Resources Blog What is a software bill of materials (SBOM)?

What is a software bill of materials (SBOM)?

Software programs today frequently have a long list of third-party component parts. To maintain security and performance, companies must carefully track and manage each one.

To monitor these components, software engineers often use a software bill of materials (SBOM). This machine-readable list contains all of the various items and dependencies contained in a piece of software.

Keep reading to learn why SBOMs are important and, specifically, how you can use them to improve the way your company develops and maintains software.

Table of Contents

What is a bill of materials?

A term found in the manufacturing industry, a bill of materials (BOM) tracks components, parts, and raw materials present in items like cars, electronics, and food products. A BOM essentially serves as a production roadmap, detailing every component's journey across the software supply chain.

By using a BOM, a company can quickly identify and remediate production issues. For example, when a defective Takata airbag was found back in 2016, car manufacturers were able to track all affected vehicles thanks to the record of parts contained in the BOM. With this data, manufacturers could quickly see a list of affected parts and issue a recall alert.

In short, BOMs improve safety and performance and expedite issue resolution.

How BOMs apply to software engineering

Most software today contains a complex array of third-party software components, both proprietary and open source. When working with a complicated set of parts, it's critical to keep a running list of all items and source locations. Otherwise, you'll have a much harder time monitoring the components you're using, which can result in outdated or insecure code.

A software BOM, or SBOM, is a series of metadata applied specifically to software. Key information includes component names, license information, version numbers, and vendors. This reduces risk for both the producer and consumer by providing a formal list of all details that enables others to understand what’s in their software and act accordingly.

SBOMs aren't new to the software industry but, as development continues to increase in complexity and cost, they're becoming ever more important. More recently, they've become a standard requirement in many industries.

Top SBOM use cases

A. Developing and operating software

Developers use SBOMs to monitor and remediate software vulnerabilities across different components.

For example, a team of developers may receive an alert about a Ramda vulnerability. Upon learning this, the developers can then use an SBOM to find every piece of software that's using the Ramda library and promptly patch the issue.

SBOMs also enable developers to create and enforce allow-lists and deny-lists, giving you more control over which components and versions are usable in your software – and which are forbidden.

B. Selling software

A growing number of organizations are requesting SBOMs when buying and integrating software. Of course, companies want to make sure the software they are relying on is operationally sound and secure.

This is particularly important in industries with heavy regulation such as health care and financial security. Software vendors that hope to win contracts can use SBOMs as a differentiating factor during the sales process.

C. U.S. federal government requirement

In May 2021, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order focused on improving the nation’s cybersecurity stance. The order tasks the Commerce Department and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with publishing minimum SBOM requirements to secure the software supply chain.

Vendors that sell software to government agencies must now provide documentation to demonstrate operational efficiency and maintain federal compliance. Organizations that can't readily deliver an SBOM now risk losing government contracts to competitors.

D. Conducting merger and acquisition (M&A) assessments

Companies have to do their due diligence when exploring a merger or acquisition to ensure that they know exactly what they're getting into. For example, an established software company needs to know that a startup's solution is secure and well-architected before offering to purchase it.

By providing access to an SBOM, an organization can easily show documentation and demonstrate technical proficiency. This can also simplify auditing and pave the way for a smooth acquisition.

SBOM benefits

There are a long list of reasons why you'd want an SBOM on your side, among them:

1. Deeper transparency

To generate loyalty and drive repeat sales, companies need to build customer trust. Shared SBOMs mean increased visibility into the quality of the tools they rely on, rather than reassurance or promises.

2. Tighter security

Most open source vulnerabilities today come through indirect dependencies. According to the 2021 State of the Software Supply Chain report, 29% of popular project versions contain at least one known security vulnerability.

By using SBOMs, companies can find and eliminate vulnerabilities before they make their way into production. New vulnerabilities discovered on production software can be swiftly patched.

Ultimately, SBOMs help developers discover and resolve security vulnerabilities faster.

3. Greater supply chain resiliency

A supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In a highly regulated environment like health care, an undiscovered software vulnerability can expose patient data and lead to a costly breach.

While an SBOM can't prevent undiscovered vulnerabilities, it can surface issues earlier in the process and help reduce the chance they end up in your software. This benefits software manufacturers, customers, and end-users who trust software systems to hold their data.

4. Lower costs

Having developers manually dig through platforms to find and address vulnerabilities is highly resource-intensive. As the software complexity increases, so does the effort and managing this effectively helps companies stay profitable.

By consolidating a list of components and versions in one place, SBOMs save a significant amount of time devs would otherwise spend searching for vulnerabilities by hand. Automating this keeps costs low and productivity high.

5. Less code bloat

Software iteration often leads to slow and bulky software, known as code bloat. This occurs when developers add multiple different components that perform the same function. This also increases the "attack surface," or number of components that need to be maintained.

SBOMs can help developers identify excessive coding, making it easier to eliminate duplicate or unnecessary extra tools. This means faster, leaner, and safer services.

6. Easier end-of-life management

When software components reach their End-of-Life (EOL) stage, the supplier stops supporting them. And it also means that they no longer receive critical updates and security patches.

Developers rely on SBOMs to identify components when they reach the EOL stage. SBOMs can help prevent outdated and unsecured components from remaining in operation, as well as help identify a replacement.

7. Improved license compliance

Companies need to be careful when using open source software to prevent licensing conflicts. Failure to comply with software requirements can result in reputational harm, lawsuits, and more. Further, some licenses can shield users from patent issues, but only if you know what software you're using.

SBOMs enable companies to manage licensing risk, helping them conduct due diligence and avoid moving non-compliant software into production.

Focus on customers

Software can be your biggest strength and revenue driver – and it can also be your top liability. SBOMs are a direct method to protect your organization from baking vulnerabilities into your code or running afoul of licensing agreements. Incorporating up-to-date SBOMs into your software development workflows lets you put more resources towards creating powerful software and exemplary user experiences.

Getting started with an SBOM

Sonatype offers access to a free SBOM creation tool, the Sonatype Vulnerability Scanner. This powerful solution lets you scan and explore software components, as well as issues around security, policies, and licenses.

To experience other ways Sonatype can help you gain complete control over your software, book a demo today.