Software Bill of Materials

What is a software bill of materials?

Learn Software Bill of Materials

Wendy Rodriguez

For organizations, it’s a hard but necessary task to keep track of all the materials that will be used to create a product. That’s when a bill of materials (BOM) comes in handy. It is a comprehensive list of materials, components, and sub-assemblies needed to manufacture, build, or repair a product. It serves as a detailed and organized inventory that outlines the structure of a product, including all the necessary parts and their quantities. BOMs are commonly used in various industries, including manufacturing, construction, electronics, and more. There are different types of BOMs, and they can be applied to physical products as well as software. In the context of software development, a software bill of materials (SBOM) is a specialized type of BOM that lists the components and dependencies of a software product.

What is software bill of materials?

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on promoting the use of SBOMs in the software industry to enhance transparency, collaboration, and security across the software development lifecycle. By adopting software bill of materials, organizations can take a proactive approach to managing their software supply chain and protect themselves from a wide range of risks.

A software bill of materials (SBOM) is a comprehensive list of all components and their dependencies, as well as metadata associated with a particular application. It functions as an inventory of all the building blocks that forge a software product. With an SBOM, organizations can better understand, manage, and secure their applications.

Benefits of SBOMs

The benefits of implementing and keeping an SBOM are plenty; it not only facilitates overseeing resources, but it also improves efficiency and security. An SBOM has the following benefits:

  • Improved security: SBOMs help organizations identify and prioritize security vulnerabilities in their software applications due to third-party elements, enabling them to take timely remediation actions.

  • Reduced risk of supply chain attacks: SBOMs can help organizations identify and mitigate risks associated with compromised or malicious software components in their software supply chain.

  • Enhanced compliance: SBOMs can help organizations comply with regulatory requirements that mandate the disclosure of software components.

  • Increased transparency: SBOMs provide visibility into the components that make up software applications, enabling organizations to demonstrate to stakeholders and/or the entire community how secure such components are.

  • Integration into workflows: SBOMs can be integrated into DevOps and CI/CD pipelines, allowing for automated generation and updates throughout the development lifecycle.

What’s in a Software Bill of Materials?

When an SBOM incorporates the three crucial elements (data fields, automation support, and practices and processes), it becomes a powerful tool for enhancing transparency, security and efficiency in the software supply chain. The key elements of a software bill of materials are:

  1. Data fields:
  • Components: A detailed list of all software components used in the application. This can include APIs, libraries, modules, packages, and other dependencies.

  • Version information: The specific versions of each component included in the software, helping to track potential vulnerabilities or updates.

  • Licensing information: Details about the licenses associated with each component, ensuring compliance with licensing agreements and open-source licenses, as well as legal requirements.

  • Dependencies: Information about the relationships and dependencies between different software components, allowing for a better understanding of how changes in one component may affect others.

  • Security vulnerabilities: Data fields referencing known security vulnerabilities associated with each component, which can help users assess and mitigate potential risks.

  • Hashes and checksums: Data fields for cryptographic hashes or checksums to verify the integrity of each component.

  • Timestamp: Time and date the particular SBOM was created.

  1. Automation support:
  • Tool integration: Automation support involves the consistent and automatic integration of SBOM generation tools into the software development and release processes.

  • Continuous monitoring: Automation enables continuous monitoring of the software supply chain that allows it to be up to date when changes occur, such as new component versions or security patches.

  • Integration with DevOps tools: Automation support involves integrating SBOM generation into popular DevOps tools, allowing development and operations teams to seamlessly incorporate SBOMs into their workflows.

  1. Practices and processes:
  • SBOM lifecycle management: Establishing practices for the complete lifecycle management of SBOMs, from initial creation to updates and removals.

  • Standardized formats: Adhering to standardized formats for SBOMs, such as Software Package Data Exchange (SPDX) or CycloneDX, ensures consistency and interoperability across the industry.

  • Governance and compliance: Following practices for governance and compliance, which should include regular audits to ensure that SBOMs are accurate and up to date.

  • Educational practices: Implementing practices to educate stakeholders about the importance of SBOMs and how to interpret and use them effectively.

By incorporating these three elements into a software bill of materials, organizations can establish a robust foundation for software supply chain security and management.

