Episode 43: Native-Cloud Visibility and Security With Kris Nova, Chief Open Source Advocate at Sysdig
Mike: Hello, and welcome to Open Source Underdogs, the first podcast recorded in 2020. I’m your host Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 43 with Kris Nova, a Chief Open-Source Advocate at Sysdig.
Kris, who also goes by Nova, has contributed to Kubernetes and several other open-source successful software projects and startups. She’s currently a leader in the Falco project, a next-gen intrusion detection tool that is an “incubating” project at the Cloud Native Computing Foundation also known as CNCF.
My mission this year is to interview more women who are open-source business leader, so when the opportunity presented itself to interview Nova, I couldn’t resist. But this podcast was a bit of a challenge for me. I interviewed Loris Degionni, the CEO of Sysdig, a few episodes back, so I wanted to stray little from my normal business model format.
It was also really tough not going down the Cloud Native rabbit hole, although I think ultimately I couldn’t resist. So, it’s slightly more tacky than normal, but I hope you enjoy it. Personally, I found Nova’s perspective really thought-provoking, but you didn’t tune in to hear me, so without further ado, here we go. Nova, thank you so much for joining us today.
Nova: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Mike: So, how did you end up at Sysdig?
Nova: Well, I had come out of my third startup that had gone through an acquisition, and, you know, I took some time off from work, I did some traveling, and just kind of — it was the first time in my life and in my career, where I was able to take several months off of work and just kind of mentally reset. And I started to evaluate the industry I was working in, and I wanted to stay working closely with Cloud, and Cloud Native infrastructure, and Kubernetes, but I wanted to pivot a little bit.
And I started looking at the available spaces or sub departments of the industry. And one of the things that really stood out to me was the security. I felt like security was one of those things that you kind of look at it always as an afterthought.
You don’t really ever wake up and design new software on day one to be the most secure implementation. So, I felt like we were finally there with Cloud Native, and started having more involved security conversations. I felt like there was just a lot of room for innovation in a field that I already knew a lot about starting off, with a new spin on it, which was getting involved with security. And then, Sysdig reached out, and here I am.
What Is Falco?
Mike: Sysdig makes a ton of data available from the kernel, as I understand it. And Falco, the project that you’re working on, tries to filter that data to make some actionable security information, maybe about intrusion detection.
Nova: The definition that kind of really made it sing in my mind and resonated with me was, when Loris, our founder, I think you might have already spoken with him, the way he explained it to me was, basically we take the kernel as the new source of truth. Traditionally, if you look at how you would be auditing or attempting to observe a system, the network was usually kind of the most fundamental element you could get down to and, the thesis behind that was, if it’s happening at the network layer, we know it’s true, and we can trust it.
And as we moved into Cloud Native, we realized that TCP packets were not the smallest element anymore. So, we took it even down later further than the network, which is where the kernel comes into play.
I think you said it best yourself, we take a lot of information coming out of the kernel, and then we try to turn that into something meaningful for a human or a team. And that’s really what Falco does. It tries to be that connection point, that adapter between what would otherwise be an unreasonable amount of information coming out of the kernel, and then actually, trying to give you something that can help you tell a story.
Has Falco Been Good For Business?
Mike: Falco looks like a pretty impressive tool, and I’m wondering, has it been able to drive business opportunities for a Sysdig, the company?
Nova: I think if you look at open source, and what that means to anybody doing open source in any industry, it’s got a new way of thinking about how you engage with other people in the industry, other organizations in the industry, other folks in the enterprise.
And I think the easiest way that I can describe, the success I’ve seen with open source is, just looking at it as there’s fundamentally a difference between building a solution for someone and building a solution with someone. And I think open source is the latter of the two, is it gives you, and it gives your organization an opportunity to collaborate with other folks in the industry. And that’s where we’re seeing a lot of these hybrid solutions.
You know, we could have open-source software called Kubernetes running in a public cloud provider, using a CNI implementation from a startup in San Francisco, all of which being secured with Sysdig. So, we’re seeing these multi-level, multi cardinal solutions because people are building an open source, and realizing that it’s actually more effective to build a small tool that is easily consumable than it is to try to build this monolithic solution to every problem under the sun.
Has CNCF Been The Right Home For Falco?
Mike: Falco has been incubated at the CNCF. And I’m wondering if you have some thoughts about whether CNCF was the right home for the project?
