Hubble: Our Tool for Encapsulating and Extending Security Tools

Fundamentally, Shopify is a company that thrives by building simplicity. We take hard, risky, and complex things and make them easy, safe, and simple.

Trust is Shopify’s team responsible for making commerce secure for everyone. First and foremost, that means securing our internal systems and IT resources, and maintaining a strong cybersecurity posture. If you’ve worked in these spaces before, you know that it takes a laundry list of tools to effectively manage and secure a large fleet of computers. Not only does it take tons of tools, but also takes training, access provisioning and deprovisioning, and constant patching. In any large or growing company, these problems compound and can become exponential costs if they aren’t controlled and solved for.

You either pay that cost by spending countless human hours on menial processes and task switching, or you accept the risk of shadow IT—employees developing their own processes and workarounds rather than following best practices. You either get choked by bureaucracy, or you create such a low trust environment that people don’t feel their company is interested in solving their problems.

Shopify is a global company that, in 2020, embraced being Digital by Design—in essence, the firm belief that our people have the greatest impact when we support them to work whenever and wherever they like. As you can imagine, this only magnified the problems described above. With the end of office centricity, suddenly the work of securing our devices got a lot more important, and a lot more difficult. Network environments got more varied, the possibility of in-person patching or remediation went out the window—the list goes on. Faced with these challenges, we searched for off-the-shelf solutions, but couldn’t find anything that fully fit our needs.

Hubble logo which features an image of a telescope followed by the word Hubble
Hubble Logo

So, We Built Hubble.

An evolution of previous internal solutions, Hubble is a tool that encapsulates and extends many of the common tools used in security. Mobile device management services and more are all fully integrated into Hubble. For IT staff, Hubble is a one stop shop for inventory, device management, and security. Rather than granting hundreds of employees access to multiple admin panels, they access Hubble—which ingests and standardizes data from other systems, and then sends commands back to those systems. We also specify levels of granularity in access (a specialist might have more access than an entry level worker, for instance). On the back end, we also track and audit access in one central location with a consistent set of fields—making incident response and investigation less of a rabbit hole.

A screenshot of the Hubble screen on a Macbook Pro. It shows a profile picture and several lines of status updates about the machine
Hubble’s status screen on a user’s machine

For everyone else at Shopify, Hubble is a tool to manage and view the devices that belong to them. At a glance, they can review the health of their device and its compliance, and not just an arbitrary set of metrics, but something that we define and find valuable - things like OS/Patch Compliance, VPN usage, and more. Folks don’t need to ask IT or just wonder if their device is secure. Hubble informs them, either via the website or device notification pings. And if their device isn’t secure, Hubble provides them with actionable information on how to fix it. Users can also specify test devices, or opt in to betas that we run. This enables us to easily build beta cohorts for any testing we might be running. When you give people the tools to be proactive about their security, and show that you support that proactivity, you help build a culture of ownership.

And, perhaps most importantly, Hubble is a single source of truth for all the data it consumes. This makes it easier for other teams to develop automations and security processes. They don’t have to worry about standardizing data, or making calls to 100 different services. They can access Hubble, and trust that the data is reliable and standardized.

Now, why should you care about this? Hubble is an internal tool for Shopify, and unfortunately it isn’t open source at this time. But these two lessons we learned building and realizing Hubble are valuable and applicable anywhere.

1. When the conversation is centered on encapsulation, the result is a partnership in creating a thoughtful and comprehensive solution.

Building and maintaining Hubble requires a lot of teams talking to each other. Developers talk to support staff, security engineers, and compliance managers. While these folks often work near each other, they rarely work directly together. This kind of collaboration is super valuable and can help you identify a lot of opportunities for automation and development. Plus, it presents the opportunity for team members to expand their skills, and maybe have an idea of what their next role could be. Even if you don’t plan to build a tool like this, consider involving frontline staff with the design and engineering processes in your organization. They bring valuable context to the table, and can help surface the real problems that your organization faces.

2. It’s worth fighting for investment.

IT and Cybersecurity are often reactive and ad-hoc driven teams. In the worst cases, this field lends itself to unhealthy cultures and an erratic work life balance. Incident response teams and frontline support staff often have unmanageable workloads and expectations, in large part due to outdated tooling and processes. We strive to make sure it isn’t like that at Shopify, and it doesn’t have to be that way where you work. We’ve been able to use Hubble as a platform for identifying automation opportunities. By having engineering teams connected to support staff via Hubble, we encourage a culture of proactivity. Teams don’t just accept processes as broken and outdated—they know that there’s talent and resources available for solving problems and making things better. Beyond culture and work life balance, consider the financial benefits and risk-minimization that this strategy realizes.

For each new employee onboarded to your IT or Cybersecurity teams, you spend weeks if not months helping them ramp up and safely access systems. This can incur certification and training costs (which can easily run in the thousands of dollars per employee if you pay for their certifications), and a more difficult job search to find the right candidate. Then you take on the risk of all these people having direct access to sensitive systems. And finally, you take on the audit and tracking burden of all of this.

With each tool you add to your environment, you increase complexity exponentially. But there’s a reason those tools exist, and complexity on its own isn’t a good enough reason to reject a tool. This is a field where costs want to grow exponentially. It seems like the default is to either accept that cost and the administrative overhead it brings, or ignore the cost and just eat the risk. It doesn’t have to be that way.

We chose to invest and to build Hubble to solve these problems at Shopify. Encapsulation can keep you secure while keeping everyone sane at the same time.

Tony is a Senior Engineering Program Manager and leads a team focussed on automation and internal support technologies. He’s journaled daily for more than 9 years, and uses it as a fun corpus for natural language analysis. He likes finding old bread recipes and seeing how baking has evolved over time!

Wherever you are, your next journey starts here! If building systems from the ground up to solve real-world problems interests you, our Engineering blog has stories about other challenges we have encountered. Intrigued? Visit our Engineering career page to find out about our open positions and learn about Digital by Design.