a controlled approach of releasing small builds frequently while code evolves. One of such advancements is the adoption of the shift-left and shift-right principles to ensure software remains at a high quality when released.
Understanding the shift-left and shift-right principles
To understand the shift-left and shift-right principles, it is important to first see the DevOps approach as an infinite loop. On the shift-left side of the loop, you have the planning, building, and testing phase of the application development process. While on the shift-right side of the loop, you have the deployment, operation, and monitoring of the application development process. Both sides represent the continuous process involved in software development to ensure quality is met in both design and functionality of an application, alongside business goals and reliability.
Why is shift-left important?
As the demand to cut short the development lifecycle of software to the shortest time frame possible increases, so has the need to adopt strategies that ensure the software remains at the highest quality while also respecting the short release time-frame. The shift-left strategy and the continuous testing strategy are two strategies widely adopted to suit these needs.
The shift-left strategy requires software to be continuously tested as early as possible in the software development lifecycle. This is to ensure that quality is achieved at every stage of development and that bugs are found and fixed early. Rather than wait ’till the last line of code is written for the software before testing, shift-left ensures that testing commences at the very beginning of the development lifecycle.
Another important aspect of the shift-left strategy is that it allows for seamless continuous integration (CI) of software and ensures that the right foundations for future automation of code are built. It is these two concepts that form the core of DevOps, and are also key to addressing the problems associated with increased scalability, complexity, and speed of software in subsequent software releases.
Other key benefits of the shift-left strategy are:
- Cost saving: A successful shift-left strategy would grossly help organizations reduce the overall cost of a development process because bugs are found and fixed early, rather than at the end of the development cycle, when it would be more expensive to eliminate them.
- Fast delivery: Software and the overall product that they are a part of are delivered faster using the shift-left approach because bugs are found early and patched immediately.
- Increased reliability testing: The shift-left strategy also increases the reliability of tests due to the loop-like cycle of the process.
- Faster deployment to the development pipeline: Shift-left strategy helps push code to the development pipeline faster, as bugs are detected early and patched.
- Higher quality code: Shift-left allows code improvements during bug fixes and allows for overall higher quality code when the time for deployment arises.
Challenges of shift-left strategy
Despite the many advantages of the shift-left strategy, a few challenges still exist in its successful implementation. Some of which are:
- Quality control: Maintaining the right levels of quality control during the shift-left processes and the subsequent transition process to the deployment phase can be challenging due to the overall challenges of working with a team of individuals and thousands of lines of code. To mitigate this, it is best to adopt shift-left strategies early in the software development process.
- Code audits: Code auditing is a prequel to the shift-left processes. It is customary for organizations to regularly audit code during the development of software. When code auditing is not done properly, it makes it difficult for the code testing process to run smoothly.
- Sub-par project management: Project management remains a key aspect of software development. Project managers must adopt shift-left strategies to the overall software development lifecycle to ensure quality projects are pushed out within the right time-frame.
- Developers: Developers offer a unique challenge to the adoption of shift-left strategies. Often enough developers are not too keen on regularly testing software as they build it and thus testability must become a key aspect of their skill set.
- Silos: Silos are isolated points in a system where data is isolated and segregated from other parts of the overall architecture. Silos are usually created when groups of developers are all working on a singular project. The main point of using silos is that different parts of the software can be worked on by different groups of individuals at the same time before they are later combined at the end of the development process. Silos, however, slow down the testing phase of code during development and thus the number of silos created during development should be reduced to the barest minimum.
- Improper planning: Simply put, shift-left strategies can be difficult to execute effectively if a plan is not in place at the beginning to guide the entire process.
- API insecurity: Since the shift-left process requires code to be run and tested for bugs, which in turn requires the usage of APIs, not following the best practices of API security would delay the entire process and in extreme cases, affect the deployment of the software. The use of APIs already represents a key aspect of software development, integration, and communication, inadvertently leading to an increase in targeted attacks.
Within the past 12 months alone, following a study of companies within a certain demography, 95% reported an API security incident following a 221% increase in API usage. Adopting the right API security practices thus is extremely important, as it not only allows companies to seamlessly adopt key shift-left strategies, it also ensures that their software remains safe all through the testing and deployment stages, and when in use by consumers.
The DevOps process has continuously evolved over the past decade due to the introduction of several policies that generally help to speed up the production process of software and products while also maintaining quality and secure code throughout. The shift-left strategy is one of such policies, allowing for consistent testing during each integration step in the codebase and ensuring quality in the production process.
While the shift-left strategy is cost saving, allows for faster delivery of software and allows faster deployment into the development pipeline while maintaining quality code, it is often hindered by challenges ranging from quality control, code audits, improper planning, and sub-par project management to API insecurity, silos and poor developer practices.
As far as mitigation is concerned, notably with quality control and code audits, adopting the shift-left strategy in the development process and starting the code audit process early and regularly in the development process are good measures to adopt. Reducing the number of silos needed during software development is also important, alongside user awareness on the importance of API security and adopting shift-left strategy.
Nevertheless, the shift-left strategy remains an effective way of ensuring the DevOps process remains at its premium best.
About the Author: Musa is a certified Cybersecurity Analyst and Technical writer. He has experience working as a Security Operations Center (SOC) Analyst and Cyber Threat Intelligence Analyst (CTI) with a history of writing relevant cyber security content for organizations and sharing security best practices. He is also a regular writer for Bora.
His other interests are aviation, history, DevOps with Web3 and DevSecOps. In his free time, he enjoys burying himself in a book, watching anime, aviation documentaries and sports, and playing video games.