Policy-as-code (PaC) is a modern approach that brings many advantages in terms of automation, efficiency, collaboration, etc., to the teams implementing it.
You might have framed and stored organizational policies in your databases.
But how often do you track the changes done to them and whether they are being applied correctly or not?
I understand it’s hard to keep track of everything, especially with changing rules and regulations.
However, if the policies are not implanted correctly, it may cause damage to the organization, for instance, security and compliance wise.
To this, if you codify your policies and present them in text files, it becomes easier for everyone to follow them.
This is what policy-as-code gives you and more. It also lets you track the changes done to your policies and how they are being implemented, and it helps in maintaining security and compliance as well.
So, let’s understand policy-as-code, its benefits, and how to implement it in your organization.
What Is Policy-as-Code?
To understand policy-as-code better, let’s define what a policy is in this context.
Policy: A policy can be a rule, instruction, or condition governing IT processes or operations. It defines the criteria that must always be met for a process to be approved.
For example, a given piece of code must meet the applicable policies so that it passes the IT security policies and gets deployed.
Policies can be of different types: operational policies, security policies, and compliance policies.
policy-as-code: Policy-as-code (PaC) is a policy management approach that uses code to define, share, enforce, and update policies. It requires teams to write policies using a high-level programming language like Python, Java, YAML, etc., based on the PaC tools in use.
PaC allows organizations to accelerate their processes by utilizing code-based automation rather than relying on manual ways of policy management. It also makes it easier for stakeholders in different domains (like IT security and development) to understand policies better.
For example, if a developer wants to make some updates, they can modify the current code and even share it with others if needed. It will allow them to view their policies and ensure they do not deviate from them.
Businesses now use modern techniques from development to deployment, a lot of tools, and resources. This may include on-premises infrastructure, private and public clouds, virtual machines, Software as a Service (SaaS) models and tools, and many more.
Apart from using various resource management and orchestration tools, businesses rely heavily on cloud providers for provisioning. This also requires significant expertise to integrate and make all the components easy to communicate, do periodic patches, and address security issues.
Now the problem was that it took a great deal of time and resources to manage, review, audit, and approve changes to your infrastructure, let alone the money spent on vendors, software, and hardware.
A good solution to this is IaC. IaC utilizes code-based files for automating the provisioning and configuring process. It’s a common practice for almost every IT operation team.
On the other hand, PaC extends IaC by bridging the gap between DevOps and IaC. PaC helps improve the data management, compliance, and security operations of all your deployments. In addition, its use cases are wider than IaC; PaC is being used throughout the software development lifecycle.
Furthermore, PaC tools support multiple integrations and platforms, can limit access permissions of authorized users, and grant access as per least privileges. Policies can also define boundaries through blocklist and allowlist and monitor your infrastructure to ensure compliance across the infrastructure lifecycle and clouds.
How Does Policy-as-Code Work?
Policy-as-code is actually a readable, scripted file with all the terms and conditions outlined on how something should be done. For instance, it can outline the testing policy for an application or its creation, deployment, and maintenance.
Policies are created using a high-level programming language like Java, Python, etc., compatible with different tools used in the organization.
Policies written as code are then entered into a system (policy engine) with queries. After taking the policy code as input, the policy engine processes the code and outputs the result of the query.
Next, the result creates a decision aligning with the current policies. It helps determine the appropriate types of software security testing and when the testing team should do it, and in which areas.
Also, policies are implemented through an API call made to a CI pipeline, ensuring you can easily run security tests without breaking any code. While creating policy-as-code, consider the following points:
Check the dependencies and whether the testing can break your deployment or build. Determine the issues and enter them into an issue tracker tool.
Inspect when the last change was done and what was its magnitude. Also, figure out whether any extra testing or code review is needed for it or not.
Find out if the software has sensitive data on it, what its attack surface looks like, and any risks to downtime that may arise.
To work, the policy-as-code utilizes three elements:
Policy: PaC uses a given policy itself with code inside to facilitate decision-making.
