What is SBOM? Explaining the software bill of materials

What is SBOM? Explaining the software bill of materials

Define software bill of materials (SBOM)

A software bill of materials (SBOM) is an inventory of all software components that make up a piece of software. It identifies and lists all open source libraries, commercial libraries, modules, plugins, and other dependencies that are incorporated into the software's codebase. An SBOM provides a complete blueprint of all the ingredients that compose a software application or system.

SBOM: A key to understanding software dependencies

An SBOM serves as a key resource for understanding the dependencies and relationships between different components within a software product. By mapping all the components, an SBOM provides visibility into the supply chain of the software. This allows development teams to identify security vulnerabilities associated with included software libraries and dependencies. An SBOM essentially shines a light on the "ingredients list" of software components that make the application function.

SBOM basics

SBOM as a blueprint for your software

An SBOM acts as a blueprint, providing a comprehensive inventory of the components included in software. Just as blueprints outline the materials and their relationships for constructing a building, an SBOM details all the elements that are assembled together to create a software application. With this blueprint mapping the components, teams gain visibility into potential risks and can proactively address vulnerabilities.

What SBOM includes

An SBOM contains details on the various types of software components to create transparency in the supply chain. This includes:

  • Open source libraries and dependencies
  • Commercial/proprietary libraries and modules
  • Services and tools utilized
  • Licensing information
  • Versions of libraries and components
  • Relationships between components

Addressing software complexity and security concerns

Modern software applications have grown vastly complex, incorporating dozens or even hundreds of different components, libraries, APIs, and services. This complexity makes it challenging to identify vulnerabilities hidden within dependencies. An SBOM addresses this problem by detailing all components so that security teams can assess risks within the software supply chain. With comprehensive visibility, threats can be addressed proactively.

Why SBOM matters: Benefits

Enhanced security insights: Identifying vulnerabilities and risks

  • A core benefit of an SBOM is enhancing security and risk identification. Security teams can cross-reference libraries against vulnerability databases to uncover risks allowing issues to be addressed before software is deployed. An SBOM also aids root cause analysis when breaches occur by exposing all components so that vulnerabilities can be pinpointed.

Supplier visibility: Trace software components back to their source

  • An SBOM provides visibility into the supplier origins of each software component integrated into a codebase. This allows development teams to trace the supply chain of software dependencies and track each element back to its source. Identifying component suppliers is crucial for evaluating the security of software dependencies based on the vendor sourcing them.

Compliance: Navigating legal and industry standards

  • - An SBOM helps organizations comply with an array of legal and industry standards related to software security, licensing, and supply chain traceability. By cataloging all components and their licenses, an SBOM aids compliance with regulations that require these inventories. As SBOM adoption grows, they will likely become a crucial compliance asset.

Efficient software management: Facilitating updates and maintenance

  • With detailed mapping of all components, an SBOM simplifies the management of software development, updates, and maintenance. Teams can easily identify dependencies that need updating as new versions are released. This streamlines updating processes and reduces potential bugs caused by outdated libraries to enhance operational efficiency.

Components of a software bill of materials (SBOM)

Bill of materials in different contexts

While an SBOM provides a software inventory, the concept of a bill of materials (BOM) exists across many industries. Manufacturers use BOMs to list parts for production. Builders utilize BOMs to outline construction materials for projects. The SBOM applies this inventory concept specifically to software creation.

Software components: From code to libraries to dependencies

An SBOM encompasses the full breadth of software components integrated into code to provide comprehensive visibility into software supply chains. This includes:

  • Custom code and scripts developed in-house
  • Third-party libraries for adding functionality
  • Services like cloud tools or APIs
  • Any software dependencies required for operation

Relationships and dependencies: Software interconnections

A crucial element of an SBOM is mapping the relationships and dependencies between components. This illuminates how software building blocks interconnect and rely on each other for functionality. Detailing these relationships allows development teams to understand and manage complex chains of software dependencies.

Challenges of implementing SBOM

Navigating software complexity

Modern software can easily incorporate hundreds of dependencies, making SBOM creation and management non-trivial. The intricate web of software components poses challenges including:

  • Identifying all dependencies incorporated over time
  • Continuously maintaining SBOM accuracy as software evolves
  • Documenting intricate relationships between components

Automated dependency mapping and component analysis tools can help organizations overcome complexity and eliminate challenges associated with SBOM.

Balancing transparency and intellectual property (IP) protection

While the SBOM aims to create transparency, organizations also need to balance this with protecting proprietary software IP. Publishing an overly detailed SBOM could reveal sensitive intellectual property. Strategies like only sharing relevant metadata can help balance transparency goals with IP protection.

Overcoming organizational opposition

Mandating SBOM use faces challenges like internal resistance and transition costs. Education on SBOM benefits helps demonstrate their value. Starting with small pilots and integrating the SBOM into existing processes can ease organizational adoption.

Integration of SBOM: How it fits into cloud infrastructure

Infusing SBOM into software development lifecycles

To maximize value, an SBOM should integrate tightly with software development lifecycles for enhanced visibility. As dependencies get added during initial coding, development teams can populate SBOMs. In addition, automated tools can scan codebases to detect components and populate the SBOM inventory.

How SBOM could shape software supply chains

Widespread SBOM adoption could significantly shape software supply chain practices. Suppliers may provide an SBOM to demonstrate component transparency. Audits may assess SBOM quality as a supply chain criterion, and components lacking an SBOM may get excluded from usage. Overall, the SBOM has the potential to mature and harden software supply chains.

The role of developers, organizations, and standards bodies

Multiple stakeholders help drive successful SBOM adoption:

  • Developers: Populate detailed SBOMs and integrate them into coding practices
  • Organizations: Establish internal policies and processes to standardize SBOM use
  • Standards bodies: Develop consistent schema standards for SBOM structure

With collaboration across these groups, SBOMs can transform understanding of software dependencies and supply chain risks.