A software bill of materials (or SBOM, pronounced “S bomb”) is a machine-readable inventory for software components. Think of it as a list of ingredients for all the elements that comprise a piece of software and its hierarchal relationships. There are many aspects of SBOM, but here are five important ones you need to know.
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An SBOM is a formal and structured inventory of software attributes, libraries, and modules that engineers need to build that software. It lists the relationships between those elements and how they impact software supply chain processes. It also defines the “surface area” of software potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks. The elements listed in an SBOM might be proprietary or open-source, paid or free, or restricted or publicly available. It all depends on the scope and intended use of a program, whether that’s system software, utility software, application software, or something else entirely.
An SBOM makes it easier for the software engineers and computer systems design firms they work for. This document helps engineers communicate what’s in the software to those with a limited understanding of how this technology functions and serves end-users. That makes it an ever-increasingly important part of software development and management.
The ISO International Standard for open source license compliance has a process for creating, managing, and updating an SBOM called ISO/IEC 5230:2020. That process is similar to guidelines laid down by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the executive branch agency that advises President Biden on telecommunication and information policy about specific types of cybercrime, which remain a significant threat to the government and your organization.
As an SBOM can also guide engineers, it’s becoming a standard in the tech sector. A software development company might publish its SBOM on its website or share it with departments in-house.
Here are five aspects of SBOM:
1. A Successful SBOM Knows Its Limits
While a software bill of materials provides engineers and companies with information that improves the software supply chain and tracks well-known and new security risks and vulnerabilities, an SBOM can’t solve all security-related problems. The NTIA notes that an SBOM should form a “foundational data layer” on which engineers (and developers) can build further security tools and practices. However, SBOM functionality can’t prevent cybercrime or hacking or stop a data breach from happening.
2. An SBOM Should Have Minimum Elements That Support Use Cases
While different software bills of materials might list different software elements and include information that guides engineers and companies, all successful SBOMs have minimum elements that users can apply to real-world security scenarios. The NTIA says, at the very least, SBOMs should document baseline information that users can track, such as a software component’s name, the version of the component used, its relationship with any dependencies, who owns related SBOM data, and other unique identifiers. An SBOM also needs to list information related to support automation and “machine-reliability” and define SBOM request operations and uses such as “frequency,” “depth,” “distribution,” and “delivery.”
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3. The Purpose of a Good SBOM Is To Increase Transparency
A successful SBOM doesn’t just list software elements but helps development companies increase the transparency of their software supply chain processes. That includes listing information that reveals how software elements improve supply chain management and reduce the risk of cybercrime in those chains, as well as security vulnerabilities in the software ecosystem as a whole.
4. SBOMs Should Include a ‘Security Score’
The more disclosed vulnerabilities listed in a software bill of materials, the better. A great SBOM typically includes a security score, highlighting the criticality of security risks such as data breaches and other threats that can impact an organization. For example, engineers might rank security elements (based on the criticality of risks) out of 100 in an SBOM.
5. Software Engineers Need to Integrate SBOMs Into Operations
SBOMs aren’t just pointless tick-box security exercises that impress managers. The best software bills of materials help engineers navigate security risks and, therefore, companies should integrate SBOM functionality into the development life cycle of an organization. That includes incorporating SBOM functions into internal policies and contracts with third-party partners. Doing so can help organizations protect their technology assets and reduce the impact of cybercrime in the possible event of a data breach or other threat.
Aspects of SBOM: Final Word
A software bill of materials is one of the most critical documents for software engineers and computer systems design firms. It lists all the components in a finished software product, so anyone who uses that product knows what’s “inside” it. The five aspects of SBOM listed above will help you communicate software components to those with limited knowledge and reduce the risk of cybercrime and other threats to your organization.
Once you have created an SBOM, you can further optimize software packages by investing in a cloud-based service like Packagecloud, which distributes multiple packages even if you don’t own any infrastructure. You can keep the packages you want to distribute across machines in one repo regardless of the operating system or programming language you use. The result? You can save money and time on setting up servers for packages and update machines quickly without the expensive price tag.
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