Treat Technical Debt Like a Bad Relationship

The notion of technical debt is a long-understood concept in software engineering, product development and delivery. It results in a cost associated with maintaining and perpetuating technical content that maintains, but does not advance, capabilities. It’s a drag on innovation and limits agility when addressing new opportunities. When considering cybersecurity readiness, the enterprise’s ability to minimize technical debt will be a key component of a successful security program.

The Downfall of Technical Debt

No software technology is immune from the impact of technical debt on innovation. However, in the domain of cybersecurity, such debt risks more than an enterprise’s competitive position. This is due to the time spent by security personnel addressing deployment debt rather than staying ahead of the addressable threat landscape.

In the worst-case scenario, an enterprise continues to invest in platforms that are no longer sufficiently effective, resulting in more personnel delivering currency rather than capability. Security debt is a term that has been coined to describe application vulnerabilities that result from such laggardly behavior.

The rapid evolution of information technology, driven by the emergence of cloud computing, is reducing the effective life cycle of traditional enterprise solutions. This has forced software suppliers to accelerate capability delivery through continuous delivery models.

It’s now common and expected that vendors deliver and maintain software products continuously. As an example, security identity and access management (IAM) products, once deployed on-premises by enterprises, are now consumable in multiple ways:

  • Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) is firmware deployable to Amazon Web Services, IBM SoftLayer or on-premises infrastructure platforms. The ability to script and therefore automate deployment and management makes this approach attractive over previous software middleware solutions, which required enterprise hardware and operating systems with appliances and firmware.
  • Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is consumable IAM with no mandatory on-premises components.
  • Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) provides the ability to integrate identity management into development platforms, allowing engineers to easily add identity management operations (e.g., single sign-on) into developed SaaS applications.

The Power of the Cloud

Adoption of cloud-based services provides the enterprise with the ability to minimize technical debt by striking a balance between continuously delivered cloud solutions and existing controls necessary to remain compliant with security requirements. Experienced technical personnel must assess those requirements against available cloud offerings. Increased cloud adoption will free technical security personnel from managing software, empowering them to spend more time on assessments and adoption of technology to stay ahead of evolving threats.

By following a cloud deployment adoption model, enterprise security teams will also become familiar with DevOps and continuous delivery models, which allow organizations to maintain currency, increase speed of adoption and decouple themselves from the technical debt associated with legacy solutions. Along the way, an enterprise can expect to reduce exposure to security vulnerabilities by focusing on automation and integration.

From a cybersecurity perspective, the enterprise must continuously evaluate whether ongoing investments in legacy platforms is throwing good money at bad solutions or whether it’s time to migrate to more modern platforms that support cloud deployment options. The longer it takes to make that transition, the more time adversaries have to exploit the security debt, and the fewer resources you have to advance cybersecurity programs.

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Christopher Hockings

IBM Master Inventor

Chris Hockings is an IBM Master Inventor and Executive IT Specialist. Chris is a member of the IBM World-Wide Security Centre of Excellence team, where he leads a team of security technology experts.Chris is an expert in leading strategic customer solutions around Security for Cloud and Mobile, particularly for the finance and government sectors. He is a member of the IBM Academy, an invitation only group of technologists that have a leading role in guiding IBM's market strategy.