March 8, 2024

What Is an SBOM & What’s the Connection With Software Documentation?

Software Development
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What Is an SBOM? 

An SBOM, or software bill of materials, is an inventory of all the components and dependencies that a software application utilizes at any point in the process of its development and delivery. 

SBOMs have become an industry standard for cybersecurity and are a critical part of many organizations’ DevSecOps practices.

The idea of an inventory of all the parts of a product comes from the manufacturing industry, where a bill of materials lists all the parts involved in building a certain product, like a car or an appliance, and their supply chain sources.

Although software applications don’t have physical parts like you would see in the manufacturing industry, their components — such as open source software and APIs, among many others — are considered parts of the software supply chain. 

What Does It Include?

The main thing a software bill of materials needs to include is a detailed list of all the components that make up the application, including suppliers, versions, and any other relevant information.

An SBOM also requires some level of automation to achieve the proper level of maintenance and data formatting.

Finally, it must also include a summary of the practices and processes that are used to create, maintain, and deliver this information to the stakeholders who need it. 

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Who Needs an SBOM? 

In today’s business landscape, it’s safe to say that every application developer needs an SBOM. They’ve become an industry standard for cybersecurity that many organizations expect to see when they’re considering investing in a new application.

But why are they so important?

Manufacturers started creating BOMs because it allows them to easily identify when parts of their supply chain have gone wrong and swiftly and efficiently address the issue. If a part is defective, they know exactly which products utilize that part so they can fix the problem for the future and communicate the issue to the proper customers.

In a similar manner, a software bill of materials is a tool for identifying and mitigating cybersecurity risks by making it easy to know when vulnerabilities affect an application.

When a developer sees a vulnerability arise in a component of their application’s software supply chain, they can quickly identify which parts of the application are affected so they can patch the issue and minimize how much information is compromised.

Not only are SBOMs becoming an industry standard for cybersecurity, in some cases, it is also against the law not to have one. In the wake of several cybersecurity incidents in 2021, the White House issued an executive order that all contractors and vendors working with the federal government maintain an SBOM to ensure the security of their applications.

SBOMs are also helpful for managing the use of various open source licenses. Since various licenses have different legal restrictions, having a record of those restrictions is a way to mitigate the risk of unintentionally being out of compliance. 

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Building and Maintaining an SBOM

Because an SBOM is often too complex to manually update and requires a standard format to exchange data, a certain level of automation is required to properly create and maintain an SBOM.

It’s common to use software composition analysis (SCA) tools, which can automatically identify what components are used in each application, to build an SBOM.

Learn more about SBOM generation tools >>

With automation, your SBOM should be relatively low maintenance, but you do need to be intentional about ensuring its information is up to date. You should also audit your SBOM every so often to make sure that it remains accurate.

Learn more about creating a software bill of materials >>

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The Relationship Between SBOMs and Software Documentation 

SBOMs and software documentation are both time-savers and important resources for your team.

Documenting your application architecture makes it easier to onboard new team members and plan more effectively for future projects. Along with its cybersecurity benefits, SBOMs also serve a similar purpose, because it’s easy to get an overview of all an application’s components and their versions when they are compiled in one location.

However, since the automation functionality and formatting requirements for an SBOM are so specific, your SBOM will probably be a separate document kept in a different place from the rest of your team’s documentation.

So how do you bridge the gap between maintaining your SBOM at the functional level required to keep it up to date and making information about the components involved in your application accessible and easily digestible both to your own team and to other stakeholders within the business?

We’ve discussed before how visually documenting application architecture is the best way to make it easy to understand at a glance and improve team productivity and collaboration. One way to visually document the dependencies mapped out in your SBOM would be to manually create a diagram and enter the proper information.

However, that can take up a lot of time, especially as your application grows and becomes more complex, utilizing more components and relying on more dependencies.  

Gliffy offers an easier way to communicate details of your SBOM visually. With our new data linking tool for Confluence Cloud, you can drag and drop data from a table right into a diagram to visually represent the structure of your application — without the need to switch between tools or manually type it all out. 

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Start Building Software Documentation With Gliffy 

Ready to start building software documentation that illustrates your application architecture at a glance and improves your team’s collaboration and productivity? Start your free 30-day evaluation of Gliffy for Confluence on the Atlassian Marketplace.

Try Gliffy

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