How Tailscale can add Security and Privacy to your CI/CD Pipeline

In this article, we will explore how Tailscale can help alleviate network and security challenges throughout the CI/CD process.

Written by Chris Voisey

CI/CD is a method in software development designed to deliver code changes more frequently and reliably. It represents a culture, set of operating principles, and collection of practices that enable application development teams to quickly deliver updated software to end users.

Continuous integration (CI) involves merging all developer commits into a common branch several times a day, reducing integration problems. Automated unit tests usually accompany this process to quickly detect integration errors.

Continuous deployment/delivery (CD):

  • Continuous delivery ensures that the software can be published anytime, enhancing the speed of releases
  • Continuous deployment goes one step further, and automatically deploys changes to production

CI/CD is essential in modern software development where quick iterations and frequent updates are normal. It minimizes errors during integration and deployment, accelerates time-to-market, improves product quality, and enhances customer satisfaction.

In this article, we will explore how Tailscale can help alleviate network and security challenges throughout the CI/CD process, including:

  • Establishing secure network connections between different resources and services to ensure your CI/CD process is operating, even when it involves transferring data between different networks
  • Setting up a secure, private network between your development environment, devices, containers, databases, and other resources
  • Managing the complexity of security policies, access controls, and firewall rules
  • Connecting disparate pipeline stages spread across multiple environments and cloud providers

CI/CD security challenges

CI/CD pipelines are challenging due to the complexities of modern application development processes. The pipeline introduces security risks such as insecure dependencies, misconfigurations, inadequate security testing, exposing private keys/secrets, supply chain attacks, unauthorized access due to weak controls, unpatched tools, insufficient audit trails, and the list goes on. Inadequate handling of these risks can lead to vulnerabilities that expose sensitive data. Let’s dive into some additional challenges:

The complexity of applications: Modern applications often have numerous components, services, and dependencies, making their management increasingly complex. As such, configuring and managing these components can be daunting, even more so in distributed systems.

Networking and security: Establishing secure connections between different services and components can be a significant challenge, especially for microservice architectures or distributed systems. In addition, ensuring that only authorized users and services can access specific elements is another critical aspect of this issue.

Environment consistency: Ensuring that applications behave the same way in different environments (such as development, testing, and production) can be challenging, primarily due to subtle differences in configuration, infrastructure, or underlying software versions. Containerization can help, but introduces its own set of challenges.

Managing containers: While containers help ensure environment consistency and application isolation, they also introduce the need for container orchestration systems - Kubernetes being one example. These systems require expertise to set up and manage, and they come with their own set of security, networking, and resource allocation complexities. 

CI/CD complexity: CI/CD makes the software development process more efficient by automating steps like building, testing, and deploying applications. However, this process requires thorough testing to ensure that code changes do not introduce bugs or performance issues, and maintaining a robust automated testing suite is challenging. Furthermore, coordinating the deployment of different components in a multi-service architecture can be complex.

Scaling: Ensuring that applications can scale to handle increased load can be a significant challenge, particularly for monolithic applications. Microservices and containers can alleviate this, but they introduce their own set of complexities and bottlenecks.

Regular audits, automated vulnerability scanning, secure secrets management, privilege access management, and employing trusted sources for dependencies are some common best practices to reduce risk in your CI/CD pipeline. However, more is often needed.

How Tailscale enhances CI/CD security

When integrated into a CI/CD pipeline, Tailscale’s security features enable secure and seamless communication between different pipeline stages, allowing developers to access and deploy code securely. 

End-to-end encryption: Using the WireGuard protocol, Tailscale creates encrypted tunnels between devices and containers, ensuring data privacy. It offers robust security features that are particularly beneficial for securing CI/CD processes, providing secure connections, and simplifying firewall configuration. All communication within the Tailscale network (tailnet) is encrypted, protecting sensitive data during the CI/CD process and reducing the risk of unauthorized access or tampering.

Access Controls Lists (ACLs): ACLs allow you to define which users can connect to which resources in your network, ensuring that only authorized users communicate with specific services and resources.

ACL tags: ACL tags are a powerful feature in Tailscale that can significantly enhance the security of your CI/CD pipeline. Tags allow admins to assign labels to devices, and then use those labels to define what network traffic is allowed. For instance, an admin can tag build servers and only permit devices with the ‘developer’ tag to communicate with them. This way, you can ensure that only authorized devices can access sensitive parts of your pipeline, adding an extra layer of security. Moreover, because these tags can be easily updated, you can dynamically adjust your security policies to reflect changes in your CI/CD process, thereby maintaining the security and integrity of your pipeline without creating operational bottlenecks.

SSO and MFA: Tailscale relies on your existing identity provider to authenticate users, and automatically uses authentication settings like MFA. Tailscale’s decentralized authentication system eliminates the need for additional username and password management. Developers can securely access resources using their existing accounts, reducing the administrative burden of maintaining separate authentication systems.

Tailscale enhances CI/CD security by providing secure connections, simplified firewall configuration, and end-to-end encryption. This allows teams to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of their CI/CD workflows, offering streamlined configuration and ease of use.

Tailscale integration in a CI/CD pipeline enables secure code deployments to build servers, secure access to staging environments, and secure communication between microservices during testing or deployment phases.

