Database Compliance


Table of contents

Data isn’t just driving the world’s economy, innovation, and modern experiences – it has become an extension of people, groups, activities, documents, and more. It’s a digital version of the various attributes of an individual or something that individual does, clicks, buys, or otherwise interacts with. Sometimes, it’s data about data. Or, data about data about even more data

But that doesn’t mean we live in the Wild West of data collection, management, manipulation, and storage. In fact, our world of data is safeguarded by myriad data compliance regulations in order to protect people’s privacy and safety. When it comes to how data is stored, teams must ensure infrastructure remains compliant with the relevant regulations, using methodical processes and advanced tools to govern database change and enforce policies.  

Yet, as application and data pipelines grow, accelerate, and evolve, maintaining and monitoring database compliance becomes increasingly complex and hard to pin down. If the application team is deploying multiple times a week – or even multiple times a day – how is the database team to keep up while staying compliant?

What’s not in question is how vital database compliance is to the business’s survival, innovation, and competitiveness:

  • 80% of compliance professionals view compliance as a valuable function of the business
  • 74% believe compliance requirements “enable, support, and enhance business activity”
  • 70% have witnessed a shift from a “check the box” approach to one that is more strategic

Nor would anyone doubt the complexity of database compliance. One study found that 70% of organizations have six or more security and privacy compliance frameworks to consider. We’ve covered common ones like GDPR, SOX, HIPAA, PCI DDS, and GLBA, but the list will vary and grow based on industries and customers.

In this guide, you’ll learn all about database compliance: what it is; what it means for application development and data science teams; its top challenges; and best practices, including database compliance automation.

What is database compliance?

Database compliance is the practice of adhering to legal, regulatory, and organizational standards and requirements that govern how data is stored, processed, and managed throughout the data and application pipeline. It involves implementing and maintaining controls, policies, and procedures to ensure database security, protect data privacy, and properly handle sensitive information. This encompasses a wide range of activities from ensuring data integrity and confidentiality to preventing unauthorized access and securing data transfers

While avoiding penalties for running afoul of regulations is a primary reason for implementing and monitoring database compliance, it’s not just about checking the right boxes and following the rules. Prioritizing database compliance also helps maintain a foundation of trust, reliability, and security in an organization's data management and application development practices. 

Today’s regulations – such as CCPA, GDPR, HIPAA, and SOX  – and those still to come in the wake of AI/ML, AR/VR, autonomous cars, and other advancements, are there to dictate stringent data protection and privacy requirements to keep people safe and promote safe and fair data collection practices. 

In essence, database compliance is a strategic imperative that enables organizations to navigate the regulatory and privacy complexities of their modern, ever-evolving data stores and pipelines so they can operate efficiently and support innovation – while safeguarding that modern equivalent of pure gold: data. 

Collaborating to reduce compliance risks

Achieving compliance – whatever that means for your organization – and maintaining it as applications and data pipelines evolve are paramount risk management challenges for any organization that collects data, whether it's central to their business or an adjacent feature. 

Reducing this risk requires a collaborative effort across teams throughout the application and data pipeline – from the developers who request changes to the database administrators (DBAs) who review them, the DevOps pros who deploy them, and even the technology executives responsible for org-wide compliance, database or otherwise. 

DBAs prioritize database compliance to protect data integrity and review database changes for regulatory no-nos. They manage the technical implementation of compliance measures, including setting up access controls, encryption, and auditing mechanisms. They also ensure data storage and processing meet regulatory requirements.

Application developers might not consider database compliance when requesting or making changes to the database (structure or data), introducing risk to the pipeline. The code they submit can have implications for how applications handle, process, and store data. Any interaction from the application layer to the database needs to follow best practices for data access and transfer, which includes checking for compliance. 

Yet compliance should be a priority across the organization, all the way up to the executive-level vision for the company’s overall data compliance and safety standards. As these IT leaders respond to internal, market, consumer, and technological pressures on compliance and privacy, they need to ensure rigorous compliance initiatives at every level of the business – all the way down to its databases. 

In modern DevOps-driven cultures, the logical solution to reducing database compliance-related risks is to embed compliance review into the already reliable, automated CI/CD pipeline. With the right automation, governance, and observability capabilities, database compliance control and risk reduction integrate smoothly into the CI/CD pipeline, ensuring continuous compliance in an agile development environment. DevOps engineers can leverage modern database change management solutions to automate compliance checks, track changes, and deploy safely and consistently. 

