It’s common for software developers to use third-party/open source components when developing custom software. Research indicates about 97% of Java applications are made up of open source libraries.
It’s easy to see why third-party components are popular. Using such software makes the development process quicker, easier and, often, cheaper too.
However, speed and efficiency should never be prioritized over cybersecurity. If you don’t carefully review and manage your third-party components, you could be exposing yourself to potential cyber-attacks.
Even if your infrastructure is secure, a vulnerability in a third-party software component could enable hackers to infiltrate your systems. This isn’t a theoretical issue either. As breaches like the Kaseya ransomware attack and SolarWinds fiasco show, hackers are keen to manipulate the software supply chain for nefarious purposes.
In response to the risks surrounding the software supply chain, proactive software engineers have started using software bills of materials (SBOM or BOM), which are also soon to be a mandated clause in federal contracts.
Last year, President Biden issued an Executive Order to enhance America’s cybersecurity posture, including specific recommendations around the establishment of SBOM requirements.
As SBOMs become more commonplace in the world of software development, it’s vital that your organization keeps up with the pace of change. Otherwise, you could risk losing contracts to competitors. You’ll also, of course, be more at risk of suffering a security incident.
Below, we’ll explore what SBOMs are, why they’re important and how you can use them in your company.
What is a software bill of materials?
The phrase BOM has its origins in the manufacturing industry, where a bill of materials refers to a roadmap that is used to track physical items like mechanical parts and raw materials across the supply chain lifecycle.
The BOM is effectively a blueprint, detailing what components were used to create an end product – and tracking its journey through the supply chain.
BOMs are about much more than just tracking; they’re commonly used in manufacturing to catch and fix any component errors. For example, suppose someone reports that a car part is faulty and this is found to be a systemic issue. Using the BOM, the manufacturer can quickly trace and recall the impacted components.
The same applies in the world of software development. Most of today’s software is built through numerous third-party software components. To make sure every component is working as it should be – and is secure – it’s vital to create an inventory of every component, so you can monitor them appropriately.
This is where a SBOM comes in. A SBOM is an inventory of metadata for your software components. They enable developers to track each of the components used to create their customized software. A typical one includes:
- An inventory of open source and third-party components in a codebase
- The licenses for each component
- The relevant version of the component
- Patch status
Armed with these details, software manufacturers and buyers can boost confidence in the digital supply chain, ensuring that code is of a high standard and secure, while mitigating any risks quickly.
Why are SBOMs rising in popularity?
Software supply chain attacks tripled in 2021, indicating that attackers very much realize the value of breaking into software products. Rather than just attacking and disrupting one organization, a successful software attack allows hackers to gain access to numerous targets in one swoop.
As these attacks become more prevalent, SBOMs have arisen as a way to improve security across the software development industry. SBOMs shine a light on the shadows of the software development process, enhancing transparency between vendors and buyers, providing visibility on potential vulnerabilities and improving remediation.
While implementing SBOMs takes a little bit of work, the rewards are well worth it, helping you to better discover and manage third-party software risks.
Source: NTIA Multistakeholder Process on Software Component Transparency Framing Working Group.
The main SBOM use cases
If you’re wondering whether you should use a SBOM in your organization, here are the top use cases:
- Developing software
Developers should make use of SBOMs to discover and patch software weaknesses that arise in third-party components.
- Selling software
If you sell software to customers, providing a SBOM might be part of the procurement process or included in your supplier contract.
- U.S. federal mandate
Companies that sell software to the government are now mandated to provide assurance on their software supply chain, and SBOMs are the best way to do this.
Benefits of using SBOMs
Now you know how and when to use SBOMs, here’s a deeper look at the benefits:
1. Enhanced transparency
SBOMs are a vehicle for enhanced trust and visibility. This can lead to better customer relationships which, in turn, can drive forward sales.
2. Improved security
With a complete picture of the software supply chain, organizations are empowered to find and remediate security vulnerabilities before they are corrupted by hackers.
3. A stronger supply network
Supply chain attacks often create a domino-style effect, impacting multiple customers, partners and suppliers in one single swoop. With SBOMs, companies can improve the overall resilience of the supply chain, benefiting numerous organizations.
Discovering vulnerabilities manually is costly and takes a long time. By contrast, a SBOM speeds up the process, allowing your development team to be more efficient.
5. EOL made simple
When software reaches its end of life (EOL), it longer receives patches that keeps it safe from potential vulnerabilities. With a SBOM in place, it’s easy to keep track of EOL phases and make the necessary replacements in advance.
How to create a SBOM
Your SBOM should be a dynamic document, which you update in real-time so that it is precise and accurate.
The first step in creating a SBOM is to create a software inventory. From there, follow these steps:
- Collect relevant third-party component data and meta-data. Input this into the SBOM
- Refine the document to the data your organization deems necessary and finalize the file
- Monitor the file regularly to ensure all components used are secure. Update it as needed in line with any changes to third-party software or new additions.
SBOMs: the way forward for the software industry
While only federal contractors are currently mandated to create SBOMs, we believe that this is a trend that is here to stay. In the near future, SBOMs will become part and parcel of the software development lifecycle.
This is a great thing. SBOMs promise to improve visibility and security – and can even be a competitive differentiator for early adopters.