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Choosing an SBOM tool

Organizations can use various tools to create and maintain SBOMs. These tools can automatically scan software codebases and identify the components and their dependencies. Some of the top options are:

  • Syft: User-friendly, integrates with CI/CD pipelines, supports diverse package managers and languages

  • SPDX SBOM generator: Lightweight CLI tool, generates SPDX-compliant SBOMs, easy to integrate with scripts

  • FOSSA: Comprehensive solution for SBOM generation, vulnerability management, license compliance, and more

  • Spectral: Integrates with CI/CD pipelines, offers advanced vulnerability analysis and reporting

  • MergeBase: Easy-to-use for building self-service SBOM generation workflows

  • Microsoft SBOM: Open-source tool generating comprehensive SBOMs, including open-source libraries, dependencies, and frameworks

When choosing a tool, it’s important to consider factors like the type of software that will be developed since some tools specialize in specific languages; also, the level of detail needed, the integration with existing workflow, and, of course, the budget, as there are open-source tools as well as paid.

SBOM standards and formats

These formats have a structured approach that represents the components and dependencies of a software application, which facilitates the understanding and management of the security risks related to these components. There are three primary standard formats:

  • Software Package Data Exchange: SPDX is an open-source format for representing software components, dependencies, and metadata. It’s widely supported by the industry and has been adopted by several organizations, including Microsoft, Google, and IBM.

  • CycloneDX: An open-source, lightweight and flexible format that is well-suited for use in DevOps and CI/CD pipelines. It provides supply chain capabilities to reduce cyber risk.

  • Software Identification: SWID is an industry-standard format for representing software components and their associated metadata. It’s primarily used by commercial software publishers and is often used for licensing compliance purposes.

All the formats are backed up by trusted organizations like OWASP and ISO, and are committed to enriching their respective toolsets, which lets developers create and edit their own SBOMs.

Challenges to adopt SBOMs

Even though there are benefits to adopting SBOMs, like any new practice, there are challenges associated with it. One of the major challenges is the absence of standardized formats for SBOMs. Different industries may have different requirements and formats for creating and sharing SBOMs. This lack of standardization can hinder interoperability and create confusion.

Modern software applications are often built using a variety of third-party components and open-source libraries. Creating a comprehensive SBOM for complex software ecosystems can be challenging, especially when dealing with nested dependencies and dynamically loaded components. This is where third-party tools, that perform software composition analysis (SCA) can help.

How to generate an SBOM with SCA

Software composition analysis plays a crucial role in building a robust SBOM. An SCA helps by analyzing and identifying the various components and dependencies within a software project. SCA tools can determine which third-party components are integrated into the software, and can also provide information about the versions of the identified components, which is crucial for tracking and managing software versions, especially in terms of security vulnerabilities and updates.

SCA tools can be integrated into CI/CD pipelines and often support standardized SBOM formats, such as SPDX or CycloneDX. The tools check components against known vulnerability databases, like CVE, to match them to specific versions and report any security vulnerabilities associated with the components. They can also enable organizations to enforce policies regarding the use of open-source components which could include checking for compliance with licensing policies and security standards.

SCA is not necessarily a one-time process, it can be set up for continuous monitoring. This ensures that SBOMs remain up-to-date as the software evolves and as new vulnerabilities are discovered.

Generating SBOMs with Fluid Attacks

By leveraging on our software composition analysis, you can systematically and comprehensively identify, analyze, and document the components and dependencies within your software projects. While SBOMs can be manually assembled, Fluid Attacks’ SCA automates the process and provides deeper insight into vulnerabilities and other potential issues. Our SCA can be the engine behind generating detailed and accurate SBOMs for you.

Along with SCA, our own tools conduct tests, like SAST, DAST, and CSPM, which yield minimal rates of false positives and help enhance transparency, security, and compliance in the software supply chain. Vulnerability management is so much more convenient with our single platform, which provides comprehensible reports that keep all the stakeholders updated as it’s continuously generated.

We offer two plans, Advanced plan and Essential plan, and both contribute to the secure development and deployment of software without delaying the time-to-market of your applications. Please feel free to contact us and begin your journey with us today.


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