Database compliance challenges

To ensure data security and protect against unauthorized and unintentional access — from both within and outside the organization — teams need vigilant oversight and robust mechanisms to catch, avoid, and resolve database compliance concerns in the application and data pipelines. Compliance typically requires rigorously limiting access to highly sensitive data, such as personally identifiable information (PII), and implementing comprehensive auditing procedures. 

As database technology evolves, data collection scales, and the demands of apps, consumers, and regulatory bodies continue to increase, databases face compounding challenges that test an organization’s resilience, agility, and commitment to maintaining a secure and compliant data ecosystem.

Rapid, automated development cycles

Today’s software development cycles are driven to be as fast as possible – streamlined, automated CI/CD processes that can automatically test, package, and ship software changes in response to a trigger, such as a code check-in. But at the database, change management tends to happen manually, which means not only are compliance checks slow and toilsome, but vulnerable to human error. Addressing the velocity gap between application pipelines and database change management means addressing the compliance automation gap, too. 

Manual database changes, as well as automated changes without proper compliance review, can introduce critical errors. How critical?

Consider the story of Salesforce when it had to take down parts of its infrastructure for more than 15 hours – at an estimated cost of at least $5 million – due to a problematic database change script. The script, which enabled read and write permissions to restricted data, somehow made it through the company’s change management process undetected, and with database compliance at risk, the business suffered a big hit. 

The gap in automation and proper approval processes for database changes can introduce overly expansive permissions, compromising both security and compliance. This challenge underscores the need for more sophisticated tools and practices that can seamlessly integrate database compliance into the fast-paced, automated world of application development, ensuring that rapid innovation does not come at the expense of data compliance, integrity, and security.

Malicious code and unauthorized access

Just like the rest of your organization’s code, database code must be protected from malicious intentions, such as malware, ransomware, or other nefarious break-ins. With database security is often treated reactively rather than strategically and proactively, it can be a challenge for database and development teams to reorient around a more prescriptive and diagnostic approach to protecting their data stores. 

These kinds of breaches aren’t always malicious, either, which highlights the need for strategic separation of duties across the developer and database teams. Without a proper distinction between the individuals modifying database code and those reviewing and approving it, conflicting authority can enable fraud, errors, or security issues. Keeping pace with the rest of the pipeline while preserving these compliance controls isn’t easy, and it gets harder as already complex data stores and teams grow and evolve.

Following DORA’s recommendations to integrate security into DevOps processes, database teams need to build strong access controls into their workflows. This kind of security consideration keeps unauthorized parties out of the code they could seriously mess up, and it simplifies the process of remediation when a breach does occur. 

NoSQL (unstructured) databases

Handling database compliance for NoSQL and other unstructured databases presents unique challenges due to their schema-less nature and the inherent flexibility that makes them so beloved for rapid development and scaling. Without a fixed schema that supports governance and auditing requirements, NoSQL databases' schema-less design complicates the enforcement of data integrity and security policies. 

This nontraditional design, combined with the varied and massive volumes of data they’re now managing, makes compliance a tricky challenge. This is especially true in highly regulated industries such as finance, healthcare, insurance, or pharma that demand strict data governance, security, and auditability. 

Streamlining database compliance with best practices

Fast-moving application pipelines colliding with manual, error-prone database changes means releases aren’t happening as often as they could. Database workflows remain out of step with the broader CI/CD pipeline, running asynchronously and bogging down the team. 

By embracing these best practices in your database compliance program, teams can streamline it to bring it closer to the speed and efficiency found throughout the application development cycle. 

Standardize, version, and monitor

By treating database changes as code, organizations can leverage change management automation and version control systems to track, review, and manage modifications systematically. With automation comes a standardized process with built-in governance. Plus, version control establishes a single source of truth for all database changes, aligning them directly with application development processes. 

Database compliance issues can also be spotted proactively by detecting database drift. If, for whatever reason, the measured state isn’t aligned with what’s expected, this process should catch the inconsistency before it triggers breakdowns or alerts later in the pipeline.  

Maintaining this unified approach enhances transparency, accountability, and collaboration since every modification is meticulously documented and accessible. In the event of an issue, the audit trail provided by the standardized, version-controlled process allows teams to quickly identify the source of the problem and implement resolutions. This not only facilitates rapid, error-free deployments but also reinforces the organization's compliance posture by ensuring that all database changes are consistently managed, reviewed, and deployed in alignment with established regulatory and organizational standards.

