Connecting more than railways
SBB’s digitization strategy aims to enhance the company’s customer orientation, improve efficiency, grow the core business, and achieve carbon neutrality. Reaching these goals requires more interconnectivity for the railway network and its components and systems, such as ticketing to traffic management, customer information systems, various IoT devices, the IT backbone and, most importantly, the customers themselves. Each SBB train is, in essence, a small data center on rails.
To update and connect these systems, SBB’s developer team needed secure authentication for all of its tools. Their certificates, tokens or log-in credentials (“secrets”) had to be accessible but safe from unauthorized users. Robust authentication required a scalable, reliable, and feature-rich secrets management. For the digitization to succeed, any solution SBB selected also had to improve security posture by eliminating hard-coded and plain-text secrets and establish security automation for critical IT systems.
SBB IT required a solution with a developer-first approach
SBB operates a highly complex railroad system around the clock, so any secrets management solution it implemented must also offer the best conditions and flexible options for high availability
Future-oriented digitization requires well-integrated solutions; secrets management tools would have to be versatile and fit with a fast-paced roadmap
Why Vault: The secrets management journey
Engineering Team Leader and Security Architect, Andreas Meister has been at the heart of the company’s digitization. He received internal inquiries about secrets management as early as March 2019. Safeguarding credentials has become a major point of emphasis during the company’s transformation.
Meister and his teams gathered requirements for a potential secrets management solution. Any platform the group chose would have to properly store secrets, streamline access to those secrets, and minimize business risk along the way. Based on these requirements, it quickly became clear that HashiCorp Vault best met SBB's needs.
“There are three main reasons why we chose Vault,” Meister revealed. “The developer-first approach is a perfect match for SBB IT; Vault is resilient, stable, and highly available; and it’s like a Swiss army knife of secrets management, providing many integrations out of the box with a fast-paced roadmap.”
From zero to production in 6 months flat
"For a project to be successful, the right people have to work together," Meister underscored. Collaboration would be key for the entire Vault implementation journey. The application security team worked with SBB’s identity & access management (IAM) team. Every SBB stakeholder worked with Adfinis, a global open source service provider specialized in planning, building and running cloud native and Linux-based workloads..
Michael Hofer, Chief Technology Officer at Adfinis, summarized the joint effort between the two companies. “Collaboration was very important and at the core of the relationship. We provided the Vault experience from beginning to go-live.” Adfinis guided SBB through the Vault adoption trail, including strategy, architecture design and engineering. Importantly, the collaboration ensured SBB’s site-reliability engineers could take over core aspects of operating Vault.
SBB and Adfinis implemented four Vault clusters on OpenShift platforms operated by SBB. The primary clusters leveraged AWS and the secondary clusters, Swiss OTC, T-Systems' private cloud platform.
"When building the platform, we placed great emphasis on automated processes. This means that the entire configuration is in code and GitOps is not just a buzzword. The team was able to perform a complete migration from one cloud platform to another within a few hours," emphasized Hofer.
With all stakeholders working together, getting Vault up and running was seamless and quick. "It is really impressive how fast our colleagues have built the Vault platforms in under 6 months and have already taken the first customers on board," said Meister.
A renewed emphasis on customer orientation
"A platform, no matter how good, does nothing for the company if it is not used. That's why we have invested in the training and awareness of developers, but also in automation," explained Meister.
Beyond Vault implementation, SBB’s AppSec team organized various presentations and Vault trainings. Meister’s teams also developed comprehensive documentation with tutorials for developers. To tie everything together and streamline developer access to Vault, Meister’s teams enhanced SBB’s Developer Self Service Portal. Now, developers can order access to Vault (and other tools) without invoking manual processes. Automating this process guarantees strong Vault governance by enforcing least-privileged access.
The journey goes on
Meister recognized the potential for the secrets management effort to be the foundation for future transformations.
“This was our lighthouse use case,” he said.
Today, other applications at SBB’s disposal can also benefit from Vault, even if those apps don’t come with native Vault integration. That other applications can already leverage Vault is evidence of its power as a light tower. The solution gives SBB’s developers the tools they need when they need them without fear of exposing valuable credentials. Vault has strengthened SBB’s security in the right place.
Provided a higher degree of automation, leading to increased IT agility, and reduced business risk through securely stored developers secrets
Significantly improved security posture by eliminating hard-coded secrets and secrets stored in plain text for APIs and databases
Established security automation for critical IT systems for the SBB fleet to satisfy high customer expectations and set groundwork for future IoT enhancements
Vault setup was secure, resilient, simple, and integrated seamlessly with SBB’s container-first and multi-cloud strategy. With its many out-of-the-box integrations, Vault met SBB’s resilience and reliability requirements, all of which help ensure SBB remains one of the most punctual railways in the world.
Andreas Meister Engineering Team Leader and Security Architect Swiss Federal Railway
Andreas Meister is passionate about software architecture, agile methods, code design, DevSecOps and his team of engineers. By drawing on his vast experience with both large projects and in SME environments, he leads SBB’s engineering team as it consistently improves the technical underpinnings of its vast railway network.
Michael Hofer Chief Technology Officer AdfinisMichael Hofer engineers open source solutions which are like the pâtisserie he makes in his free time: precise, elegant, and balanced. As CTO he is focused on building bridges and supporting organizations on their digitization journey.
Simon Nussbaum Cloud Native Engineer AdfinisSimon Nussbaum is part of the cloud native team at Adfinis. In his role as engineer and architect he designs, engineers and provides guidance around everything related to containers, secrets management and service mesh.
Pascal Reeb Cloud Native Engineer AdfinisPascal Reeb is a cloud native engineer at Adfinis and supports organization around the globe in engineering solutions such as Kubernetes, HashiCorp Vault and Consul.
- AWS and Swiss Cloud
- Container Runtime:
- OpenShift, Kubernetes
- Argo CD, Jenkins
- Version Control:
- HashiCorp Terraform OSS, Helm
- Configuration Management:
- Secrets Management:
- HashiCorp Vault
Open source is at the heart of Adfinis.
Adfinis is a leading service provider of open source solutions, and they have been in the market for over 20 years. As a company, Adfinis contributes to innovative, sustainable, and reliable IT Infrastructure by being strongly involved in the open source community. They work together with partners like HashiCorp, Red Hat, SUSE, and GitLab and help customers from the very first inquiry to the optimization of solutions. This includes everything from planning to integration, as well as 24/7 operations and managed services.
Adfinis is located in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Australia and has over 90 employees. And they are proud to say that every one, no matter what role they have in the organization: “We are techies by heart.”
Find out more: adfinis.com
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