Nova: I’ve been involved with the CNCF for years now. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve worked at a few startups, we’ve donated, and built, and contributed to a handful of projects that ultimately ended up in the CNCF. And I think if you look at open source in the enterprise, and having a neutral third-party organization such as the CNCF, that can just help with things like governance, and infrastructure, and supporting the projects. And doing it in such a way that it’s neutral and unbiased for the project itself, ultimately just makes for a healthier project in a more wholesome experience for the maintainers and the end-users.
I think the CNCF does a really great job at embracing this idea that ultimately in open source the end-user is the new customer. They’re the new consumers of the open-source project, and giving them that customer-like experience is something that you really see with the CNCF, and I think really drives healthy communities.
Introducing Governance For Falco
Mike: So, one of your goals I guess, when you joined Sysdig, was to help build the governance infrastructure for the Falco project. Have there been any challenges along the way for making that happen?
Nova: I feel like when I joined, Falco was already on a trajectory to being a first-class security solution in Cloud Native that is open source. And I think I was able to come in with, you know, like I said, I’ve done this a few times, I’ve been involved with the CNCF for years, I’ve been working on other more household projects such as Kubernetes, or Helm, or Envoy. And I think I was able to come in and bring everybody together and kind of double down on our approach to open source.
I think there’s a lot of work that we had to do, that we have yet to do, but ultimately, it all comes down to this idea that, at the end of the day, Falco belongs to everyone. It’s not Sysdig’s tool, it’s a tool that was originally started by Sysdig and has already started to grow and be used in new and exciting ways.
We have end-users who are using Falco for things that we never even dreamed of originally. I think having that open-source governance, that open-source model of “We’re going to make our decisions in the public, and we’re going to give the broader community an opportunity to get involved with these decisions as we’re making them.”, has been a really big part of the direction that we needed to take the project over the past maybe six months or so.
Mike: In addition to end-users, have there been any other vendors who joined the Falco ecosystem? Maybe who are looking to commercialize Falco as part of their product or make an offering?
Nova: I mean, that’s something that we’ve tossed around with at Sysdig. And I think any time you have successful open source, somebody’s going to automatically go to, “Okay, how do we wrap this up and stick an SLA on it, and then start offering some sort of first-class support for a project.
And in my mind, once an open-source project reaches that stage, like that’s a sign of success. That’s ultimately where you want to end up. I think Falco is right on the cusp of us getting to more of an enterprise open-source solution.
I’m excited to see both, how my company Sysdig is able to take these new ideas and run with them, and potentially see other organizations and other companies in the industry do the same thing as well. So, I feel like we’re on that horizon of this finally happening for the project, which is pretty rad.
Trade-off Of Moving To A Foundation
Mike: I guess moving your project to a foundation, it’s a lot of bull thing to do for the governance of the project, but not all open-source companies do that. What are some of the trade-offs that you have to make when you decide to move your project to a foundation, and to move the governance to sort of a more open process?
Nova: In Falco, we always talk about exchanging of velocity for altitude. And I feel like in open source, we have that same paradigm of, as you go either more on the foundation side of things or more on the agile side of things, you’re going to be exchanging enterprise opportunity with the ability to be agile.
In other words, if we, as a company, had an open-source project, and we didn’t have open-source governance and open community around it, we would ultimately be able to iterate much quicker, and it would be a much more simpler and less complicated process for us to drive features, and to deal with debt, and to build a new functionality. But we would be sacrificing this ability to build with other folks in the ecosystem.
If you look at Kubernetes, if you look at a lot of the sub-projects of Kubernetes, they do operate at a less agile speed or less agile velocity, but ultimately, that has empowered many different companies in the enterprise to come together and start working on building holistic solutions for everyone.
I think a great example here is, there’s an infrastructure project called Cluster API, I had helped start this project, I think two years ago now, when I was at Microsoft, and the whole point of the project was, for us to come together and start to standardize how folks install and manage Kubernetes. And it’s taken two years for us to get where we are today, so it’s happened a little bit slower than most people might be used to.
But, we now have a standardized holistic API that anyone in the ecosystem can use. And we’ve actually seen large Cloud providers, VMware, Microsoft, Google, they’ve all come together, and they’ve actually started building to this new interface. So, again we’re exchanging that velocity for that ability to be collaborative.
