The Kubernetes Security Paradox
Study highlights how concerns about Kubernetes security are hindering innovation
March 12, 2020

Ali Golshan
StackRox

There's a curious irony about two powerful and closely related developer tools in use today. On the one hand, enterprises of all sorts have moved quickly to embrace the use of containers and Kubernetes as part of their digital transformation, usually with a view to speeding the pace of new application development. Yet, according to a new survey from StackRox, almost half of those same users have applied the brakes, delaying the rollout of applications that make use of those technologies. The reasons for both their enthusiasm and their caution are understandable.

Today, for example, everything at Google runs in containers. Gmail, Search, YouTube, and other Google services all run on containers. In fact, the company estimates that each week it starts several billion new containers. But even though Google operates its own massive cloud facilities, managing that many containers is super challenging. So, five years ago, it created a solution. After building a system called Borg to run its internal processes, Google outsourced a version of Borg called Kubernetes.

Kubernetes — which takes its name from the Greek word for helmsman or pilot — is a portable, extensible, open-source platform for managing containerized applications and services. It's resilient to downtime issues, and it can orchestrate storage and network needs to enhance system stability.

So, given Kubernetes' compelling capabilities, how are organizations taking advantage of all its features? To find out, we commissioned a survey — the third such study we have undertaken — and got input from more than 540 IT professionals.

Security, as it turns out, is a huge concern. In fact, an astonishing 94 percent of the respondents admitted to having personally experienced a security incident of some sort in just the past 12 months. In 69 percent of those cases, it involved misconfigurations — human errors that can easily happen when you consider all the knobs and dials associated with setting up containers and Kubernetes.

More than a quarter of the respondents had faced a runtime security incident. Almost as many said they had experienced some type of major vulnerability that they needed to remediate. And in the case of an unfortunate few, all three of those security incident types had occurred within the year, compounding the perceived security risk. More than half the time, respondents blamed inadequate investment in security tools. And in 14 percent of the cases, it was aggravated by the perception that threats to container security weren't being taken seriously by their co-workers.

But our survey results also highlighted some good news. There's been a marked increase in the maturity of container security strategies since our previous survey. In just the past six months, the number of respondents whose organizations had crafted a better-than-basic strategy grew from 41 to 48 percent. And the 19 percent who had lacked any container security strategy at all in our previous survey declined to just 6 percent this time around.

That maturation appears to be reflected in a 22 percent increase among the organizations that have by now containerized at least half their applications. And their use of clouds for containerized applications — whether single, multiple, or hybrid — has only continued to grow. Since our first survey about 15 months ago, when 31 percent of respondents were running containers on prem, this time around that figure had dropped to just 14 percent.

While security concerns for containers and Kubernetes persist, the situation is improving. Security technologies that leverage a Kubernetes-native approach — with security controls built into the infrastructure rather than bolted on afterward — are helping to advance the ability of organizations to operationalize security to take advantage of the automation, scale, context, and native controls in Kubernetes itself. This evolution parallels that on the infrastructure side, where the focus initially centered on container but shifted to Kubernetes because of the need for automation and scale.

A similar shift has happened in security for all the same reasons — you simply can't do security at DevOps speed when it's focused on applying controls at the individual container layer. The emergence of Kubernetes-native security holds immense promise that organizations will be able to successfully protect their cloud-native applications and infrastructure and deliver security at the pace of application development.

Ali Golshan is CTO and Co-Founder of StackRox
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