Software Bill of Materials (SBOM)

Demystifying Software Bill of Materials (SBOM): A Comprehensive Guide

Art Clomera

Vice President, Operations

It’s hard to believe that until recently, organizations lacked a reliable method to know what components were in their software – imagine opening a medicine bottle and not finding the ingredients label.

While the Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) has been around for a decade, it’s gained traction in the wake of supply chain attacks like Apache Log4j. In response to these security breaches, SBOMs were incorporated into the “Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity”  issued on May 12, 2021. New guidance from President Biden once again highlights the importance of SBOMs in securing the software supply chain and calls for federal agencies to adopt SBOMs as a standard practice. 

With their vast network of providers, distributors, and manufacturers, software supply chains are particularly prone to risk. This entangled web heightens security threats for the entire ecosystem, potentially leading to a domino effect with severe consequences for Federal agencies.

But what exactly is an SBOM, and why is it crucial for cybersecurity?


What is a Software Bill of Materials (SBOM)?

An SBOM (Software Bill of Materials) is a formal record that details the elements and supply chain relations involved in building software. Think of it as a streak-free window offering a 360-degree view into the code. By maintaining an SBOM, organizations can strengthen their security frameworks and lessen the impact of supply chain disruptions.


Why is an SBOM important for security?

An SBOM makes the software supply chain visible, allowing government agencies to identify and manage vulnerabilities, assess risks and comply with regulations. For example, if an SBOM reveals a known vulnerable component in the software, the organization can quickly update, patch, or remove that component. The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) also recommends using SBOMs to enhance secure software development. 


How Can SBOMs Help Federal Agencies?

An SBOM offers benefits such as enhanced software development practices, trust and transparency, vendor management, and informed risk assessment. These advantages contribute to a more secure and resilient software ecosystem. At the same time, Federal agencies can better manage their software supply chains and stay ahead of security vulnerabilities. 


1. More transparency 

An SBOM makes the software supply chain visible by listing all software product components. It helps organizations trace the components’ origins, address counterfeit or malicious software risks, and respond to security incidents. SBOMs promote transparency, enhance risk management, and strengthen cybersecurity measures. Federal agencies now have a clear advantage in managing their software ecosystem.


2. React to security threats ASAP

When a security threat emerges, time is your enemy. With an SBOM in place, organizations can quickly assess the impact of the danger by cross-referencing it with the list of software components and dependencies. This process helps them figure out which parts are broken so they can fix them – ASAP.


3. Vulnerability management

SBOMs make identifying and managing vulnerabilities easier by providing a complete inventory of all the components and dependencies used in the software. By cross-referencing the SBOM with vulnerability databases and security advisories, organizations can quickly determine if any components in their software are susceptible to known exploits or weaknesses and take action.


4. NIST compliance

Compliance becomes more manageable because SBOMs provide the information needed to meet the requirements of various security standards, such as NIST SP 800-53r5, NIST SP 800-171, and NIST SP 800-37. Using SBOMs can help organizations improve their security posture; build trust with stakeholders and regulatory bodies; monitor security controls “drift” and its correlation to the SBOM; and streamline compliance processes. 


5. Financial savings

Providing transparency and accountability in the software supply chain makes it easier to manage and track software components. This allows agencies to avoid harmful components that can lead to costly legal and security issues.


The Three Things to Include in an SBOM

To meet the minimum requirements of the Federal Government, an SBOM should include three categories of elements to ensure complete coverage and compliance with regulations.


Data fields

An SBOM includes essential details such as component names, supplier names, software versions, and unique identifiers. However, it goes beyond being a list of ingredients, as it also reveals the entangled relationships and dependencies between these components. This bird-eye view enables agencies to accurately track and identify every software element within their supply chain.


Automation support

SBOM automation generates a list of software components, libraries, and dependencies that comprise a software application. Automation reduces the aggravation and human error of developing SBOMs manually. For a stress-free experience, your SBOM should be machine-readable and generated automatically. Organizations can utilize widely accepted formats like SPDX and CycloneDX, which machines and humans can read.


Practices and processes

Establishing an explicit SBOM creation and use policy is the final element to include. This policy should define the purpose of SBOMs, the types of information that should be included, and the processes for creating, managing, and using SBOMs. Organizations should also select a standard SBOM format, train employees on its use, and update and review SBOMs regularly. These guidelines ensure you get the most out of your SBOM while promoting transparency and accountability in your software supply chain management.


