In the world of software development, two mega-trends have emerged in the past decade that have reshaped the industry. First the practice of building applications with a foundation of open-source software components and, second, the adoption of DevOps principles to automate the build and delivery of software. While these innovations have accelerated the pace of software getting into the hands of users, they've also introduced new challenges, particularly in the realm of security. 

As software teams race to deliver applications at breakneck speeds, security often finds itself playing catch-up, leading to potential vulnerabilities and risks. But what if there was a way to harmonize rapid software delivery with robust security measures? 

In this post, we'll explore the tension between engineering and security, the transformative role of Software Bill of Materials (SBOMs), and how modern approaches to software composition analysis (SCA) are paving the way for a secure, efficient, and integrated software development lifecycle.

The rise of open-source software ushered in an era where developers had innumerable off-the-shelf components to construct their applications from. These building blocks eliminated the need to reinvent the wheel, allowing developers to focus on innovating on top of the already existing foundation that had been built by others. By leveraging pre-existing, community-tested components, software teams could drastically reduce development time, ensuring faster product releases and more efficient engineering cycles. However, this boon also brought about a significant challenge: blindspots. Developers often found themselves unaware of all the ingredients that made up their software.

Enter the second mega-trend DevOps tools, with special emphasis on CI/CD build pipelines. These tools promised (and delivered) faster, more reliable software testing, building, and delivery. Which ultimately meant not only was the creation of software accelerated via open-source components but the build process of manufacturing the software into a state that a user could consume was also sped up. But, as Uncle Ben reminds us, “with great power comes great responsibility”. The accelerated delivery meant that any security issues, especially those lurking in the blindspots, found their way into production at the new accelerated pace that was enabled through open-source software components and DevOps tooling.

The Strain on Legacy Security Tools in the Age of Rapid Development

This double-shot of productivity boosts to engineering teams began to strain their security oriented counterparts. The legacy security tools that security teams had been relying on were designed for a different era. They were created when software development lifecycles were measured in quarters or years rather than weeks or months. Because of this they could afford to be leisurely with their process. 

The tools that were originally developed to ensure that an application’s supply chain was secure were called software composition analysis (SCA) platforms. They were originally developed as a method for scanning open source software for licensing information to prevent corporations from running into legal issues as their developers used open-source components. They scanned every software artifact in its entirety—a painstakingly slow process. Especially if you wanted to run a scan during every step of software integration and delivery (e.g. source, build, stage, delivery, production). 

As the wave of open-source software and DevOps principles took hold, a tug-of-war between security teams, who wanted thoroughness, and software teams, who were racing against time began to form. Organizations found themselves at a crossroads, choosing between slowing down software delivery to manage security risks or pushing ahead and addressing security issues reactively.

SBOMs to the Rescue!

But what if there was a way to bridge this gap? Enter the Software Bill of Materials (SBOM). An SBOM is essentially a comprehensive list of components, libraries, and modules that make up a software application. Think of it as an ingredient list for your software, detailing every component and its origin.

In the past, security teams had to scan each software artifact during the build process for vulnerabilities, a method that was not only time-consuming but also less efficient. With the sheer volume and complexity of modern software, this approach was akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

SBOMs, on the other hand, provide a clear and organized view of all software components. This clarity allows security teams to swiftly scan their software component inventory, pinpointing potential vulnerabilities with precision. The result? A revolution in the vulnerability scanning process. Faster scans meant more frequent checks. And with the ability to re-scan their entire catalog of applications whenever a new vulnerability is discovered, organizations are always a step ahead, ensuring they're not just reactive but proactive in their security approach.

In essence, organizations could now enjoy the best of both worlds: rapid software delivery without compromising on security. With SBOMs, the balance between speed and security isn't just achievable; it's the new standard.

How do I Implement an SBOM-powered Vulnerability Scanning Program?

Okay, we have the context (i.e. the history of how the problem came about), we have a solution, the next question then becomes how do you bring this all together to integrate this vision of the future with the reality of your software development lifecycle?

Below we outlined the high-level steps of how an organization might begin to adopt this solution into their software integration and delivery processes:

  1. Research and select the best SBOM generation and vulnerability scanning tools. (Hint: We have some favorites!)
  2. Educate your developers about SBOMs. Need guidance? Check out our detailed post on getting started with SBOMs.
  3. Store the generated SBOMs in a centralized repository.
  4. Create a system to pull vulnerability feeds from reputable sources. If you’re looking for a way to get started here, read our post on how to get started.
  5. Regularly scan your catalog of SBOMs for vulnerabilities, storing the results alongside the SBOMs.
  6. Integrate your SBOM generation and vulnerability scanning tooling into your CI/CD build pipeline to automate this process.
  7. Implement a query system to extract insights from your catalog of SBOMs.
  8. Create a tool to visualize your software supply chain’s security health.
  9. Create a system to alert on for newly discovered vulnerabilities in your application ecosystem.
  10. Integrate a policy enforcement system into your developers' workflows, CI/CD pipelines, and container orchestrators to automatically prevent vulnerabilities from leaking into build or production environments.
  11. Maintain the entire system and continue to improve on it as new vulnerabilities are discovered, new technologies emerge and development processes evolve.

Alternatively, consider investing in a comprehensive platform that offers all these features, either as a SaaS or on-premise solution instead of building this entire system yourself. If you need some guidance trying to determine whether it makes more sense to build or buy, we have put together a post outlining the key signs to watch for when considering when to outsource this function.

How Anchore can Help you Achieve your Vulnerability Scanning Dreams

The previous section is a bit tongue-in-cheek but it is also a realistic portrait of how to build a scalable vulnerability scanning program in the Cloud Native-era. Open-source software and container pipelines have changed the face of the software industry for the better but as with any complex system there are always unintended side effects. Being able to deliver software more reliably at a faster cadence was an amazing step forward but doing it securely got left behind. 

Anchore Enterprise was built specifically to address this challenge. It is the manifestation of the list of steps outlined in the previous section on how to build an SBOM-powered software composition analysis (SCA) platform. Integrating into your existing DevOps tools, Anchore Enterprise is a turnkey solution for the management of software supply chain security. If you’d rather buy than build and save yourself the blood, sweat and tears that goes into designing an end-to-end SCA platform, we’re looking forward to talking to you.
If you’d like to learn more about the Anchore Enterprise platform or speak with a member of our team, feel free to book a time to speak with one of our specialists.