Eliminate manual reviews

Given that human error is attributed to 90% of data breaches, reducing manual work for database code checks can increase reliability and efficiency while ensuring database compliance, integrity, and security. Automated processes to check alignment with compliance policies not only mitigate the risks associated with rushed or overlooked manual reviews but also enable a proactive approach to security. 

By incorporating automated reviews, organizations can continuously refine and strengthen their security measures. Each deployment cycle serves as an opportunity to identify and address potential vulnerabilities, leading to progressively more secure and resilient database operations. This reduces the incidence of breaches and ensures that as new security challenges emerge, your database compliance framework evolves to meet these challenges head-on.

Maintain separation of duties

The traditional practice of applying manual changes to production databases inherently requires individuals to have direct access to user data. This arrangement significantly elevates the risk of unintentional exposure and compliance breaches, especially in environments with personally identifiable information (PII) and other sensitive data. Mitigating risk means enacting more checks and separations, which reduce efficiency and slow down the pipeline. Achieving a competitive balance requires a combination of robust policy enforcement, automated tooling to manage permissions, and continuous monitoring to ensure policies are adhered to and effective.

A more secure and compliance-friendly approach involves deploying database changes through automated processes that maintain proper separation of duties. These utilize credentials vaults or leverage role-based access controls (RBAC) to minimize direct human access. By granting permissions to CI/CD process tools — such as virtual servers, rather than individuals — organizations can substantially reduce the risk associated with manual interventions. Even then, robust alerting mechanisms and a comprehensive audit trail are essential. 

Have a rollback plan

If an incorrect change does slip through, how will you undo it? A well-defined rollback plan enables teams to quickly revert database changes to a previous, stable state without losing data or compromising security. This capability is crucial for minimizing the impact of any issue on the system's functionality and its adherence to compliance standards. The plan should include clear procedures for triggering a rollback, detailed steps for executing it, and a communication plan for coordinating with relevant stakeholders.

In an optimized workflow, database changes should include the ability to execute a targeted rollback, which avoids undoing subsequent changes and reverts just the problematic one. 

Include all your data stores and environments

Ensuring that any changes to all of the organization’s databases — whether they involve schema modifications, data transformations, or security updates — are applied through code in an automated fashion is key. Leveraging API calls, CLI tools, or similar mechanisms allows for consistent, repeatable, and auditable processes that minimize the risk of human error and enhance security. Look for compliance automation tools that work with a large number and variety of databases to support your teams today and whichever data store technologies they grow into. 

Enable workflow visibility and measurement (observability)

With observability throughout every pipeline, teams have an actionable window into every database's health and performance. By integrating structured logging from automated processes with observability platforms, teams can detect issues like over-privileged access or failed updates, enhancing security and compliance. Database observability can extend pipeline analytics, like DORA metrics, as well as change operation monitoring to database workflows. 

The common thread through all these best practices? Automation. 

Automate database compliance 

Automating database change management workflows can simultaneously improve database compliance while speeding up the database pipeline. This automation also reduces errors by removing the opportunity for human error, which is abundant in manual processes. 

The value of automation can be hard to quantify, but is undoubtedly significant, considering:

Teams can avoid bad database code, like the kind that caused the massive Salesforce outage mentioned earlier, with a database change management automation solution like Liquibase. Liquibase has Quality Checks, a feature that, once custom-configured by the database team, can quickly and automatically review submitted code for potential errors. Then, the developer submitting the problematic code is immediately alerted to rectify the issue. 

Even in modern unstructured databases, Liquibase’s change management automation elevates security and compliance. Integrating governance practices directly into the development and deployment pipelines ensures that even the most flexible NoSQL databases remain compliant with necessary regulations.

Liquibase enables database DevSecOps automation, including governance capabilities for advanced access control and quality assurance, plus the power of database observability for a continuous feedback loop. You can automatically integrate credential repositories, password automation tools, and rule enforcements that keep your database on the right side of every compliance standard your business faces. 

Additional compliance-boosting capabilities for 60 different database types include:

  • Change tracking
  • Version control 
  • Drift detection
  • Targeted rollbacks
  • Access control

…and the ability to increase collaboration, consistency, and deployment velocity throughout your pipelines. 

Learn how Liquibase works and explore the solution's compliance capabilities to get started on your path to reliable, automated database compliance management.