How do developers pick tools? (Cue & Leapp)

with David Mytton & Jean Yang

S01 E10


Cue (open source data validation language) & Leapp (manage cloud access credentials), a devtools discussion with David Mytton and Jean Yang.

Episode notes

Tools discussed:

  1. Cue - 0pen source data validation language)
  2. Leapp (manage cloud access credentials)

Other things mentioned:

David: Welcome to the Console Devtools podcast. A show all about interesting developer tools. I'm David Mytton, co-founder of Console.

Jean: And I'm Jean Yang, CEO of Akita Software, an API observability startup. In each episode, we'll discuss two interesting developer tools. We're keeping this to 15 minutes, so let's get started.

David: Our first tool today is Cue, an open source data validation language. Cue helps you validate files, APIs, and configs, and has particular support for Kubernetes files, and allows you to implement that validation as code. It's a superset of JSON, so it will be a familiar language and unlike JSON, it supports comments, which is pretty useful.

The idea with this is that it's crazy that we're not validating the data associated with our code, configs, or schema-less databases like MongoDB. Now we're seeing APIs become significantly better defined than they were just a few years ago with the likes of open API and Swagger. Cue is that for your data layer. What was your take, Jean?

Jean: I love this. It seems super useful. If I had my way, data would always be code. I think it's kind of nuts to me that code isn't treated as code even. That code is treated as data. That's the opposite of what I want. They're integrating with a good set of starting things, and I think this has massive potential for the future.

One thing I was wondering was it's nuts that we need this external tool Cue to go around validating everything. What could we do to make data less arbitrary and make code actually data and not the other way round. To have more structure and more checking naturally.

David: This has only become more popular over the last few years. I think TypeScript comes to mind as one of the examples that I'm sure most developers have at least played around with because JavaScript is notorious for just accepting anything and not really having types. That causes a lot of problems and TypeScript is an approach to try and solve that. It seems to have had a lot of adoption. And is this the kind of thing we wanted to see from data?

Jean: I'm curious. Are we going to start seeing this kind of thing in config files? One of my favorite projects is this F# project where they suck in semi-structured data from the internet, give it type so you can explore it, F# style, strong static types. I think that's so cool. I did a computational biology internship many years ago, and I was processing a lot of data as you might imagine. One of my favorite things was to suck it into Python and put it into dictionaries and check it before I did anything with it. You'd be surprised how often it had bad parts in there. If I had my way, there would be an underlying type checker everywhere.

David: Definitely with data science, that's a real problem or any kind of science, how much time you're spending, cleaning up data, whether it's just surveys or actual machine data. I suppose in the old days, it was all just plain text. That's where we started from.

Jean: I think when people think about types, they don't realize how complex the types can be. I don't know how many of our listeners use the Julia programming language, but there are types as specific as an upper triangular matrix. You can have types that depend on the data. You can have many properties that are about the data. Our work at Akita is all about inferring structure from API traffic traces. I'm very much about there being as much structure as possible. It should also be inferred as much as possible. TypeScript can only take off because there's some inference involved and I would love to see more of it.

David: The particularly interesting thing with Cue is the fact that definitions don't make any distinction between types and values. That means you can put an example of values into the definition files, whether it's an address or a phone number or something like an IP address, and that will be considered a valid definition.

It just makes sense to link those together because you don't want to have a separate step for validating the type and then validating what you put into that type and describing your data in the way that it's actually being used. It just makes it a lot easier.

Jean: Inference on values is very important for a lot of these things.

David: Our second tool is Leapp. This is a small utility that you can run on your desktop that allows you to manage your credentials for cloud environments. This really only becomes a problem when you have more than one cloud environment, which probably should be most people who aren't just playing around with a cloud provider for their own stuff. You've got to be able to separate production from staging and production from development.

The problem is that whether you're using Microsoft Azure or AWS or GCP, all your credentials are just in a single file that you will just download into your home directory, then it's all got the same name. The idea with Leapp is that it integrates into the operating system's native credential storage. On Windows that's a credential vault, and on macOS that's Keychain, which means you get all the automatic features of encryption and the authentication layer, whether that's TouchID or FaceID on Windows; and being encrypted, it makes it safe to store on your local device.

Then it provides a nice UI. So that you can switch between the different credentials that you want to log into, including things like AWS's IAM support. This is quite a straightforward product. Although I imagine it's quite complicated to implement all of the different types of credentials, you've got to be able to access them. One of the things you raised, Jean was, this is a new startup and they are storing your credentials - obviously not themselves, but certainly implementing the local storage of it. How are we supposed to trust someone like this with critical login details?

Jean: Yeah, I'm torn, decreasing friction for securely managing credentials is obviously a good thing, and encouraging people to practice better security practices is also a good thing. But is giving your credentials to some company you've maybe never heard of that has double ‘P’’s at the end of its name, a wise move? You know, it's just a non-starter. Is that better than storing credentials the way you're doing now? I'm not sure. I think that if you have so many credentials, you also have probably enough riding on not losing those credentials, that it seems like the calculus for using this new credential manager. I'm not sure what would tip me over to using it.

David: So the question is how does adoption happen for these tools? I think what we tend to see in security is the top-level decisions are made by executives. Often the software's forced down on teams, but over the last few years, it's being flipped. We've seen with cloud computing adoption and then just developers making their own tools. This is an app that you can just install on your computer and no one's going to approve it and you can just start making use of it.

