Microservices is a popular architectural trend in the software development world. Companies like Amazon and Netflix, to name a few, also adopt the Microservice style of architecture to drive their business forward.

Though there are many benefits of implementing a microservices architecture, some security challenges are also associated. This article details the security of microservices architecture and the best practices you can implement to secure it.

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The following topics will be covered in this article:

First, let’s start by defining what Microservices are?

What are Microservices?

Microservices often referred to as Microservice Architecture, is a collection of loosely coupled services to implement an application. So you can understand Microservices as small individual services interacting with each other around the business logic. 

This architectural approach is gaining massive popularity in development teams, as it facilitates continuous delivery of apps and adapts to company needs easily as technology evolves and scales up.

Security Challenges with Microservices Architecture:

Companies adopting microservices are discovering some security challenges. Specifically, deployment requires unique approaches to development, security, and operations delivery. Apps built from microservices add complexity, and optimal methods to manage monolithic apps no longer supply.

Specifically looking at security, microservices methods are different than those that work for monolithic apps. Security teams often use centralized security modules, covering authorization, authentication, and other critical security measures.

However, this kind of centralization would reduce the advantages of distributed deployment and efficiency. Many traditional network security based tools do not offer the ability to monitor activity inside microservices containers.

The challenges mentioned above are not the only problems found in a microservice architecture. You could face even more related to security based on the application and the architecture you possess. On that note, let's move forward on implementing the best ways that reduce the security challenges in Microservices.

[Related Article: Guide to Cloud Native Microservices]

Best Practices to improve security in Microservices:

Following are the best practices to improve security in microservices:

  1. Implement Defence in Depth Mechanism
  2. Use Tokens and API Gateways
  3. Avoid writing your crypto code.
  4. Monitor all your systems and services
  5. Use automatic security updates.
  6. Implement DevSecOps strategy
  7. Secure access points with OAuth/OAuth2
  8. Secure app at the service level
  9. Deploy a multi-factor authentication
  10. Deploy security at container level

1. Implement Defence in Depth Mechanism

Assuming a single firewall around the network can protect the software is a big mistake these days. Hackers find ways to exploit the security layers and crack the sensitive zones of the software. A great way to protect sensitive information is to implement the "Defence in Depth" mechanism.

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"Defence in Depth" is defined as an information assurance concept, where several layers of security controls (defence) are placed entirely in an information technology system. 

Consider the following example to understand this concept better. Suppose you are using an eCommerce app, and the most sensitive data of your app will be your user profile and payments. All you have to do is implement multiple security layers to the sensitive zones. So, the attacker who exploits one of the security layers will not figure out how to exploit the second one. The diversified nature of microservices architecture makes it easier to implement this strategy. 

 

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2. Use Tokens and API Gateways

Do you know what the most vulnerable zones of microservices applications are?

  • Point where a user tries to access something
  • Points of authentication or authorization

The reason for the threat in these zones is that user information is stored. Hackers with malicious intent target these zones and try to break into your app.

The best solution to secure these vulnerable zones is to design an app so that whenever a user tries to access something, makes a direct call to each service. In theory, it's a good idea but practically leads to complex coding.

Consider an example, just after logging into an app, and you might have seen a pop-up asking to accept the license and grant permission in the apps to store cookies. It means a session gets created with your credentials, and next time you visit the same page or service, it loads from the cache memory instead of the server.

But before this concept came into existence, sessions were stored on the server-side centrally. And this was one of the most significant barriers in horizontally scaling the application.

Tokens

Tokens are used to record the user credentials and store them in the form of cookies. Next time when a client requests a page, the request is forwarded to the server, and then the server decides whether the user has access to the requested resource or not.

Even with tokens, there is a problem of exploitation from 3rd party resources, and the best solution is the user information stored in tokens needs to be encrypted. Jason Web Format (JWT) is an open standard that describes the token format and supports various encryption libraries.

API Gateways

Let's discuss how API gateways secure apps. API gateways add an extra element to secure apps through token authentication. It acts as an entry point to all the client requests and hides the microservices from the client. So that client won't have direct access to microservices and unable to exploit any of the services.

3. Avoid writing your crypto code

Unless you're an expert in cryptography, avoid writing in-house crypto code. Over the years, many developers have invested a significant amount of time and resources in building libraries to handle encryption and decryption. Most of them are open-source, and many developers have worked around them to resolve security issues.

If you're trying to roll out in-house crypto code, there is a chance you'll commit security-related mistakes. So, it's always a better option to use reliable libraries.

4. Monitor all your systems and services

It's quite challenging to monitor microservices continuously due to it's distributed nature. For this, you need a reliable and advanced monitoring system. Distributed tracing is a new form of tracing adopted in microservices-based applications to improve critical operations performance. It enables you to trace end-to-end, locate failures, and improve the overall performance of an application. It's effortless to track down the failures and which microservice is facing issues with distributed tracing.

Using continuous monitoring tools allows you to detect and address security issues at an early stage.

5. Use automatic security updates

The wide distribution and granularity of microservices make it challenging to scale security applications. It's crucial to establish some form of automation for scaling security controls.

Whenever an organization updates its system, make sure to catch up on issues as early and in detail as possible.

6. Implement DevSecOps strategy

With security being an increasingly complicated challenge for organizations switched to microservices, a cultural shift and a new mindset are necessary for a functioning security strategy. 

Security, development, and operations personnel need to collaborate for security purposes- a practice that spawned the term "DevSecOps." This focuses on developing a secure foundation in DevOps, preventing security from taking a back seat to developing new capabilities. DevOps teams concerned about safety can implement best practices from development to deployment.

DevSecOps involves constant app monitoring and automated code scanning to prevent any unwanted access.

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7. Secure access points with OAuth/OAuth2

The majority of applications within microservices need methods to control access and authorization. Most of the organizations with specific security standards build their authorization protocols to manage this requirement.

However, many experts suggest that instead of starting from scratch, they recommend the OAuth/OAuth2 for authorization management. As an industry-standard for user authorization is concerned, OAuth/OAuth2 provides access to resources that allow for a faster development phase.

8. Secure app at the service level

The traditional monolith approach of microservices architecture enables splitting into multiple distinct services. The idea of splitting is to make apps more scalable, agile, and fast. Conventional security protocols are mostly network security tools based on the perimeter, which don't have the visibility into specific services and system interaction.

Integrate security to protect specific services at their level, not at their perimeter (right from development to deployment). Addressing security this way is an easier and effective approach than waiting to add it when the software development is nearing completion.  

9. Deploy a multi-factor authentication

Enabling a multi-factor authentication enhances the security of the front-end.

When a user logs into a system through username and password isn't enough to protect security these times. Make the app more secure by enabling multi-factor authentication like one time password, biometric scanning, and more.

This technique makes it harder for attackers, who may be using hacked or stolen credentials, to access microservices since they don't have a way to provide the second authentication. 

10. Deploy security at container level

Microservices mostly rely on container technology. Securing the containers (internally and externally) is an efficient way to reduce attacks and risks.

It's a better idea within your automated testing suite to include periodic vulnerability and security scanning for your containers. Clair, Docker Security Scanning, and Twistlock are some widely used options in this space.

Conclusion:

With this, we have come to the end of this “Microservices Security” article. We hope the security strategies and practices listed in the post give you some idea of tightening up the microservices security plans. Well, these are not the only ways through which you can secure the services. Depending on the application's architecture, you can also adopt other best practices and ensure optimum security of your microservices.