Cybersecurity SBOM

What is a software bill of materials (SBOM)?

Pallavi Vishwakarma

Member of Technical Staff

Jan 12 2023

4 min reading

What is a software bill of materials (SBOM)?
Image by CyberScoop

Why organization needs SBOM?


Software flaws are frequently detected in components that are dependencies for other software applications. The difficulty of determining whether a company is exposed to risk from a third-party component is known as supply chain risk.


Due to this, there were strings of supply chain attacks in 2020 and 2021  including Codecov, and most recently Apache Log4j. Attacks of this nature prompted the U.S. government to take action to reduce supply chain risks. Executive Order 14028, which promotes, among other mandates, that U.S. government agencies only conduct business with software providers who offer SBOMs, was published by the federal government in May 2021.


Despite the fact that the EO is aimed at businesses that do business with the government, these standards, especially SBOMs, are likely to become the de facto standard for how all businesses develop, test, protect, and run their software applications.


SBOM can not only be used as a document to ensure that your organization is secure but with the proper SBOM, you would know exactly which packages you had deployed—and, more to the point, what version of those packages, which would allow you to upgrade as needed to stay safe.


The scope of SBOMs is not limited to security. They can assist developers in keeping track of the open-source licensing for the many software parts they use, which is crucial when it comes to distributing your application.


What is SBOM?


The SBOM is a formal document that contains information about the specifics and supply chain connections of different parts needed to construct software. It's common practice for software manufacturers and developers to assemble already-existing open-source and for-profit software components to build new products. Each of these product parts is listed in the SBOM.


The SBOM list consists of the commercial, open-source, code packages, and third-party libraries utilized by the software. It can be used to keep track of security updates and flaws for each dependency in the software project. It guarantees that only permitted dependencies are included in a software project, which is helpful for auditing purposes.


What's in an SBOM?


Every SBOM document must contain some minimum elements which are grouped into three areas:

  1. Data Fields:

These attributes are designed to make it possible for these components to be sufficiently identified so that they may be tracked along the software supply chain and mapped to other useful sources of information, such as vulnerability databases or license databases.

  • Supplier Name
  • Component Name
  • A version of the Component
  • Other Unique Identifiers
  • Dependency Relationship
  • Author of SBOM Data
  • Timestamp
  1. Automation support:

Manually creating an SBOM is not recommended due to the complexity of contemporary software development processes. To ensure that other systems can comprehend and utilize SBOM data, the NTIA advises a minimal level of automation for SBOM generation and data transfer.


When sending SBOMs across organizational boundaries, it specifies three reporting forms that must be used. They are,

  • Software Identification (SWID) Tags
  • Software Package Data Exchange (SPDX)
  • CycloneDX
  1. Practices and Processes

In order to support ongoing data collection, an SBOM must have the appropriate processes in place. It is also necessary to define the creation and access methods for SBOMs.


It should include the following components:

  • Frequency: SBOM document must be updated frequently if the software component is upgraded.
  • Depth: Every level of components and transitive dependents should be included by SBOM authors.
  • Access Control: Organizations must establish the conditions of access control if they want to keep some components of a software bill of materials confidential.

How an organization can generate SBOM?


There are two ways through which organization can create SBOM:

  • Manual Method:

In the manual process, developers must manually list every component of the software, including version, license, dependencies, and any other significant information, in a spreadsheet. It works best for simple applications with a limited number of moving parts. 


It is ineffective for bigger projects, though. A project with hundreds of direct and transitive dependencies simply cannot have an SBOM inventory created manually. Human error is a concern with manual processes as well.

  • Automated method:

Automating the SBOM is the ideal strategy for the majority of projects. To scan all of your software projects and update any linked components as needed, you can integrate automated tools into your continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipeline.


The majority of SBOM generation tools also have good CI/CD tool integration. These programs automatically scan your software projects and provide a list of all proprietary and open-source software parts as well as any associated information, such as license details and library dependencies.


Challenges of creating an SBOM


Incorporating an SBOM into their software development, packaging, and release activities requires a lot of assistance and proper tool for the wider adoption of the SBOM.


SBOM is a dynamic documented and that’s why it becomes hard to keep the list updated every time when a new component is added to the project.  And it is not only limited to updating but also providing accurate information for better risk management.


Final thoughts


An SBOM has a lot to offer in terms of security, compliance, and managing the many elements of each application's license agreement. Due to the list of potential attack vectors they present, SBOMs can also be useful during incident investigations. For your organization, automating this SBOM helps to guarantee comprehensive coverage and up-to-date information.


Overall if your organization adopts this method of maintaining a document like SBOM will help you to strengthen your security and also build trust among your investors.


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