What Is a Software Bill of Materials?

The concept of a SBOM was taken from the manufacturing industry and its purpose is the same: to keep track of components used. Learn more!

Published on
3/11/22

Software developers often rely on open source software or third party components. To ensure security, companies must carefully track and manage each one. A Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) is what software engineers use to monitor these components. This is a machine-readable list that contains all of the items and dependencies that exist in any software. 

Keep reading to learn why SBOMs are important as well as how you can use them to improve your organization’s software development and maintenance.

The Origin of the Term SBOM

The term Software Bill of Materials originates from the term Bill of Materials (BOM). A BOM is a commonplace term in the manufacturing industry. A BOM tracks the components, parts, and raw materials present in items such as electronics, TVs, cars, or your phone. A BOM lets manufacturers plan carefully so that they know what is needed when in the assembly line.

Before a car manufacturer starts assembling cars, they need BOMs to manage the following: 

  • Purchasing
  • Costs
  • Inventory 
  • Production 
  • Safety

How Are BOMs Used To Mitigate Security in the Real World?

If your phone catches on fire (it really does happen), then you will most likely take it back to the store and report the incident (after you make a TikTok of course). If someone else has a similar issue, then they will most likely do the same thing – take it back to the store. The store will eventually notice a pattern. Phones catching on fire is a big deal. They will start to identify the root cause and eventually look at the list of parts that were used to make that phone. They look for the bad part that caused the fire, and eventually issue a recall alert on all of the phones that contain that part. 

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

How BOMs Apply to Software Engineering

Today, most software contains numerous third-party softwares, both proprietary and open source. Since this component list is enormous and complicated, it is essential to create a list of all of the software being used, and as well as links (URLs) for where to find them. Otherwise, it will be a mess tracking all of the software that you’re actually using. This can make your software outdated or unsecure. 

A software BOM, or SBOM, is a list of metadata applied specifically to software. The information included is as follows: 

  • Component names
  • License information
  • Version numbers
  • Vendors

This helps reduce risk for both the creators and consumers. An SBOM is a formal list of all of the details that lets others understand what’s in their software, and plan accordingly.

SBOMs aren’t new to the software industry. However, as we rely on more and more software in our day-to-day lives, they’re becoming more important. Recently, they have become the standard in many industries. 

A Few Advantages Of SBOM

Now more than ever, SBOMs can benefit any companies that care about mitigating additional risk and following best cybersecurity practices. They help streamline information sharing regarding software components and vulnerabilities. Some key benefits of SBOMs are as follows.

Lower Costs

SBOMs increase efficient software administration. Having developers manually dig through millions of lines of code to find and address vulnerabilities is extremely tedious and resource-intensive. Furthermore, as the software complexities increase, so does the effort. An SBOM is one framework that helps manage these complexities effectively and also lowers costs. 

SBOMs Can Lower Costs

By consolidating a list of components and versions in one place, SBOMs save a significant amount of time and allow for less unplanned and unscheduled work. Automating this also keeps costs low and productivity high.

As organizations invest in software tools, an SBOM provides customers with clear insights into the total cost of ownership and usage. 

Tighter Security

Using SBOMs lets companies that are creating software avoid known vulnerabilities, and/or find and eliminate them before they get deployed into production. Ultimately, SBOMs help creators and developers discover and resolve security vulnerabilities faster.

When an organization purchases new software, an SBOM makes due diligence easier and allows for faster identification and resolution.

Greater Supply Chain Resiliency

It’s useful to consider modern-day software as a supply chain. A supply chain is simply a link between a company and its supplies to create and distribute a final product to its customers. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And, unlike most physical components, software components change constantly. In a highly regulated environment, such as banks or healthcare, an undiscovered software vulnerability can cause a costly breach.

Even though an SBOM can’t prevent undiscovered vulnerabilities, it can help surface issues earlier in the process. Therefore, it can also help reduce the chance that these vulnerabilities end up in your software. Moreover, it helps improve the overall quality of your software. 

Improved Compliance

SBOMs provide an improved method for record-keeping for software audits and regulatory compliance standards. All of the readily available open source software means that companies must be extra careful to avoid any licensing conflicts or compliance issues. Failure to comply with software requirements can sometimes result in lawsuits or even harm a company’s reputation. 

SBOMs make due diligence easy and help catch issues early, thus allowing the process to be more streamlined. Furthermore, they allow for more efficient and accurate responses to license claims.

Conclusion

Incorporating up-to-date SBOMs into your software development workflows sounds like a no-brainer. This simple tool that other industries have already perfected frees up your resources to create powerful software and a fabulous user experience.

We are excited that you are already thinking about security! Here are some other posts that you might be interested in:

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