I wrote last Monday’s FireStarter on Process and Peer Pressure because there were a few things bothering me that I needed to get out of my system, but I saved a lot for later. I didn’t really intend to write this followup so soon, but I saw that Cisco announced their own Software Development Lifecycle. I wanted to make some statements on SDL later this year when I begin publishing more concrete Secure Software Development Lifecycle (SSDL in Securosis parlance, SDL for most organizations) guidelines, but Cisco’s announcement changes things. I worry that sheer inertia will prompt the industry as a whole to rubber-stamp SDLs. Before you know it, HR reps will be including “SDL certification” requirements on every engineering job description, without a clue what they are demanding or why, so let’s stop this train before it runs too far off the tracks.

If you are thinking about incorporating Secure Development Lifecycle practices for software development, that’s great. If you have read about Microsoft’s SDL, witnessed Microsoft’s success, seen Cisco’s endorsement, and believe their model will work for you, just stop. It’s not going to work for you. It’s based on a lot of factors and assumptions that do not pertain to you. It’s not a template for your requirements.

Adopting MS-SDL wholesale is a little like a child putting on adult clothes because they want to be ‘big’. You cannot drop that particular process into your development organization and have it fit. More likely you will break everything. Your team will need to change their skills and priorities, and though it sounds cliche, people are resistant to change. Existing processes need to be adjusted to accommodate secure development processes and techniques. You will need new tools, or to augment existing ones. You will need a whole new class of metrics and tracking. And everything you pick the first time will need several iterations of alteration and adjustment before you get it right – this isn’t Microsoft’s first attempt either.

It’s not that the SDL is bad – it isn’t. Microsoft did an excellent job with their SDL. It’s very well thought out, incorporates most effective defect detection techniques, has clearly evolved through several revisions, and includes intelligent tradeoffs in places where there is no single ‘right’ answer. But it is their SDL, not yours. If you take the SDL Microsoft has described and try to implement it, you will fail. I am talking to the 99% of people out there who would think about implementing SDL and think “Hey, Microsoft published this new thingie for free; let’s use it and save ourselves the time and money!” Wrong.

Here’s why:

  1. Too Big: This process is geared for very large firms, with lots of resources, and a genuine desire to get better. You may not need all of it and frankly it would be overwhelming to start with. This is huge – I mean really huge. You are not going to swallow this elephant in a single gulp.
  2. Organic Evolution: Microsoft’s success is not just the introduction of process and techniques. It was not just hiring a handful of really good people and helping to educate the development staff. The MS-SDL reflects several years of focused evolution, and in software that is a lot. They spent a long time looking at the code and figuring out what was wrong. They developed their own tools to help discover problems. They developed software to help track their progress and provide metrics to demonstrate what worked and what did not. They evolved their own threat modeling. They tried, revised, fixed and re-implemented most of what they do several times over. Don’t think their publishing a guide can save you this pain – it cannot.
  3. Resources: People, Tools, and Time are the three classic resources you have when you build code. Resources are scare. Always. OK, if you have billions of dollars in the bank, or you are a bank, you might not be quite as pinched for resources. But developing quality code is expensive. Microsoft had the money to hire some of the best people, to buy or build the best tools, a willingness to take additional time for security before releasing software, and then hire some more of the best people. Your developers work nights and weekends to get the release out the door and collapse in a heap, dreaming about all the things they wanted to do before the code was released. Cisco? Yeah, they can do this. You? You don’t have the resources to do everything, so you need to pick and choose.
  4. Appropriateness of Techniques: Your program calls for white box testing. Great, but you don’t own critical code you rely on. You leverage open source where you can get code, but off-the-shelf software and even Microsoft tools do not provide source code. If you have four thousand web pages, and most of them don’t filter input values, do you really think you are going to fix this in the current release cycle, or are you going to deploy a WAF? If you are starting an application from scratch, your first step will be threat modeling. If you have a huge existing application, forget threat modeling for now – pen testing is probably much more effective and efficient. And it’s not just which techniques, but how you use them. Within all these techniques, there are many variations and supporting requirements that need tweaking so they can work for you. We discuss these tradeoffs in the Use Case portion of Understanding and Selecting a Web Application Security Program white paper, but the point is that the right choice for you is different than the right choice for Microsoft or Cisco, and you can’t discover what’s right for your environment by reading their SDLs.
  5. Do what Microsoft did, not what they do: Using the SDL as your program is a really bad thing to do. I really hope people don’t take this as a slam against Microsoft – my point is to follow Microsoft’s example, rather than their SDL. You need to do what Microsoft did, because you cannot simply jump ahead to what Microsoft is doing today. Microsoft’s journey to where they are now is far more interesting and useful than the specific tools and techniques they eventually settled on. You can learn by example, sure, but you need to answer the same questions – sometimes with different answers, as dictated by your own constraints – to evolve your own process from the beginning. That comes from hard work and analysis, with lots of trial and error mixed in.

There is no shortcut, no secret sauce, no package of Instant Code-Be-Secure. One size does not fit all. Admire what Microsoft has done, for their customers and for the community, learn, and then figure what is relevant to you. You don’t have to completely start from scratch, but you have got work to do in figuring out how you are going to build your own Secure Development Lifecycle.