Mike: Remember, when I interviewed Matt Mullenweg from WordPress, he mentioned something very similar how we could build it faster if we just build it ourselves, but the community slowed us down, but we ended up with better software.
And one of the other things I remember from that podcast was, well, just thinking about it, WordPress is really such a central part of so many ecosystems. They’re not monetizing Automattic, the company behind WordPress isn’t monetizing every user of WordPress. There’s companies that do WordPress hosting and WordPress development, so there’s this big ecosystem around WordPress, which is really impressive.
And I’m wondering, do you see the Falco project as coalescing that kind of ecosystem? And how do you get there? Or, is that even desirable?
Nova: I think the CNCF enables this type of collaboration. If you look at the projects, this is something that is baked into the governance model. When we were proposing Falco to move from the Sandbox, which is the most introductory level a project can be at, to incubation, which is where we are now, there is an entire section and an entire conversation around this concept of vendor independence, which is effectively this idea that if one vendor, who is working on a project, decided to take a step back, or take a break, or pull resources back, would the project still be able to grow, and prosper, and be healthy in the same way it is now?
And that’s a fundamental philosophy in the CNCF. So, I think you’re going to see that with every project. I think us doubling down this for Falco was really critical to us getting where we are with Falco.
Surprising Falco Use Cases?
Mike: So, you alluded to some of the interesting business use cases that maybe you didn’t anticipate when you designed the product. I’m wondering if you could share with us what some of those are? Because I was also wondering, it seems super interesting, but how do people actually use it?
Nova: I did a presentation of KubeCon in San Diego, with a gentleman named Abhinav from a company called Frame.io, and he went into a lot of detail about how they’re using Falco in a very limited way, which is funny, because I spend the first half of the presentation talking about how Falco can audit the entire kernel, and how we can start to process and assert various signals in the kernel that go for every system call that would potentially be running in Linux. And then Abhinav walks on the stage and says, “Oh, we only use it for three.”
And it was just kind of this funny moment, where it’s like, if that’s what they needed in their pipeline, which if you go, and you watch the video, you can see the use case, and why they were only interested in a subset of these metrics here.
You can actually see that Falco is dynamic and configurable enough for them to use it very concretely in a very small, but very precise way for exactly what they needed. So, I think you see that in a lot of different open source, but especially in Falco.
Can Falco Consume Non-Kernel Data?
Mike: Can Falco consume information from other sources, other than the kernel, and make sense of it in sort of the same way?
Nova: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that we’ve been circulating in the Falco community, and I think this is a great example of us not being able to move as quickly as we wanted, but in exchange, we’re getting feedback and insight from the community is, we’re working on a long-term supported release called Falco 1.0.
And one of the things that we learned pre 1.0 was that there was actually a lot of value in taking other input sources other than just the kernel and enriching the Kernel information with these other input streams.
So, a big feature of 1.0 is going to be making secondary input streams much more dynamic and much more configurable, so that folks can start to plug other information into Falco when it comes time to building that story or that alerting system that they’re looking for, when it comes to detection, and anomaly detection, and insecurity.
Is There A Marketing Strategy At Sysdig For Falco?
Mike: Is there a marketing strategy at Sysdig for Falco?
Nova: Yes and no. So, we obviously have our corporate marketing strategy, we have an entire department here. And we have a lot of similar goals, but I feel like they’re implemented in different ways. I think the easiest example here is Sysdig targets customers and users of our platform, whereas Falco targets end-users, which effectively are customers, but the relationship is a little more like, “We’ll give you a foundation in the scaffolding to come and build with us.” And you’ll be able to do that effectively for free, but you’re not going to be getting a lot of the first-class features that you would be as like a commercial partner, or a commercial consumer of what Sysdig has to offer.
So, again, depending on your use case and what you’re looking for, it kind of gives us an opportunity for folks to get involved with — it’s going to cost more, but it’s going to be easier and more resilient, more reliable and more powerful. Or you can take the free open-source approach, which is going to require rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in the community.
And I think what’s really interesting from a business perspective is watching as different implementations change from one side to the other over time. And seeing how 2019, it was a commercial user, and then moving forward, they moved over to open source. Or flipping that around and going from open source to commercial.
So, it’s exciting to have that flexibility, as departments grow, or their organizations, as their needs change, as their systems change, what they might be looking for from us – it could potentially change. And having sort of an array of opportunity and avenues for them to get involved has been really powerful for us.
Difference Between End-User / Customer
Mike: What is the difference between an end-user and a customer?
