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Why SBOMs are essential for every organization

In the complicated balancing act of rapid software development and robust cybersecurity, software bills of materials (SBOMs) serve a valuable function to help secure the intricate and vast systems that constitute software supply chains.

Modern software supply chains, oftentimes assemblages of proprietary code and open source components, constitute a complex web of libraries and software dependencies sourced from a broad spectrum of origins, making navigation and management challenging.

This blog post explores the indispensable role of SBOMs in enhancing cybersecurity, managing vulnerabilities effectively, and ensuring compliance with regulatory standards. We also underscore the importance of SBOMs in providing clearer visibility in the face of the burgeoning threat of software supply chain attacks.

What is an SBOM?

At its core, an SBOM is a comprehensive inventory, akin to a nutrition label for software, cataloging every component that comprises a software application.

This detailed inventory spans open source, third-party, and proprietary elements, documenting their licenses, versions, and patch statuses. The essence of an SBOM lies in facilitating transparency across the software supply chain with the downstream intention of bolstering security, ensuring compliance, and streamlining software management.

As software supply chain attacks surge — posing threats to critical infrastructure and capturing regulatory attention — the SBOM emerges as a crucial tool within a defense strategy. They can provide the information needed to swiftly detect and respond to malware, reinforcing confidence and trust throughout the software development life cycle (SDLC).

Why is an SBOM an essential element in software development?

SBOMs are becoming increasingly crucial in software development, with Gartner predicting a significant shift by 2026, where a majority of organizations will mandate SBOM disclosures for mission-critical software. This projection underscores SBOMs as key to both ensuring software integrity and managing risks.

By providing deeper insights into software composition, SBOMs enable the identification of vulnerabilities, particularly in open source dependencies upon which the vast majority of applications rely, thereby enhancing security and compliance.

Additionally, they facilitate navigation through the complex legal aspects of software development, helping organizations meet licensing requirements and avoid potential legal issues.

How do SBOMs improve cybersecurity and vulnerability management?

By detailing every component within an application, SBOMs enable organizations to identify and mitigate security vulnerabilities systematically.

Enhancing cybersecurity

Cybersecurity, at the most basic level, is the protection of software systems from unauthorized access or attacks.

SBOMs play a crucial role in this protective framework, empowering security teams with the following capabilities:

  • Track component origins: Identify the sources of all software components, ensuring they come from reputable and secure origins.
  • Monitor security updates: Keep abreast of the latest security patches for components listed in the SBOM and apply necessary updates promptly.

This detailed visibility afforded by SBOMs is a cornerstone for protecting assets and maintaining up-to-date defenses against threats like phishing, ransomware, and dependency confusion attacks, fortifying the digital infrastructure against potential breaches and attacks.

Strengthening vulnerability management

Vulnerability management, crucial for controlling cybersecurity risk, is a continual process in which you identify, classify, and remediate vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. Despite its importance, organizations often face security breaches due to overlooked patches and misconfigurations.

SBOMs can augment vulnerability management with the following features:

  • Enhanced visibility: SBOMs enable organizations to check their utilized components against databases of known vulnerabilities, such as the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) library, allowing for systematic and proactive identification of potential threats.
  • Proactive remediation: By listing all software components in one place, SBOMs allow organizations to act swiftly in prioritizing and patching vulnerabilities or implementing security measures, significantly reducing the window of opportunity for attackers.

This structured approach ensures vulnerabilities are identified and addressed promptly, enhancing an organization's security posture against potential exploits.

A tool such as Sonatype Vulnerability Scanner helps you accurately identify the software components in use, providing the essential SBOM. With this information, you can strategically decide on the most effective security measures and actions to protect your application.

How do SBOMs relate to compliance with industry standards and regulations?

In terms of industry standards and regulations, SBOMs serve as instrumental tools for helping align with industry standards and ensure regulatory compliance. They equip organizations with a precise record of software components and their licenses, thereby:

  • Facilitating legal adherence: SBOMs simplify compliance with legal standards by providing a transparent record of software composition and licensing.
  • Enhancing software supply chain transparency: They offer detailed visibility into the software supply chain, crucial for understanding and managing software dependencies effectively.

Furthermore, SBOMs can easily be archived, serving as a record of what was in past versions of a software product and what was known about the vulnerability and license status of those components at various points in time.

We now delve into two examples of regulatory developments that underscore the increasing recognition of SBOMs and possible expansion of regulations to bolster cybersecurity.

Executive Order 14028

In May 2021, the United States government issued Executive Order 14028: Improving the Nation's Cybersecurity, which explicitly mentions SBOMs as a critical part of securing software supply chains.

Executive Order 14028, while not mandating universal SBOM adoption, underscores the strategic importance of SBOMs in fortifying cybersecurity defenses across various sectors, particularly areas of national security and public safety. This distinction between recommendations and mandates is crucial for understanding the broader implications of SBOMs in enhancing security of software supply chains.

National Cybersecurity Strategy

The National Cybersecurity Strategy further advocates for SBOM adoption as essential for a robust cybersecurity infrastructure. It positions SBOMs as key to a secure SDLC, supporting the goal of creating reliable, secure software systems.

In light of evolving regulatory landscapes and the demonstrated impact of SBOMs on security posture improvements, the push for their adoption reflects a proactive step towards mitigating cybersecurity risks and fostering a more transparent software ecosystem.

Beginning with SBOMs: Laying the groundwork for more secure software supply chains

SBOMs represent a critical tool in the modern software development and cybersecurity arsenal. They offer unparalleled transparency into software components, fostering a more secure, compliant, and efficient software supply chain.

While mandates for their adoption are specific and targeted, the overarching trend suggests a growing recognition of their importance across the software development landscape.

As software development, security, and DevOps professionals continue to navigate the complexities of modern software ecosystems, understanding and implementing SBOMs will undoubtedly become a cornerstone of secure and responsible software development practices.

Picture of Aaron Linskens

Written by Aaron Linskens

Aaron is a technical writer on Sonatype's Marketing team. He works at a crossroads of technical writing, developer advocacy, software development, and open source. He aims to get developers and non-technical collaborators to work well together via experimentation, feedback, and iteration so they can build the right software.