Data: PaC uses data about a given software application, environment, or service.
Query: A query triggers the process of decision-making on the basis of available data and the entered policy to the policy engine.
Why Do You Need Policy-as-Code?
Traditional policy enforcement processes are semi-automated or manual. Here, a software development team embeds policy-enforcement code in its applications.
They implement the code according to their wish since there’s no defined framework. As a result, it becomes difficult to audit this code, and the process also becomes difficult to scale.
Another problem with traditional policy enforcement is that policies are updated frequently with changing conditions, which is challenging to track and implement for teams. Also, different teams might interpret and implement the policies differently if there are no frameworks defined.
In addition, modern businesses need to comply with regulations like PCI DSS, SOC2, etc., which are enforced manually or as a part of the whole business logic. These pieces of code are written in various languages, managed by different development teams, and stored in code repo. So, changing something may take significant time, from weeks to months, for implementation.
All these can result in confusion, errors, resource wastage, and tiresome and time-consuming. But if you implement policy-as-code, you will get the power of automation for defining the policies, creating and validating test cases, and finally enforcing them.
Here are the benefits of using policy-as-code, screaming the reasons why you need to implement it.
Policy-as-code facilitates automation with the help of various tools. Such tools enable users to automate repeated, tiresome tasks like creating, defining, managing, and updating policies. In addition, you can even automate the policy testing process with CI/CD tools and ensure everything is fine before deployment.
Testing and Validation
Policies are code, and you can easily validate their behavior and syntax using some automated tools. This also facilitates automated testing via a CI/CD system. It will help you detect policy violations and vulnerabilities and determine whether policies are implemented well before deployment.
Furthermore, if you combine it with a version control system (VCS), you can verify whether the system behavior is as per the expectation before integration. You can set policies via a graphical user interface (GUI) and test them through a pull request.
PaC provides sandbox security in order to isolate software solutions from one another. This helps prevent security risks. Since sandboxes involve a high level of automation, there’s a need to ensure those automation systems don’t perform dangerous activities. This makes manual validation impractical. Thus, applying PaC becomes vital if you want to securely implement your sandboxes.
Speed and Accuracy
Automating the policy enforcement process leads to faster operations as compared to manual ways. It will save you plenty of time that you can dedicate to other important tasks instead of doing repeated, mundane tasks. In addition, automating tasks involves little to no errors or mistakes, which improves the accuracy of your tasks and products.
Codification and Visibility
By representing your policy clauses as code, the policy data and logic can be directly outlined in code and augmented through comments instead of learning the policies orally. This makes it easier for stakeholders to understand the logic and other information about a given policy since they can easily review the code and suggest some changes.
Thus, this enhanced visibility also eliminates the need to contact other members again and again, accelerating the workflow.
Tracking, managing, and controlling versions of your policies becomes easy if you store policies as text file(s). If you need to update any of your policies, just modify the current code. But if something doesn’t look good, you still have the option to revert to the previous version.
In addition, it’s also possible for team members to detect what policies are changed and when. This means you will benefit from the features of a version control system (VCS) like history, pull requests, diff, and more.
Following a defined way of writing policies and managing them promotes collaboration within external and internal teams. Policy-as-code brings together different teams and departments, whether you are from development, testing, version control, or security.
For instance, testing and development teams can work together to make sure they create the best quality code that passes necessary tests and is ready for deployment.
In addition, teams can also leverage collaboration tools, version controls, and other automation tools to work together. They can view the code, make suggestions, put comments to improve the code, work on the feedback, monitor the code for security, and do a lot more. All this will help accelerate the release.
Use Cases of Policy-as-Code
The various use cases of policy-as-code are:
#1. Infrastructure Provisioning
Policy-as-code can automate the process of provisioning infrastructure resources (such as services, databases, etc.) for operations, compliance, and security. Apart from resource provisioning, it can include tagging networking settings, firewalls, and other resources.
Tagging resources as per units or teams can help you efficiently manage your resources. In addition, PaC can be used to create a list of all the permitted IP addresses and grant it so that you can access applications or pages from an external IP address.