Jean: If I were the security team I might want to know and approve it. I'm curious. I'd love to hear from our listeners, what would be your risk-reward calculation for adopting something like this? Then there's a more general question, which is, I love the user experience innovation of this tool. I think one password for credentials is needed. It seems like they do a good job of doing it, but how are startups supposed to innovate on user experience for security, if it's so hard to break in because you can't make the risk-reward trade-off.

I think for some things, if someone's an early startup and they're not taking my credentials, I would say, "Well, cool. I'll spend some extra time on you or I'll spend extra compute using you." But when it has to do with my credentials, come on, that's like letting a training hairdresser, do your hair before your wedding or ... It feels really high stakes.

David: Yeah, definitely. I think you have to start relying on some of the claims that they're making. So I think the first one is everything's always local and whether it's open source or not, it would be the ability to verify that. The fact that it's integrating into the APIs or the operating system on Windows, Mac, and Linux to actually use that credential store that's encrypted, you can verify that. You can open up the Keychain Manager on macOS and have a look and see if the keys are in there. I suppose you could test it on just some dummy credentials or credentials that don't matter to a system and see what's going on.

The ability to use those native APIs, do you think that offloads the trust? Instead, they're just innovating on the user interface itself, which is interacting with the underlying APIs and so your trust is really in Mac OS or Windows.

Jean: That's a really good point. I think I wouldn't have thought to test it this way because I don't understand the underlying trust model of my machine as well as you do. I do think that's pretty cool. I don't really trust any software that well, though. But that's a really good point.

I think the other interesting question here is where does innovation in user experience for security come from and what is motivating it more generally? Something I've seen a lot is if you have the CSO as the main buyer, as the main budget holder, they're going to choose things that help them decrease their liability for issues. Show that they've put a process in place to cover everything. If leaking credentials, isn't one of their biggest process issues, there may not necessarily be a budget for something like this because if an individual developer is picking it up, I guess it could come out of their proprietary developer budget.

But if they try to get a security budget for this, someone will ask, "Well, is this the most hair-on-fire thing that's causing security issues?" And I'm not sure that people are storing credentials today so badly that it is. It seems to me like there's a lot of security ergonomic issues that maybe don't have to do with the most hair-on fire-things, that could benefit from innovation. Does this all just go the way of a lot of programming tool innovation. People want nicer languages, but for a lot of reasons, because it's a want, not a need; no one pays for it. Is this kind of ergonomic user security going the same way?

David: Perhaps the pain point then isn't the actual storage of the credentials. And it's the user interface of switching between logins and the cloud and the different users that you have for authentication. That seems to me like a developer happiness question rather than a security question.  As a developer, if you're constantly having to mess around with different credential files in your home directory and figure out which one you need to use to get the correct permissions to log into the AWS console, arguably that's an AWS problem. They should improve their console login, but then developers are spending too much time trying to switch between different credentials.

Jean: So is this actually a problem? I'm not logged into all of the credentials that my team needs, but I feel like, for the things I need, it's just stored in credential files that the tool manages on its own.

David: I've seen a Chrome extension that does a very similar thing, although it's not innovating on the storage of the credentials like Leapp is. It is still helping you manage which user identity you're logged into in the browser for the purposes of logging into AWS. Having seen two of these tools now, and Leap is one that does interesting things on the desktop APIs, it suggests that we don't have big enough cloud environments to experience the pain, but it is a big pain, generally.

Jean: Who is it a big pain for?

David: I suppose the question comes around how many users you have on AWS and GCP, and maybe this is something the audience can tell us, is this a pain? Do you really find it that much of a problem logging into your Amazon console? If so, how many environments do you have? There must be all sorts of different roles that you set up with permissions to access all the different services AWS has.

Jean: My impression is AWS does a pretty good job of making it fairly painless. If you're all AWS all the time, they get what they need from your credentials files. Maybe this is not true if you're using so many tools across AWS. For us, it seemed fine, but maybe it's one of those things like when everyone was programming in Assembly and before they really experienced something better, they just thought it was the best thing they could do. Or when Dropbox came along, I said, "What's the big deal. What's wrong with SVN?"

David: I suppose the broader question is how do developers adopt new tools and clearly it's to solve some kind of pain. They hear about it from their friends, so, this is potentially trying to figure out a way into the security arena, using that method by providing a nicer user interface and easy way to switch credentials. It must be a pain if there are other tools out there already doing it, and this is a good way to bypass security teams.

Jean: This is really interesting. There are very few examples of security tools I've seen that improve the developer experience. They're all developer first. This makes a lot of sense, but it's a really hard space to crack because developers have to be convinced it matters. I'm really curious, is this something that's painful enough that developers are convinced it matters? Is it only painful if developers are required to be very safe about their credentials? If that's the case, maybe this is really someone up top wanting this for their developers.

David: All right, that's it for this week. And also for this season. We're planning season two of the Console Dev Tools podcast. Please give us some feedback, let us know on Twitter @consoledotdev. Also, rate us in your podcast app and give us a review. You can let us know what we're doing well and what we need to improve.

Jean: Please help other people find us by giving us good ratings if you like us.

David Mytton: Excellent. Thanks. See you next time.

Jean: See you.

David Mytton
About the author

David Mytton is Co-founder & CEO of Console. In 2009, he founded and was CEO of Server Density, a SaaS cloud monitoring startup acquired in 2018 by edge compute and cyber security company, StackPath. He is also researching sustainable computing in the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford, and has been a developer for 15+ years.

Jean Yang
About the author

Jean Yang is CEO of Akita Software. Jean earned her PhD in software correctness and programming language design from MIT and then became a professor in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University before she started Akita to build the future of API observability.

About Console

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