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A Guide to SBOM Best Practices and Fundamentals

Organizations and developers who create and maintain software may have software bills of materials (SBOMs) but don’t quite hit the mark when it comes to creating them. Sure, they know SBOMs are important for software transparency and vulnerability tracking. However, knowing they’re important and actually making rock-solid SBOMs are two different things.

In our previous blog, we’ve discussed in detail what SBOMs are. Now we dive into SBOMs, the need of right ingredients (fundamentals) and a dash of know-how (SBOM best practices) to turn them into documents for supply chain security. So, let’s dive into those best practices and fundamentals you need to know about to create SBOMs.

🗝 The Key Components of an SBOM

Before getting into the nitty gritty of SBOM best practices, it’s first important to understand the fundamental components of an effective SBOM. Here are all the things developers must include:

  • Component Name — This component is the fundamental building block of the SBOM. It should include a clear and concise name for each software component or item.
  • Supplier Name — This identifies the entity responsible for providing or maintaining the component. It helps users know who to contact for support, updates, and inquiries.
  • Version — This field is critical for tracking and managing software components. It should include the specific version or release number of each component.
  • Unique Identifiers — These are standardized codes or names assigned to software components, such as software identification (SWID) tags and common platform enumeration (CPE), to ensure precise identification and tracking. They can be alphanumeric codes or standardized identifiers.
  • Dependency Relationship — This component defines the dependencies between components, indicating which components rely on others to function correctly.
  • SBOM Data Author — This identifies the person or entity responsible for creating or maintaining the SBOM. It’s crucial for accountability and knowing who to contact for updates or clarifications.
  • Timestamp — This field should indicate when the SBOM was created or last updated. It helps users determine if the information is current or not.

✅ SBOM Best Practices for Application Component Management

After Joe Biden’s Executive Order highlighted the importance of the software bill of materials, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a document discussing SBOM in detail. Here are some SBOM best practices this document mentions that organizations should consider.

Establish Clear Policies and Procedures

The first and most important SBOM best practice organizations should implement is creating a structured framework for handling their software components. These policies and procedures help organizations define the rules for creating, maintaining, and updating SBOMs. They also define the step-by-step process, ensuring that everyone in the organization knows what to do and how to do it. This clarity minimizes confusion, reduces errors, and enhances consistency in SBOM management.

Use a Consistent SBOM Format

Another SBOM best practice organizations should use when creating SBOMs is to use standard or uniform data formats for component inventory.  This is because standard formats ensure uniformity, interoperability, and ease of understanding across different software projects and organizations. Three of the most commonly used SBOM formats are SPDX (Software Package Data Exchange), Software Identification (SWID) tags, and CycloneDX.

Automate SBOM Generation

Manually creating SBOMs can be a labor-intensive process that involves tracking down every software component and its dependencies, collecting metadata, and formatting it correctly. This process becomes increasingly cumbersome in large-scale software projects with numerous dependencies and frequent updates. When organizations automate these processes, creating SBOMs becomes easy. 

One way to automate SBOM generation is to use Kiuwan Software Composition Analysis (SCA) tools. SCA tools start by scanning the source code or binary files of a software project. They conduct security risk assessments by analyzing the code to identify libraries, frameworks, and third-party components on which the software relies. Once the tools find a software component, they perform a dependency management assessment.

They also identify other components on which the software component relies, creating a hierarchical view of dependencies. Another benefit is that they’ll also gather additional metadata about the components, such as their origin (where it was downloaded or sourced from), maintainers, and any relevant URLs or documentation. 

Regularly Update SBOMs

Regularly updating the software bill of materials is essential to maintain the accuracy and relevance of the information it contains. Organizations can do this by setting a schedule for SBOM updates. The frequency of updates may vary depending on the nature of the software projects, but it’s advisable to align updates with software development milestones or regular maintenance cycles.

Dev teams can also automate the SBOM update process. Integration with automation tools such as SCA tools can automatically identify changes in dependencies and vulnerabilities. This can make the update process more efficient and less error-prone.

Secure Storage and Access Control

While SBOMs should be readily available for users, organizations have to be extremely careful in how they store them and who can access them. This is because while SBOMs are required to be public knowledge, especially for developers creating open-source components, SBOMs should be securely stored with restricted access. When access controls are necessary, organizations should specify these in the SBOM with specific allowances and accommodations for how users should use SBOM data. 

Allow for Accommodation of Mistakes

NTIA mentions allowing for errors in SBOM creation. It acknowledges that while the SBOM data captured should be thoroughly scrutinized, there may be errors and omissions. In other words, organizations should have disclaimers in the SBOMs for errors, and consumers should tolerate them. (But don’t look at this as an opportunity to ignore or omit information intentionally.)

⚙️ Generate SBOM Data With Kiuwan

SBOM best practices emphasize not just documenting the key components of software; they are essential for helping organizations and developers ensure their software meets legal compliance regulations and security standards. Kiuwan’s Software Composition Analysis (SCA) provides the components and information you need to create your SBOMs.Get a personalized demo along with a 14-day trial to try Kiuwan’s SBOM features for yourself.

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