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Last updated date : 11 Jul 2023

What is a secret?

In the context of DevSecOps and engineering practices, the term secrets typically refers to digital credentials, such as usernames, passwords, passphrases, auth tokens, SSH keys, SSL/TLS certificates, and application and API keys.

Why is secrets management essential for organizations?

As organizations grow and scale, secrets management becomes an uncompromising need for their IT, DevOps, and engineering teams. This is because of the expanding nature of their codebases and processes, which causes a proliferation of secrets across various applications, microservices, developer and RPA tools, containers and orchestration workflows, and APIs.

Credentials are often stored in plaintext formats within files and scripts, and are commonly shared among multiple individuals involved in CI/CD pipelines, automation processes, and engineering workflows. Altering these credentials without proper planning or notification can result in the cascading failure of multiple critical processes.

Additionally, if these credentials are inadvertently exposed, they can be exploited by malicious actors to breach an organization's vital information systems. Hence, it is crucial to implement secure and well-defined procedures for managing and protecting these credentials to mitigate the risk of unauthorized access or misuse.

However, with a proper secrets management solution in place, enterprise teams can avoid embedding credentials in plaintext formats by storing them in an encrypted digital vault, which provides options for securely fetching, rotating, tracking, and managing secrets from a central console.

Major challenges associated with secrets management

Here are some common risks and caveats associated with secrets management:

  • 01

    Credential sprawl

    When secrets are not properly managed, they can be easily stolen by attackers. This can lead to data breaches, which can damage an organization's reputation and cost millions of dollars in remediation costs.

  • 02

    Lack of accountability and visibility

    Without a proper secrets management routine in place, it is practically impossible to track the usage of these secrets that are used to authenticate processes and workflows. This in turn makes it difficult for security teams to pre-empt and mitigate the risks of credential abuse.

  • 03

    Unprecedented disruptions and outages

    If hard-coded credentials are altered without any prior planning and approval, this could lead to failure of multiple workflows, services, and process in tandem.

  • 04

    Compliance violations

    Many industries are subject to regulations that require organizations to protect sensitive data. If secrets are not properly managed, an organization may be found to be in violation of these regulations, which can result in fines or other penalties.

Getting started with secrets management: Automation is key

With the increasing volume and complexity of enterprise processes and workflows, it is important for IT teams to employ a sound secrets management policies, which includes periodic scanning, rotation, and live monitoring of secrets distributed across the organization.

As cited above, manual management of is often siloed, and hard-coding of secrets is both a cumbersome process and bad security practice. Most tools in the market are designed to manage the secrets of specific applications or platforms (Kubernetes, Docker, Jenkins, etc), or sub-processes under them. While application password management tools have gained traction over the years, most tools only offer a basic vault to fetch and store secrets, and nothing beyond.

With compliance becoming an inevitable mandate across industries, the buck does not stop with just storing the secrets in a vault. It is equally imperative to rotate them periodically, monitor their usage, and audit user activities and processes authenticated by these secrets for effective and pervasive compliance with industry standards.

Secrets management is an integral module of modern privileged access management (PAM) tools, which not only come with secrets vaulting capabilities, but also offer fine-grained access governance controls to enforce control over who has access to these secrets. PAM tools also offer secure application-to-application password management (AAPM) controls to authenticate applications, endpoints, non-human accounts, processes, and services that are distributed across the enterprise.

Essential secrets management best practices

By adopting Zero Trust principles in your PAM strategy, you can:

  • Discover passwords, keys, and other secrets periodically, and vault and manage them from a central console
  • Conduct a thorough audit of all privileged accounts that require access to these secrets on a regular basis.
  • Enforce stringent password policies that cover password complexity, length, periodicity of rotation, and expiration.
  • Eliminate the practice of hard-coding of credentials in plain-text formats and embedding them into files, scripts, code builds, and applications.
  • Implement least privilege access to remove permanent access rights. Assign default least privileges for users, which should ideally be set as low as possible.
  • Provide third-parties and vendors with minimal, default privileges to carry out their jobs.
  • Leverage threat analytics to correlate privileged access audits with events across the enterprise to make informed security decisions.

Secrets management with ManageEngine PAM360

PAM360, ManageEngine's enterprise PAM solution, provides out-of-the-box integrations with container platforms, DevSecOps CI/CD solutions, and RPA tools to ensure secure management of application credentials. This integration allows processes and applications to automatically retrieve credentials from PAM360's vault. You'll also be able to perform sensitive actions such as access provisioning, periodic password changes, granular control, and auditing—all without disrupting internal workflows.