Your first SBOM is going to stink. Don’t panic, get started fixing it!

Your first SBOM is going to stink, that means you need to get started now to fix it up enough to share it. 


It seems like everybody but you is showing off their shiny new SBOM. You know you have to get started but you’re worried about what you’re going to find. I’m here to tell you that your first SBOM is going to stink, everybody’s does. If they tell you that it came out perfectly they’re either lying or their SBOM is woefully incomplete,  So let’s rip off the Band-Aid, get our scanning tools warmed up and work on getting a SBOM produced that you can stand behind and that won’t embarrass you or get you in trouble.

There’s a few common areas that SBOMs will have problems in.  These include Completeness, Depth, Unremediated Vulnerabilities, Open Source License Violations, and Over Delivery.

Each of these areas can cause rework, missed deadlines, loss of sales and even legal problems. 

The last thing you want is to deliver a product or a SBOM to your customer and have a previously unknown set of vulnerability and license compliance issues be sent back over to you with a timetable for resolution not of your own setting.


Let’s first talk about completeness

What I mean by completeness is that you examined all the code bases that are part of your project, you used a scanning tool that was capable of generating SBOM information for the type of libraries and artifacts you depend on, and that your Software Composition Analysis (SCA)  tool is configured correctly in order to produce SBOM information from whatever repository manager you are using. It’s common to get a short SBOM since the SCA tooling is unable to discover the open source in use due to lack of scanning ability or misconfiguration of the tool.


What are some questions you can use to gauge completeness?

Do I see artifacts for both my front end and back end in the SBOM or SBOMs. For example, do you see software components written in JavaScript if that is what you were using for your web app’s front end? 

Are you seeing a good list of Java components if you are using Java and Maven for your back end?

Bear in mind, you may have open source components in use that are automatically put on your SBOM through the use of a repository manager, and also have artifacts that are not managed by a repository manager that have to be manually incorporated into a SBOM. For example, you might have explicitly copied the source code for a component into your codebase, or load the library from a remote web location. Both of these cases require manual effect in order to have an accurate SBOM.

Additionally, ask developers to list some of the large open source dependencies they are aware of. Do you see them in your SBOM? If not, this is a very helpful indication that underscanning of some type is occurring.


Over Delivery in your SBOM

The completeness issue is closely related to the Overdelivery issue.  Sometimes your team will generate an SBOM that contains far more information than is appropriate for your individual application. This may be because the projects or directories to scan have been over specified. This also may be because you were using a repository technique called a Mono Repo which may contain many unrelated sub projects to the bill of materials that you are expected to deliver. There may be a large directory of third-party artifacts that are required to run every single application in your company, but the project you are concerned about right now, only requires a small percentage of those artifacts. Getting a SBOM for a small part of your MonoRepo may require advanced scanning techniques like Runtime analysis, etc.. in order to best cut away un-related disclosures.

You may find that there are multiple old distributions of your software checked into scan directories wildly inflating the artifact count and including artifacts from long dead versions of the application you’re scanning. This may require pruning or excluding directories scanned by your SCA tooling. Indicators of this issue may occur when you see many multiple copies of the same set of open source libraries differing only in version numbers. The names of the directories that these articles are seen in can also prompt you that this is the issue (e.g. /OldReleases/ or /PreviousVersions)

You may have scanned test or customer data directories that are part of the QA process and are unrelated to the running of your application or may even be inappropriately disclosing customer relationships or data.

You may have scanned artifacts that are related to the building and development environment of your application, which also may be out of scope for your SBOM delivery (though bear in mind, in the future, build and test environments are likely going to be required as part of SBOM deliveries!)


Is your SBOM Deep Enough?

Another very common underdelivery in SBOMs is not scanning “deep enough” or ignoring Transitive Dependencies. Transitive Dependencies are the dependencies of the dependencies you explicitly request. For example, you might depend on Component A, which in turn depends on Component B, C and D. These 3 dependencies might not show up explicitly in your Repository Manager configuration files but are resolved at build time and downloaded silently and automatically in the background. Depending on what SCA tool you use, and what settings you have turned on in that tool, you may find yourself not getting a complete list of required third party dependencies. Transitive dependencies may double to 10X your visible use of open source!


Have you Resolved All(?) Your Vulnerabilities! 

Now that you have a complete SBOM you will need to examine it for security and compliance problems. Top of mind for many organizations is the vulnerability status of each of the third party dependencies in their SBOM. There are many philosophies and more and more legal requirements in terms of defining how to resolve these vulnerabilities. The simplest process is to update all components so that there are no known vulnerabilities visible in the SCA scan. This may be difficult or impossible to get done in a timely manner, or may be impossible due to lack of available fixes. That said, many customers are going to expect a CVE free SBOM even if it is not possible to do so.

Other philosophies of vulnerability management includes performing runtime or reachability analysis. This means a SCA or similar tool will attempt to see if vulnerable components or buggy subcomponents are actually used or reached during the running of the application. A successful resolution of a vulnerability can be a statement that this vulnerability is not valid for your use case since that code is never used or reached during runtime.

Delivering a Clean SBOM may be possible with additional information explaining why known vulnerabilities do not affect your application. This may be due to not being in reachable code, not valid due to your runtime environment, or due to not being valid vulnerabilities in the first place. This is often the beginning of a discussion with your customer who may have additional questions or even pushback on your opinion. A common way of delivering this information is through a manual spreadsheet or through the use of a VEX document. See for more information on VEX.


Have you Resolved Any Open Source License Violations?

It is very common to see a large number of Open Source License Violations when running a SCA scan for the first time on a codebase. Some distribution models are more affected by license issues than others. For example, if you are distributing an application to end users or delivering a piece of hardware, there are many open source licenses you need to comply with.

If you are running a piece of software as a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, there is not likely a classic distribution of software, so many of the open source licenses will have no compliance requirements (with some notable exceptions like the AGPL license!)

In the distribution model, are you paying attention to any embedded Operating Systems like Linux?  If you are an IoT or embedded device product, this is extremely important to get correct. 

The most serious license violations are typically issues like GPL violations, where your organization is not complying with the terms of the General Public License (e.g. not sharing your application source code when making a distribution) 

Your organization should create Open Source License Use Policies for each of your distribution models and use cases. In many cases your SCA tool can help with the enforcement of these policies and create reports of policy violations.

Other issues are not creating license notice files, not putting copyright statements in about boxes, and other required attributions.

There may be other legal requirements (that technically may not be open source requirements) but are discovered during this analysis phase. These may be restrictions on certain types of commercial or business use, quasi-commercial terms, or even advertising requirements!

Additionally, you may find Commercial components embedded in your product which contain their own SBOMs and open source usage that may not be discoverable through the use of SCA tools. You in turn may have an open source license compliance, vulnerability and SBOM management conversation with your upstream vendor in order to be compliant with your downstream vulnerability and open source license compliance needs.

Open Source and Commercial Legal compliance is a complex topic and is worth the time to understand what is appropriate for your business and distribution model. Explicit legal advice is often warranted!


Putting it All Together

Once you have started using SCA tools, reviewing your SBOMs and then delivering them, you will start exercising a business process that makes future SBOM delivery easier.  One of the biggest causes of stress around SBOM creation and delivery is the fear of the unknown and the lack of knowledge on how to deal with problems. This is a perfect time to create an Open Source Program Office (OSPO) or at least a working group with similar knowledge and responsibilities. Building institutional knowledge on tooling, vulnerability management, open source license compliance and SBOM requirements goes a long way to making your business able to deal with the current and future regulations and contractual obligations regarding SBOMS. Good luck, and get started!