Nova: I think the easiest way to say “This is an end-user.” is someone who takes advantage of open-source software in its most raw form, whereas a customer is an exchange for goods and services, where we’re willing to provide some sort of monetary compensation.
So, again, we’ll use Kubernetes here. Kubernetes is open source. If you or me wanted to go and go to github.com/kubernetes, we could potentially download Kubernetes and install it on some servers, and then try to go sell those servers that have a working version of Kubernetes running on it, with some sort of service agreement. But there’s nothing that’s really preventing us from doing this.
And in the same way, other folks who have been contributing to Kubernetes for years and maybe even were, like Google, the original creators of Kubernetes, they have both the open-source avenue as well as the more commercial avenue. And I think you see that with tools like how GKE is Google’s Enterprise version of the open-source software that you could go download for free.
Who Ideally Would Join the Falco Community?
Mike: So, if you could see more partners join the ecosystem, what kind of partners would you like to see join the Falco community?
Nova: Honestly, I would like to see the security industry come together and start working together as a community more and more. Like I mentioned earlier in the interview, moving to security, I had to relearn a lot of things. One of the things that hadn’t really been in my career up until recently, after joining a security company, was this concept of very strict competition, and this concept of, if I have some piece of intellectual information, I’m going to kind of withhold that. And that becomes part of our IP and what we have to offer. And I think we saw the same paradigm infrastructure in Cloud
And, ultimately, if you look at the security industry, following applications, following infrastructure, following DevOps, it’s ultimately in my mind going to end up in the same way, which is the industry coming together and realizing that it actually makes more sense for us to work together on something that it is for us to fight each other.
I would love for more folks, whether their security vendors, or security consumers, or even just users of security tooling, at the end of the day, to come together and start exploring different ways of securing systems, and open-sourcing, and collaborate on that.
Is Open Source Security a Trend?
Mike: I think that’s actually true. I remember speaking with Michael Howard from MariaDB, and he mentioned to me that – I don’t know if it was on the interviewer or after – security software is not inherently open source that normally it would be commercial, proprietary, licensed, all the above, to keep it closed. And so, I do think it’s the idea of, there aren’t tons of open-source security tools, so, are there other open-source security tools that maybe you can identify that you can think of this as a trend, or is Falco really at the forefront of this?
Nova: I think – and if I get too often with ranting about security, please, please feel free to stop me – but I think if you look at security, having a holistic approach to two main categories is really what you want to see, when it comes time to taking security seriously and fully locking down a system.
So, I think to give a really simple example of this. If we look at solutions like Kubernetes RBAC, which is role-based access control, just describing who can do what, and when, and how they can do whatever it is they’re trying to do. And potentially rejecting requests if they do not meet whatever criteria you set forth.
But we also see this in Linux with things like Seccomp and SELinux. And it’s this idea of, we’re going to try to prevent somebody from doing something if they’re violating some sort of policy we have in place. So, there’s other CNCF tools like open policy agent as a great example here. There’s an open-source tool from Microsoft called Gatekeeper. That is an implementation, a concrete implementation of open policy agent. That attempts to effectively do the same thing pod security policies do, and Kubernetes, but from concrete implementation of OPA or open policy agent.
But, again, we’re in the situation where these solutions, everything I just mentioned, all attempt to prevent somebody from doing something that they shouldn’t be able to do. Or to prevent some application from doing something that it shouldn’t be able to do. But if you look at the history of security, that’s only part of the story. One of the things I’ve been saying that I really feel like it’s a powerful statement is, at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as perfect software.
Even Linux, the most well-known open-source operating system in the world, the largest open source project in the world, we still get CVEs, there’s still exploits. There was Heartbleed, there was a handful of critical CVEs that have happened in my lifetime. And those are fundamentally never going to stop. And anomalies and things that you aren’t expecting are fundamentally never going to stop.
So, I think having this preventative side of things that you see with tools like access control and policy enforcement, running those in concert with tools like Falco that are more of a detective side of things really gives you like your kind of coming at the problem from two different fundamental perspectives, which kind of I wish you to double down on your security approach.
So, short answer, yes, we see a lot of other tools, but we don’t really see anything that’s as focused on runtime detection, has to do with something say like Falco, or maybe even Wireshark, which was Loris’s original project.
How Can Companies Adopt Cloud Native?
