Software Bill of Materials (SBOM): Importance & Benefits

If you’ve spent a moment’s thought on supply chain safety over the past year, you’re probably acquainted with the term “Software Bill of Materials,” shortened to  SBOM. In its simplest form, an SBOM can be compared to a software’s ingredients list; however, in real terms, it’s a whole lot more sophisticated.

In today’s digitally-driven enterprises – with a high reliance on software resellers, open-source tools, and whitelabel applications – the value of having a software bill of materials can’t be overstated.

Defining SBOM: What is a Software Bill of Materials (SBOM)?

A software bill of materials is a listing of the fundamental components (like code resources) used for building a product. It offers machine-readable information and details outlining the connections between the various software elements in your supply chain.

SBOMs are essentially all about the integrity of the digital “materials” one works with, focusing on trust, and security. They can identify the components a piece of software is made up of, where these files originated, how they were built, and whether they were securely signed by trusted individuals.

SBOMs are a tool that software developers and consumers can use to foster confidence and credibility in the software development and distribution lifecycle.

Gartner estimates that by 2025, 60% of organizations developing or procuring software for critical infrastructure will be obliged to use SBOMs, a sharp uptick from less than 20% in 2022. Let’s examine why, and what precisely is the value of a software bill of materials.

SBOM and Cyber Security: Why Maintaining Software Bill of Materials is Critical

In both public and private sectors, cyberattacks are now all too commonplace. In the second half of 2022, the number of intrusions against government sectors jumped by 95% when compared to the same period in 2021.

It is anticipated that the global economic impact of cyberattacks will rise dramatically from $8.44 trillion in 2022 to $23.84 trillion in 2027.

That is why enterprises, cyber security advocacy groups, and even governments are pushing SBOM as an important part of digital infrastructure – and not a nice-to-have.

In fact, the U.S. Executive Order (EO) 14028 from May 2021, titled “Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity,” mandates the use of SBOMs to bolster the security of U.S. federal databases. It makes software bill of materials mandatory for any software provider working with a government agency.

Ultimately, if companies do not know what is inside their software, they can’t fully understand or assess the risk it brings to the company or possible downstream customers.

Use Cases of SBOM

In addition to giving you visibility into third-party software, thereby making it easier to tackle supply chain attacks, software bill of material helps in:

  1. Strengthening vendor-buyer relationships

    Both software developers and their users need to have faith in the software with which they’re working. The metadata contained in an SBOM can be used by individuals to verify the software’s integrity and quickly recognize faulty or vulnerable components that could impact their systems and processes.

    Similarly, SBOMs can highlight the safety measures that software developers need to take to create secure, state-of-the-art software.

  2. Conducting more comprehensive vulnerability analyses

    Companies can inspect SBOM components for vulnerabilities. If an issue exists, they’ll also be mindful of which dependencies to rectify. A vulnerability is a defect that can be exploited by malicious actors looking to damage software or harm the system it operates on.

    SBOMs can ensure that the software in use is updated regularly and in its most current avatar. If not, you can carry out a risk analysis on only the outmoded components instead of throwing away resources on a review of the software in its entirety.

  3. Delivering better quality software

    As the old saying goes, “Say what you do, do what you say” In a similar vein, the act of creating and evaluating an SBOM typically helps developers in determining whether the software build is truly at its most optimum state.

    Is it consistent and repeatable? Does the generated SBOM reflect what engineers believe to be contained within the software?  Or, does a chasm exist? Most SBOM generators uncover at least a few items about the software that the vendor was unaware of, which allows them to improve software quality and publish only the best builds.

  4. Improving decision-making for procurement

    Using SBOMs offered by third-party software providers enables procurement managers to make more informed software purchasing decisions. With a software bill of materials, IT procurement specialists can go ‘under the hood’ of software to figure out how it functions before purchasing.

    In case the SBOM isn’t available before purchase, you can take advantage of this use case within a reasonable window after purchase – before vendor lock-in can set in – and switch providers if necessary.

  5. Building interoperable enterprise systems

    Enterprise architects are in charge of constructing a company’s technology framework. As with a building architect, it’s much simpler to put together a tech stack if you grasp each of the elements of the resources at hand. This holds especially true for mergers and acquisitions, where architects don’t have full visibility into the software’s provenance, capabilities, and limitations.

  6. Bolstering response to security incidents

    SBOMs can serve as validation for event findings and recommendations — a directional indicator of what went awry. As supporting evidence, the SBOM assists in the investigation of the incident and the assessment of its effect on concurrent systems or earlier system versions.

    During and after an incident, SBOMs can also facilitate interactions between collaborators, afflicted groups, and customers.

    Validating that the contents enumerated by an SBOM were fairly accurate at the time of dissemination and that no identified or unresolved vulnerabilities existed is a further application of SBOMs in incident response management.

    This can reduce legal risk and liabilities for companies that have faced a data breach or an incident of equal severity.

Enterprise Considerations for Using SBOM: How to Maximize their Value

It is the vendor’s responsibility to assemble, format, and furnish a complete software bill of materials for your use. However, obtaining the SBOM isn’t enough; enterprises need a governance strategy to route SBOMs to the most valuable use cases.

  1. Know which vendors to send an SBOM request

    Since resources generally come with a fixed limit on usage, you need to start with a business impact analysis to determine your most essential service providers and Commercial Off The Shelf or COTS software solutions.

    For some businesses with stringent security standards, all vendors with any sort of effect on the organization’s data will be required to submit an SBOM. For other parties, perhaps only a subset of key service providers need to be a part of this process.

    Also essential to consider is the level of expertise of your vendors. An established corporate vendor will be more prepared to deliver what you require when compared to a scrappy startup.

  2. Decide the cadence of SBOM updates and use automation

    The regularity with which you need to submit SBOMs is also important to consider. In certain industries, customers may require updates whenever the software is updated.

    This can occur on an ongoing  – hourly or daily basis – for SaaS platforms, but this level of frequency would overburden vendors with SBOM data collection and delivery duties. Typically, it’s preferable to request SBOM “glimpses or snapshots” of products at scheduled intervals (daily, with every new version, etc.).

    Verify if your contract includes an official Service Level Agreement (SLA) for SBOM delivery.

  3. Establish an SBOM exchange and version control workflow

    A mailbox filled with JSON and XML files is an ineffective way to manage data. At a minimum, organizations require a structured method for monitoring and overseeing the version of each SBOM.

    Ideally, you need a system that can ingest, decode, and evaluate the contained information. SBOM data can be ingested by platforms such as Anchore and Mend.io to send automated alerts and carry out automated security analyses, among other features.

Next Steps

To further strengthen the security protocols of your organization, connect SBOMs with vulnerability administration tools. For example, app or container scanners can use SBOM data to search for recognized vulnerabilities and risks.

As the frequency of cyberattacks increases, supply chain safety is now an essential consideration for all businesses. Software bill of materials (SBOM) is a highly beneficial tool that helps organizations identify and monitor software components. It also keeps users fully apprised of potential safety or efficiency issues.