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The Era Before Secrets Management: Developer’s Struggle to Keep It Secure  

In the early days of software development, managing application credentials, or “secrets”, was a challenge that developers often faced with uncertainty. These secrets could range from API keys and passwords, to cryptographic keys and credentials – all vital for the essential functioning of applications but also a potential Achilles’ heel if not handled with extreme care.

In this blog post, we’ll look back at how developers managed secrets, the dangers it presented and the transition to a new world of secrets management solutions.

DennisPrincipal Engineering Consultant

Dennis Baltazar



The Juggling Act of Manual Secret’s Management

Before the advent of dedicated secrets management solutions, developers had to rely on manual methods to handle secrets. This often involved a series of ad-hoc and insecure practices including:

  • Hardcoding Secrets:
    One common approach was hardcoding secrets directly into the source code. While this was convenient for developers, it posed a significant security risk. If a code repository was compromised or a developer with malicious intent had access, secrets were exposed for anyone to see.
  • Spreadsheet Management:
    Some developers resorted to storing secrets in spreadsheets or text files. While this approach was better than hardcoding, it was far from secure. Access controls were rudimentary, and it was challenging to maintain and rotate secrets effectively.
  • Version Control Mishaps:
    Developers would often mistakenly commit secrets to version control systems, exposing them to the entire development team and, potentially, unauthorised individuals.
  • Documentation Hell:
    Keeping secrets in plaintext documentation or sticky notes was not uncommon. It was a time-consuming, error-prone method and offered no real security.
IT developer


The Dangers of Not Securing the Keys of the Kingdom

Manual processes exposed dangers for the development team, including security, compliance, operational and scalability issues. Let’s explore these further.

Security Risks:

Secrets were highly vulnerable to exposure and misuse, leading to data breaches and security incidents. In 2020, Russian hackers compromised the SolarWinds IT management software, injecting a backdoor into its updates. This breach allowed them to access the networks of numerous SolarWinds' clients, including government agencies and major corporations. The breach exposed sensitive secrets, such as cryptographic keys, which the attackers exploited to gain unauthorised access. Proper secrets management, including robust access controls and frequent rotation of keys, could have reduced the impact of this breach and potentially prevented the attackers from maintaining access for an extended period.

Compliance Challenges:

Organisations struggled to meet compliance requirements related to sensitive data, as there was no way to enforce strict access controls and auditing. Compliance challenges posed a significant dilemma for organisations as they grappled with the formidable task of adhering to increasingly stringent regulatory requirements pertaining to sensitive data. The absence of robust secrets management solutions left organisations without a means to enforce and demonstrate compliance with strict access controls and auditing demands. Consequently, organisations faced the constant risk of failing audits, incurring penalties, and damaging their reputation due to non-compliance with regulations such as GDPR, HIPAA, or industry-specific standards.

Operational Inefficiency:

Rotating and updating secrets manually was time-consuming, prone to errors, and often overlooked. Operational inefficiency became a significant challenge as the manual rotation and updating of secrets within operational workflows proved to be a laborious and error-prone task. In a rapidly evolving digital environments, where security is paramount, the need for frequent secrets rotation to mitigate potential breaches is undeniable. However, the manual approach was not only time-consuming but also filled with the risk of human errors that could inadvertently expose sensitive information or disrupt critical operations. Additionally, the sheer volume of secrets in modern applications often led to the oversight of some secrets, leaving them unattended and vulnerable.

Scalability Issues:

As applications grew more complex, the task of managing secrets became increasingly unwieldy. The expanding intricacy of modern software ecosystems, characterised by a proliferation of microservices, containerisation, and cloud-based architectures, led to an unprecedented number of secrets, including API keys, cryptographic credentials, and access tokens, scattered across various platforms and environments. Scalability issues arose as the sheer volume of secrets multiplied, necessitating organisations to adopt more sophisticated secrets management solutions and practices to navigate this increasingly complex terrain.


The Paradigm Shift with Secrets Management Solutions

The advent of secrets management solutions brought a radical change to the way developers handled secrets. These solutions offered secure centralised storage, automated rotation, strict access controls, and auditing capabilities.
The transition from manual to automated secrets management brought numerous benefits:

Enhanced Security: Secrets management solutions employ encryption and strict access controls to safeguard sensitive data, reducing the risk of exposure

Secrets management solutions employ strong encryption mechanisms to protect sensitive data. They ensure that secrets are stored and transmitted securely, reducing the risk of exposure due to unauthorised access or breaches. In addition, these solutions implement strict access controls, ensuring that only authorised users and applications can access the stored secrets. This greatly reduces the risk of insider threats and unauthorised access.

Compliance Assistance: Secrets management tools often provide auditing and reporting features that aid in compliance efforts

Centralised secrets management solutions maintain detailed audit trails and logs of who accessed secrets, when they were accessed, and for what purpose. These audit logs can be crucial in demonstrating compliance with various regulatory requirements, such as GDPR, HIPAA, or PCI DSS. Many secrets management tools provide reporting features that help organisations track and report on the usage and management of secrets, making compliance efforts more straightforward.

Efficiency: Developers no longer had to manually update and rotate secrets, saving time and effort

Centralised secrets management solutions automate the process of updating and rotating secrets. This automation saves developers and operations teams a significant amount of time and effort. They no longer need to manually manage secrets, reducing the risk of human error. Automation also ensures that secrets are consistently managed across the organisation. This is especially important in large and complex environments, where manual activities can lead to inconsistencies and security risks.

Developer Productivity: With secrets automatically retrieved at runtime, developers could focus on writing code rather than managing secrets

Centralised secrets management solutions allow developers to retrieve secrets programmatically at runtime. This means that secrets are fetched when needed, rather than being hard-coded into applications or configuration files. Developers can focus on writing code without worrying about the complexities of managing secrets. Secrets management tools are designed with DevOps in mind. They can seamlessly integrate into continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipelines.

manage your debt

The era before secrets management was characterised by a lack of security and operational inefficiencies. Developers had to navigate a minefield of potential security breaches, compliance challenges, and operational headaches.

The adoption of secrets management solutions has not only mitigated these risks but also streamlined the development process, allowing developers to work in a more secure and efficient environment. In retrospect, it’s clear that secrets management solutions have been a game-changer in the world of software development, and they continue to play a crucial role in ensuring the security of digital assets in our modern age.

Still using inefficient and dangerous practices to store your secrets? Ask our team to show you how we can help.

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