When it comes to the modern-day software supply chain, the amount of complexity is almost baffling. As a consequence, the past few years have been marred with several high-profile security breaches, including the infamous hacking of SolarWinds. These types and magnitudes of supply chain attacks have prompted organizations and governments alike to enforce guidelines to secure their software. Among a long list of guidelines, let’s do a deep dive on SBOMs in this article.
What is SBOM?
A Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) is a formal, nested inventory of all the third-party and open source elements that make up software components. It also contains information about the versions of components used in a codebase, the licenses that govern the components, etc,.
SBOMs serve as an accurate and error-free software development document that is designed to be available for security assessments as well as be interchanged with other organizations and governments. These documents can be created for any of the artifacts at any stage of a supply chain.
As organizations are automating most of their processes, the internal procedures of security assessment, compliance review, etc., also happen automatically. And the best way to do this securely is by generating SBOMs at every stage. This helps make sure that everything supplied is healthy. SBOMs are becoming overwhelmingly critical to improving the security and transparency in the software supply chain.
The importance of SBOM
Since SBOMs are an inventory of essentially all of the software elements you have utilized, it provides visibility into the security risks and licenses associated with the software. SBOMs are also a great way of providing quality assurance to customers. It enables organizations to provide their customers with the latest reports on their dependencies.
These days, organizations have this system in place where every code commit generates a brand new set of artifacts across the DevOps pipeline. In such a system, audits and assessments happen automatically. This is where SBOMs come in as a major element that allows organizations to conduct these assessments in a secure and automated fashion.
SBOMs help make sure that base images while building applications into containers, are not very old and out of date. This helps DevOps teams identify and understand that even though the application code might be moving along correctly, some other dependencies might not be updated. SBOMs also help to keep everything moving forward at a reasonably consistent pace.
Vulnerabilities are discovered and put into our databases every single day. Therefore, when you create an artifact and release cadences for it every couple of weeks, you would need to scan the artifact more often. In such a situation it becomes a best practice to keep the SBOM around with the artifact when it is created. This is because you can just take the SBOM document and run it against a vulnerability scanner on a daily basis.
The makings of a great SBOM
A great SBOM should contain the following information:
(a) What is being cataloged – a container image, a machine image, etc,.
(b) Identifying each cataloged item uniquely- the versions, the relationship between components, etc,
(c) Which tool did the cataloging – the tool that generated the document and its configuration.
(d) Exceptional conditions – errors or warnings that occurred during processing.
(e) Additional useful metadata – licenses, etc,.
The quality of SBOMs is becoming more critical as time moves forward in the area of software supply chain security. And the reason for that comes down to the fact that a lot of our security practices have to do with insight and awareness. Having access to high-quality information helps not only in vulnerability enforcement and prevention areas of security but also in terms of forensics and impact assessment.
How can organizations get started with SBOM?
Any enterprise that produces, buys or operates software needs to start generating SBOMs if they haven’t already. They can use the various open source or proprietary tooling available in the market to help generate SBOMs. This would be easy and convenient to do since most of these components used in the current cloud-native applications have metadata files with SPDX – one of the most popular SBOM formats used. This means that actions that generate or update SBOMs can be automated.
Another thing to keep in mind when starting out with SBOMs is to make sure they are dynamic and implement tools that provide the means to have a dynamic SBOM. This helps absorb updates swiftly and automatically.
Organizations can take SBOMs and work out public sources of vulnerability information and use the two pieces of data to combine, map and associate security violations directly to artifacts via the SBOM.
As SBOMs have gone from being a mere legal formality that helped avoid licensing issues to a significant element in detecting software vulnerabilities, enterprises should adopt a more holistic approach towards them.
The high-profile supply chain attacks over the past years have shown us how critical it is to identify and track each and every software component because “one bad apple can spoil the bunch”. A lot of security analysts believe that having more prevalent, controlled and richer SBOMs would result in greatly improving the security assessment processes. SBOM is essentially a really significant foundation that supplies the necessary information to teams for both automated and security processes. You need to start preserving SBOMs associated with all the artifacts that your DevOps toolchain is producing as soon as possible.
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