Choosing an SBOM Format

SBOM formats like XML and YAML help with software supply chain security by providing a standardized way to describe the contents of software packages and their dependencies. Both are widely used in the software industry and are supported by various tools and platforms. These popular SBOM formats will ensure that your Software Bill of Materials is accurate and compatible with other tools and platforms. Which one is right for you? Each format has strengths and weaknesses, depending on your organization’s needs.


Ten SBOM Best Practices

1. Use a standard SBOM format

Popular formats such as CycloneDX or SPDX ensure compatibility and facilitate seamless sharing and utilization of your SBOM with other organizations.


2. Ensure complete component coverage

To have a comprehensive view of your software supply chain, it is essential to ensure complete component coverage in your SBOM. This means listing all the components used in your software, including direct and indirect dependencies. By capturing the full range of components, you can identify vulnerabilities, ensure licensing compliance, and proactively manage risks associated with your software ecosystem.


3. Keep your SBOM up to date

Keeping your SBOM up to date is essential for maintaining accuracy and effectively managing your software supply chain. Regularly incorporate changes or updates to the software components, including new versions, patches, or additions, and ensure that the associated information, such as licensing details and vulnerability data, remains current.


4. Clarify potential issues that can affect users

As with any new process adoption, teams may resist change. One way to overcome these challenges is to simplify the SBOM creation and management process through user-friendly interfaces, automation (e.g. conversion of XML/YAML formatted SBOM data to Microsoft Office formats), and solutions tailored to your organization’s needs.


5. Ensure data integrity

The roadmap to ensuring your SBOM is robust includes regular auditing, using reliable sources, verifying version numbers and licenses, implementing automation tools, strong access controls, recording changes, and establishing verification procedures.


6. Follow secure development practices

Integrate the SBOM into development processes to ensure that it is updated and maintained as part of the software development lifecycle.


7. Work with Suppliers

Collaborate with suppliers to obtain information about the components and dependencies used in their products and ensure that they use secure development practices.


8. Automation is your friend

Automate the creation and management of your SBOM as much as possible. This helps to save time, effort and ensures that your SBOM is always accurate and up-to-date.


9. Implement Vulnerability Management

Regularly scan your software supply chain for vulnerabilities using automated tools and techniques. This can help you identify potential security risks and vulnerabilities in your software supply chain and take appropriate measures to address them.


10. Include the origin and provenance of each component

Understanding the origin of components helps you assess the trustworthiness and reliability of suppliers or vendors. In the event of a security breach or incident, you can trace back to the specific component sources, allowing you to respond to the incident, contain its impact, and facilitate the recovery process.

Here is an example of how the origin and provenance of a component might be included in an SBOM:

  • Component:
  • Version: 1.1.1
  • Author: OpenSSL Project
  • Date: 2023-03-08
  • Hash: sha256:deadbeefcafebabe
  • License: OpenSSL License
  • Source:
  • Dependencies:


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SBOM – common FAQs 

How is an SBOM different from a traditional software inventory?

The main difference is that an SBOM includes information about the components of a software product which can track the software supply chain, identify vulnerabilities, and remediate security risks. A traditional software inventory does not include this information.


What is the SBOM development life cycle?

1) Collection of component information, 2) Verification and accuracy checks, 3) Assembly and formatting of the SBOM, 4) Maintenance and updates, 5) Integration into development processes, 6) Sharing and distribution, 7) Auditing and compliance, 9) Continuous improvement.


What are some strategies for overcoming resistance to SBOM adoption within an organization?

Conducting pilot projects to demonstrate the value of SBOMs and how they can be integrated into existing processes and workflows can help overcome resistance. This can involve selecting a small project or team to test the use of SBOMs and gathering feedback.


What is the value of an SBOM?

SBOMs offer immense value by bolstering software security, fostering transparency in the supply chain, and facilitating compliance and risk management efforts. They empower organizations to detect and mitigate vulnerabilities proactively, trace the origin and integrity of software components, and meet regulatory obligations. SBOMs streamline software management processes, enable informed decision-making, and safeguard the security of software applications.

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