Furthermore, PaC is useful for provisioning resources of different types for different environments like development, sandbox, production, and staging. This way, you can configure suitable machines for all these environments.
#2. Kubernetes Controls
If you use Kubernetes in your processes, you would likely wish to configure your policies as PaC. You can create policies for effectively managing Kubernetes resources like nodes, namespaces, Pods, etc.
Furthermore, you can set up CPU and memory limits for creating containers and making requests. This helps prevent out-of-memory (OOM) conditions and resource hogging.
Thus, the application will always be available and running optimally. It’s recommended to set up policies for a maximum and minimum number of replicas in order to meet the demands easily without causing excessive resource consumption or shortage.
#3. Access and Authorization Controls
By creating a policy where authorization rules are outlined for accessing a service, you are essentially increasing its security. It will have clauses on which users can access which resources. You can also highlight the allowed access methods so that no breach can happen.
For instance, you can make a policy that only HTTPS connections are allowed. This will help improve the security posture. Another example could be setting a policy to deny a specific type of service that you deem untrusted.
#4. Auditing and Compliance
Organizations nowadays need to comply with the applicable government and industry standards. It may include regulations like HIPAA, GDPR, PCI DSS, and so on. These standards require you to abide by the rules around data storage, computing, and networking.
Now, the problem is these rules might change at any time according to conditions, and keeping track of them could be difficult and tiresome.
Through policy-as-code, you can codify these rules and push them easily into your software development process. It will ensure all your policies, inputs, changes, and query results are logged, which makes auditing easier. This way, you can better meet compliance regulations and stay clear of penalties.
#5. Expense Control
Controlling and managing expenses is a vital part of managing your infrastructure. For this, you can implement policy-as-code on resource labeling, annotations, distributing machine types, etc.
If you label resources team or department-wise, you can generate reports showing the expenses.
By assigning a specific type of machine and optimizing code, you can create reports and let stakeholders decide the best way to optimize infrastructure resource consumption.
You can set up policies to limit each project cost for infrastructure environments like production, development, sandbox, staging, etc.
How to Implement Policy-as-Code
Now, if you find policy-as-code to be beneficial for your organization and are wondering how to implement it, read on.
To leverage policy-as-code in the easiest possible way, you can adopt a quality tool supporting policy-as-code natively in the areas where this concept is required (like security, compliance, provision, etc.) But before choosing one, consider your use cases and organizational strategies and the tool’s scalability, support model, integration, and other features.
Some of the best policy-as-code tools are:
#1. Open Policy Agent
Open Policy Agent is a general-purpose, open-source policy engine that can unify your entire policy enforcement. It works for any domain by providing a common framework of policy-as-code implementation. It supports services like Kubernetes, Terraform, AWS, Docker, Envoy, GKE, and more.
#2. Prisma Cloud
Prisma Cloud is for security and lets you define all your security policies via code. You can automatically scan policy files and then audit them to find vulnerabilities or misconfigurations before actually deploying the code. Other policy-as-code tools for security are Checkov, Bridgecrew, etc.
SecurityRAT is an open-source tool by OWASP that is useful during the planning stage. It will help you create IT security needs as code and integrate them into your project. This also makes it easier to audit; and hence, aids in meeting compliance requirements.
Sentinel is a policy-as-code framework that’s embeddable and can enable logic-based, fine-grained policy decisions that you can extend to external source information in order to make informed decisions. It’s helpful during the development and testing phase.
Other good tools are TruffleHog, Git-Secrets, Gitty Leaks, InSpec, Terraform, etc.
Policy-as-code is helpful for businesses in a variety of ways, such as resource provision, access control, cost control, audit and compliance, and security.
I hope this article helps you understand policy-as-code and why you should implement it in your organization, and how.
You may also explore some interesting tools for auditing and managing code quality.
Amrita is a freelance copywriter and content writer. She helps brands enhance their online presence by creating awesome content that connects and converts. She has completed her Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech) in Aeronautical Engineering…. read more