Mike: So, you’re the author of an O’Reilly book on Cloud Native infrastructure, which I just ordered?
Nova: Thank you. You should buy several copies of it, for all of your friends and all of your family.
Mike: Makes a good Christmas present. But this is a very new knowledge domain for enterprise IT staff, and reading your book is a good place to start. But I’m wondering if you have any more thoughts on how companies can get up to speed on Cloud Native infrastructure?
Nova: I think the book is a good starting point, but more importantly one of the things that I really want to stress with folks, to really have an understanding of what this phrase “Cloud Native” even means. And you can go to cncf.io, and they actually have like an entire essay that was put together that attempts to define what Cloud Native means to them.
But I feel like it’s kind of like a personal choice or a personal journey you have to go on. It’s like buying a car. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you’re going to buy the car with the features that you need, that you like, but that whole process starts with, doing test driving things, and doing research, talking to people, and going to look at cars, and spending time understanding why this car may be better in this situation or might be better in this situation.
And I think Cloud Native infrastructure follows the same paradigm of, you have to look at the ecosystem as a group of resources. And you can take these raw resources that are available in the ecosystem, my book included, and those raw resources become part of what you would use to potentially build out your finalized system.
What To Look For If You Want To Join an Open Source Project?
Mike: A couple last questions about your experiences as a veteran of being a part of open-source startups. If you’re looking to join an open-source startup, what would be some of the things you would look for that would be good signs that this company knows how to use open-source as part of their business model?
Nova: I guess there’s two answers here, coming at this from somebody who’s — I’m in a very senior, very high visibility role, here at Sysdig, so I almost wanted to join a company that needed some guidance and needed some help. If I was to join a company that was perfect and open-source was already solved. You know, they were already doing everything “by the book”, it wouldn’t be very interesting or exciting for me, and I would hope that they would not be as interested in having somebody like me come in. And for lack of a better term, do what I do best, which is helping to drive open-source adoption and collaboration.
For me, I wanted to find something that had opportunity to grow, and had opportunity and potential for us to move into really, really great things. And I felt like Sysdig was that perfect intersection of high potential with the right place at the right time with security.
Now, if somebody isn’t as insane as I am, looking to get involved with something that’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of effort, I would say the first thing I always look for is, how are decisions made, both at the company, both on your team and both with open-source projects. And another thing that I always kind of view as a red flag is this concept of open-source announcements.
If you think about it, an open-source project by design should be open to the community, you should be able to go, and read, or watch, or listen to the decisions that are made, the features that are driven, the choices that the community is deciding on. And you should be able to at the very least observe these, and if not, potentially shape and govern these things.
So, anytime I see somebody doing some sort of open-source announcement, to me, that’s just evidence that it wasn’t an open-source project to begin with. That it was built behind closed doors, and then ultimately, hand it over for the sake of publicity, and not originally built in open source, as you would see with a lot of the other CNCF projects, like Kubernetes, like Hellman, like OPA, like Falco.
Advice For Open Source Entrepreneurs?
Mike: Last question about open-source entrepreneurship. So, if you were in the shoes of an entrepreneur who wanted to use open source as part of their business model, do you have any advice for that entrepreneur?
Nova: Get in there and roll your sleeves up. At the end of the day, open source is, you’re not going to have that first-class experience of, “Click here, put in your credit card number, and then poof.” Everything works like it’s going to take understanding what’s going on, it’s going to take contributing to the code, contributing to the project. And you’re really going to have to accept the fact that you are just as responsible as the open-source project as everyone else working on it.
Mike: Nova, thank you so much for joining us today – first guest of 20/20, yay! Thank you so much.
Nova: Thank you. It’s been really nice talking with you.
Mike: Special thanks to the Sysdig team and Amanda McKinney, 280blue, for helping to coordinate the episode.
The link to the presentation that Nova mentioned can be found on the episode webpage on opensourceunderdogs.com. Transcription by Marina Andjelkovic.
Music from Brooke for Free, Chris Zabriskie and Lee Rosevere. The podcast Twitter handle is #fosspodcast.
I have a big announcement: I just found out that my talk about the podcast was accepted to OSCON in July. If that happens, I’m really looking forward to sharing some of my thoughts on what all these episodes mean.
The next episode features the current CEO of Puppet, Yvonne Wassenaar, who brings us up-to-date on Puppet success in business models. Don’t miss it.
Until next time, thanks for listening.