Connecting CI/CD resources

Tailscale simplifies networking and connectivity in the CI/CD process. It eliminates the need for complex VPN configurations or managing firewall rules. With Tailscale, teams can establish secure connections between different pipeline stages, allowing for seamless communication and collaboration. Once installed on the devices or servers in your CI/CD process, Tailscale creates a secure, peer-to-peer network where each device is assigned a stable IP address. This private network enables seamless communication and collaboration across all pipeline stages. For example, code can be securely pushed from developers’ devices to the build server and from the build server to the testing and deployment servers, even if they reside in different environments.

Cross-cloud or hybrid deployments: By creating a secure, platform-agnostic overlay network, Tailscale enables connectivity between resources deployed across any cloud provider or hybrid environment. This streamlines the deployment process, ensuring smooth integration and efficient resource utilization.

Examples of how Tailscale can be used in your CI/CD Pipeline

To better understand how Tailscale can be integrated into a CI/CD pipeline, here are a few examples:

Secure code deployment: Imagine a development team scattered across various regions, each operating on distinct networks. Setting up VPNs, configuring firewall rules, and maintaining a secure gateway to ensure access to shared assets like build servers becomes challenging. Tailscale can create a secure network including all these diverse locations. This is achieved by establishing encrypted peer-to-peer connections between all the devices and servers in these locations, creating a private overlay network. With Tailscale’s automatic NAT traversal and IP assignment, developers can deploy code to the build server regardless of their network environment. All this is done without the need for an archaic VPN setup or risking server exposure to the public internet. By simplifying network configurations, Tailscale empowers developers to focus on writing code, knowing that their deployments are secure.

Access to secure testing environments: If your QA team needs access to a staging environment for testing, you can use Tailscale to provide secure access without exposing this environment to the public internet. The QA team can then connect to the staging environment over a secure network, test the application, and report any issues.

Microservices communication during testing/deployment: Microservices-based applications with services hosted in different environments (on-premises, AWS, GCP, etc.) can all be connected and accessed from anywhere. This is important during the integration testing phase where microservices typically communicate.

Access to databases and other secure assets: During build or deployment phases, secure assets like a database or a secrets vault need to be accessed. Tailscale can create a secure, private network path without exposing the asset to the public internet. This ensures that only authorized pipeline stages or personnel can access these secure assets.

Cross-cloud deployment: If you have a multi-cloud deployment, where different parts of your application are hosted on various cloud providers, setting up secure connections between these components can be complicated. With Tailscale, you can create a secure overlay network that spans all these providers, allowing secure communication between them.

Real-world example: CircleCI

In a blog post from ThreeComma, they explain how they have helped several customers replace their OpenVPN installations with Tailscale.  One particular client, Bolt Financial, was using CircleCI for building container images while also operating a few legacy systems that used Jenkins. They found that during the CircleCI pipeline, Bolt Financial had to reach out to a bastion host over SSH to initiate some requests within their infrastructure. Tailscale provides a more efficient solution, eliminating the need to connect to an external bastion host, avoiding firewall issues, and obviating the need to rotate SSH keys. Additionally, using Tailscale’s userspace networking, they were able to make this possible, even in container environments where creating a VPN tunnel device would usually be impossible. The entire solution was then open-sourced for use within anyone’s CircleCI environment.

Real-world example: GitLab CI

Access Control Lists (ACLs) define what users or devices are permitted to access in your tailnet. As an alternative to managing the ACLs in the Tailscale admin console, you can use GitOps for Tailscale ACLs to manage the changes. With GitOps, GitLab merge requests send your tailnet policy file to Tailscale, to determine whether the ACL is valid, and whether all ACL tests pass. GitLab also pushes check validity and run tests, and if successful, automatically apply your tailnet policy file changes to your tailnet. For more information, read our knowledge base article titled GitOps for Tailscale ACLs with GitLab CI.

Real-world example: Connecti

When setting up cloud infrastructure for your team, it often makes sense to provision sensitive services in private subnets. However, this usually means that those services are not easily accessible from your personal devices or CI/CD infrastructure. Connecti is a command line tool written in the Go programming language using Pulumi’s automation API, that allows you to declaratively provision Tailscale subnet routers in seconds without writing a single line of infrastructure code. To learn more, read our blog post titled Tailscale for DevOps: Connect to any subnet in your tailnet with Connecti (by Pulumi).


The CI/CD process often faces challenges regarding networking, security, and the need for secure communication and collaboration. Tailscale provides a comprehensive solution to address these challenges and offers additional benefits that enhance CI/CD workflows.

Tailscale simplifies networking in CI/CD, eliminating the need for archaic VPN configurations and enabling seamless communication between different pipeline stages. It facilitates cross-cloud or hybrid deployments, connecting resources effortlessly, regardless of the underlying infrastructure.

Security and privacy are essential in CI/CD, as sensitive code, configuration files, and data are transmitted throughout the pipeline. Tailscale’s end-to-end encryption ensures the confidentiality and integrity of these assets, reducing the risk of unauthorized access or tampering.

By leveraging Tailscale, organizations can reduce overhead in managing security for developers and operations teams. The decentralized authentication system eliminates the need for separate account management, simplifying the onboarding process and reducing administrative burden.

Considering the importance of streamlined networking in CI/CD, it is worth exploring Tailscale as a solution for your own CI/CD pipelines. The user-friendly nature, robust security features, and seamless integration make Tailscale a valuable tool for enhancing your CI/CD workflows.

Embracing Tailscale can empower teams to focus on their core development and deployment tasks while enjoying simplified networking, robust security, and enhanced collaboration. With Tailscale, you can ensure the integrity, privacy, and efficiency of your CI/CD processes, ultimately accelerating your software delivery and strengthening your overall development pipeline.

Get started with Tailscale today.

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