Demystifying Shift-Left Approach in Application Security

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Demystifying Shift-Left Approach in Application Security

Jun 17, 2021
5 minutes

If we look back at the history of traditional software development, we find that the implementation of security controls was often considered a burden that slowed the whole process down. Gradually the development teams would realize that the reason behind this was the introduction of security in the final stages.

So, rather than introducing security in the final stages of development and unnecessarily increasing the burden on developers and security teams, it’s rather favourable if we introduce security earlier in the development cycle. This ‘Shift-Left’ security approach has revolutionized the way businesses have looked at security in the past.

In this blog, we will guide you through the benefits and the right approach to implement the shift-left security approach in your application development process and see how this simple strategy can transform the entire security posture of your organization.

Why Shift Security Left?

Earlier the security teams were thought of as the gatekeepers of the last gate who used to handle security at the tail-end of the development cycle. This usually hindered releases and slowed down deployments thus affecting the overall agility of the business.

But with the shift-left approach, the entire picture has changed. Shifting security left ensures that all the security threats are taken care of during the beginning of the development phase only, thus resulting in more agile and secure business culture.

According to theState of DevOps report, around 45% of the businesses adopting mature security integration techniques like the shift-left approach can detect and remediate security loopholes within the timespan of a single day. However, those lagging behind in the implementation of such techniques can only manage 25% of such vulnerabilities within a day.

Recentresearch by WhiteHat Security showed that at least 50% of the apps had one or more serious exploitable vulnerabilities. Strategies like shifting security left in the development cycle not only make sure that such vulnerabilities are prevented but also make sure that the development process runs smoothly and that too within the stipulated resources.

Benefits of Shift Left Security Strategy

The shift-left security approach brings with it an endless list of benefits. Let’s take a look at some of them:

  1. Saves Cost

It’s now an established fact that if you are able to detect defects early in the software development cycle, you will save tonnes of your resources.Research by experts at IBM suggests that detecting defects in the earlier stages like the design phase is almost 6 times economical than remediation during the later phases like implementation. Moreover, addressing the security vulnerabilities during the testing phase could be more than 15 times more expensive than doing so in the design stage.

  1. Enhances Risk Mitigation 

If we separate security from development, vulnerabilities are bound to slip through and go undetected till the product goes live in the market. This generally causes serious security issues calling for forced patchings and recalls in many critical cases. But risk mitigation could be enhanced if a robust solution for security is directly embedded into the CI/CD pipeline right from the beginning.

Establishing security checkpoints right from the beginning won’t let the vulnerabilities slip through and also prevent the development process from moving forward if some security policy is being violated.

  1. Reduces Time to Market

The modern application development landscape requires businesses to rapidly deliver new and improved versions of their product in order to survive the stiff competition. The shift-left strategy helps development teams achieve this goal of reaching the market much faster. As the vulnerabilities are detected in the earlier stages only, the hassle of overcoming them during the final stages of development gets eliminated and an optimized flow of processes is established.

  1. Creates a Security-Centric Culture

The shift-left security approach embeds security into development right from the start and creates immense opportunities to promote awareness about security. This also helps team members in achieving a greater understanding of how the output of the entire process is impacted by certain crucial processes. This in turn leads to effective development strategies and tighter collaboration with the cross-functional teams.

Shift Security Left Approach in Application Security

Now that we understand how beneficial this strategy is for the success of your product, it is essential to understand what should be the initial steps to approach this technique in terms of application security. Let’s take a look at the basic steps involved.

Step 1: Defining your Strategy

The most crucial step while defining any security journey is to first decide what you want to achieve from that. While making the shift-left security strategy for your organization, a concisely written strategy document can come in handy. Key items that need to be included in this document include milestones, vision, ownership, responsibility, vision and metrics. It can further be expected that the policy document would mature over time and a lot of time shouldn’t be spent trying to perfect it. Iteration over time is one of the most essential things to be kept in mind.

Step 2: Understanding the Software Development Culture Within your Organization

It is important to understand how and where software is created in your organization. This would go a long way in helping you shift security left. Considering the size of your company, this step can range from being straightforward to extremely challenging. This is one of the most significant steps since the end result plays a major role in allowing the security team to understand and recognize places where they can make security move closer to development.

It is also necessary to understand that every business unit should consist of its own tools and software development processes. Key items that need to be identified in this phase include the people who are developing the code (people), the process through which code flows from development to production (process), and the systems that are involved in enabling this process (technology).

Good Read- What is the Vulnerability Testing Process that Companies Should Follow

Step 3: Identifying and Implementing the Essential Security Quality Controls

Despite the immense importance of quality assurance during the software development process, security has not been historically included while defining software quality. This needs to change. Each step of the software development process should contain within itself an opportunity to look for security issues and to give feedback so that the required quality controls could be set up in place.

Step 4: Continuously Training Development Teams on Security Integration

One of the most important steps while shifting security left is to ensure that the developers who do the majority of the coding tasks are well-aware of creating secure code in the first place. This can be a difficult task considering the fact that there stands no practical and objective measure to test where their skills stand currently and how to improve them continually over time. Anyhow, a regular emphasis on training can enhance their overall grasp on the matters of security and support the success of the shift-security left approach.

Shift Left Security Approach with Scenarios

Now let’s try to understand how the shift-left approach actually works with the help of two scenarios.

Scenario 1

In this traditional scenario of application development, the build phase starts without integrating security. Vulnerability scans are performed only later in the runtime environment. This creates critical issues which are difficult and costly to fix and often leads to a lot of frustration.

Scenario 2

In the second scenario (where the shift-left security approach has been implemented), security and development teams work closely to identify vulnerabilities in code and fix them prior to deployment. With automated tests, the software builds are also checked within the deployment phase for security defects. This overall integration of security practices into the CI/CD pipeline results in easier detection and remediation of issues.


Development teams no longer have to look at security as yet another process or a set of tools that slows things down. It has rather become a crucial aspect of the overall development process which allows the development teams to create secure and reliable products without hustling too hard. Approaches like shifting security left can further boost the overall security posture and make a significant impact when it comes to time, cost and risk reduction.

About the author

Subho Halder is the CISO and Co-Founder of Appknox. He started his career researching Mobile Security. Currently, he helps businesses to detect and fix security vulnerabilities. He has also detected critical loopholes in companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and others.