Application Security – The Complete Guide

Application Security Complete Guide
Application Security Complete Guide

Application security is an essential part of the software development lifecycle, and getting it right should be a top priority in today’s ever-evolving and expanding digital ecosystem. Application security is the practice of protecting your applications from malicious attacks by detecting and fixing security weaknesses in your applications’ code. 

Organizations today invest a lot of time and money in information security tools and processes that help them secure their applications throughout the software development lifecycle. Achieving application security has become a major challenge for software engineers, security, and DevOps professionals as systems become more complex and hackers are continuously increasing their efforts to target the application layer.

How can software development organizations make sure that they have all the tools and processes in place to effectively address the many threats to application security?

Applications Remain The Weakest Security Link

Findings from top industry research reports show that attacking application weaknesses and software vulnerabilities remains the most common external attack method. For example, Verizon’s 2020 Data Breach Investigations Report recently found that web applications are a top hacking vector in breaches. The Verizon report asserts that “this trend of having web applications as the vector of these attacks is not going away.”

web applications are a top hacking vector in breaches

Forrester’s 2020 State of Application Security Report also predicted that application vulnerabilities will continue to be the most common external attack method, and found that most external attacks target either software vulnerabilities or web applications.

applications are still the weakest link

Based on Forrester’s The State Of Application Security 2020

Unfortunately, it appears that most organizations continue to invest in the protection of other attack vectors. Currently, the amount of investment in protecting certain areas like the network is often inconsistent with the level of risk associated with them in today’s threat landscape.

According to the Ponemon Institute’s Research Report The Increasing Risk to Enterprise Applications, “Investment in application security is not commensurate with the risk.” The research report shows that “There is a significant gap between the level of application risk and what companies are spending to protect their applications,” while “the level of risk to networks is much lower than the investment in network security.”

Investment in application security is not commensurate with the risk

In order to ensure effective application security, organizations need to make sure that their application security practices evolve beyond the old methods of blocking traffic, and understand that investing heavily in network security is not enough.

The Main Application Security Technologies

When it comes to investing in application security tools, the market is full of a variety of new and old technologies and solutions to help organizations improve their application security and ensure it keeps up with the security challenges of the evolving threat landscape. 

Forrester’s market taxonomy for application security tools makes a distinction between two market segments: security scanning tools and runtime protection tools, and predicts that spending will continue to rise for both categories.

 Application Security solutions market 2017 - 2023

Each category of application security testing tools focuses on a different stage in the software development lifecycle. Security scanning tools are used to remediate vulnerabilities when applications are in development. Runtime protection is performed when applications are in production. It’s important to remember that runtime protection tools provide an extra layer of protection and are not an alternative to scanning.

Application Security Testing tools: Security Scanning Tools and Runtime Protection Tools

Security scanning tools are used primarily in development — applications are tested in the design and build stages. The goal of security scanning tools is prevention. They detect and remediate vulnerabilities in applications before they run in a production environment. Tools in this market include SAST (static application security testing), DAST (dynamic application security testing), IAST (interactive application security testing), and software composition analysis.

Runtime protection tools come in later in production. They are designed to protect against malicious players while an application is running in a production environment. These tools react in real-time to defend against attacks. This market is segmented into web application firewalls (WAF), bot management, and RASP (runtime application self-protection).

Each one of these application security testing technologies has its own set of features and functions, and its strong and weak points. No single tool can be used as a magic potion against malicious players. Organizations need to analyze their specific needs and choose the tools that best support their application security policy and strategy.

application security testing tools features

Getting It Right: The Application Security Maturity Model

While getting the right tools for application security is important, it is just one step. Though most tools today focus on detection, a mature application security policy goes a few steps further to bridge the gap from detection to remediation. 

Considering the continuous increase in known software vulnerabilities, focusing on detection will leave organizations with an incomplete application security model. Application security tools often provide security and development teams with exhausting laundry lists of security alerts. However, teams also need to have the means to quickly fix the issues that present the biggest security risks.

In order to address the most urgent application security threats, organizations need to adopt a mature application security model that includes prioritization and remediation on top of detection.

While detecting as many security issues in the application layer is extremely important, considering the current threat landscape and competitive release timelines, it has become unrealistic to attempt to fix them all. It’s important to remember Gartner analysts’ Neil MacDonald and Ian Head’s statement from Gartner’s 10 Things to Get Right for Successful DevSecOps: “Perfect security is impossible, Zero risk is impossible. We must bring continuous risk and trust-based assessment and prioritization of application vulnerabilities to DevSecOps.”

A mature application security model includes strategies and technologies that help teams prioritize — providing them the tools to zero-in on the security vulnerabilities that present the biggest risk to their systems so that they can address them as quickly as possible. Otherwise, teams end up spending a lot of valuable time sorting through alerts, debating what to fix first, and running the risk of leaving the most urgent issues unattended.

Next in the application security maturity model comes remediation — technologies that integrate seamlessly into the development cycle to help remediate issues when they are relatively easier and cheaper to fix, and update vulnerable versions automatically. 

application security maturity model

Application Security at the Speed of DevSecOps

As development cycles get shorter, security professionals and developers struggle to address security issues while keeping up with the increasingly rapid pace of release cycles. This constant push and pull between application security needs and the speed of development often results in friction between developers who don’t want security to slow them down and security professionals who feel developers are neglecting security. The DevSecOps approach attempts to address this conflict, and break the silos between developers and security.

Reducing Enterprise Application Security Risks:

More Work Needs to Be Done

DevSecOps addresses the challenge of continuously increasing the pace of development and delivery without compromising on security. First came DevOps, which helped organizations create shorter release cycles so that they could meet the market demand of delivering innovative software products at a rapid pace. DevSecOps adds security to the mix, integrating security throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC), to make sure that security doesn’t slow down development and application development is both agile and secure.

DevSecOps aims to seamlessly integrate application security in the earliest stages of the SDLC, by updating organizations’ application security practices, tools, and teamwork. It calls for shifting security testing left to help teams work together to address security issues early in development when remediation can be relatively simple. 

Hackers Are Also Keeping up with the Evolving Software Development Landscape

As applications evolve and take on new forms, malicious players adapt to the new technologies and environments. The days of applications being heavy monolithic client/server behemoths are long gone, and your application security strategies need to keep up in order to protect against current threats to your applications. 

Attackers compromise modern applications through unsecured API endpoints, unvalidated API payloads, and client-side attacks injecting malware into unprotected scripts. The rise of new architectures like cloud-native and frameworks offers new attack surfaces. Security professionals need to adjust their focus and address issues like image integrity, vulnerabilities in common container images, and changes to containers and functions in production.

Application security is a constantly evolving ecosystem of tools and processes. If you want to stay ahead of the hackers, you need to make sure that your application security practices are the best.

See Our Additional Guides on Key Security Testing Topics

Together with our content partners, we have authored in-depth guides on several other topics that can also be useful as you explore the world of security testing.

Vulnerability Management

White Box Testing


Meet The Author

Patricia Johnson

A technology and business leader with an experience in application development, infrastructure and security and with a strong focus on open source software. Patricia help companies to better manage their open source usage, so they can focus on building great products and maximize the benefits of open source.

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