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Open source software (OSS) simplifies software development, which is one of the reasons why more than 90% of organizations utilize open source components in their applications. That means there’s a shift underway towards applications having more open source code than custom code within their codebases.
Read on to learn more about the benefits and risks of open source software, and our top six tips for using open source components securely.
Open source components have transformed the software industry. The reasons behind this increasing trend are clear: using an open source component speeds up application development, making developers more efficient and productive.
In addition, open source components offer developers a seamless way to construct the code and leverage the collaborative effort of open source communities. That means development teams can focus on the custom code that’s unique to their organization while using open source tools and libraries to avoid reinventing the wheel.
With the growing prevalence of open source code comes security risks. Moreover, our research has found that quite often, open source vulnerabilities are found in indirect dependencies (also known as “transitive dependencies”). The problem is that many open source components are outdated and contain modified or missing licenses, and these issues are especially difficult to find in the indirect dependencies an open source project may contain.
Here are several of the risks of open source components:
Software quality – Using open source code modules increases variability in contributing developers and reduces control over the QA process applied to the third-party code.
Long-term sustainability – If the open source module is not maintained, the software developer has to bridge the gap, straining their bandwidth and splitting time addressing vulnerabilities.
Software licensing – The end use of the open source components dictate the type for open source license compliance: permissive or copyleft. A permissive license allows implementation and distribution of your software, while a copyleft license further requires the software you build with the OSS component to be freely available, risking disclosing information that may be proprietary. It’s vital to confirm the copyright status and usage restrictions of any module, which can be difficult as the number of open source dependencies for larger applications grows.
Open source software security – Similar to the risks in quality, employing an open source component might introduce security risks if the collaborating developer did not correctly address security.
How do you mitigate open source risks?
Choosing the appropriate open source component for your software project can reduce the risks associated with software quality, licensing, and copyright infringement. It is crucial to ask questions such as, “Should we protect our software details as a trade secret?” and “Will the way we use the component present conflict with the open source provider’s agreement?”
Below are six tips for managing your open source components securely. These tips will help create a better understanding of the security risks outlined above and help you take advantage of the benefits of open source components without compromising security.
State of Open Source Security 2022
A look at software supply chain complexity and risk in collaboration with The Linux Foundation.
1. Secure the software supply chain
Instituting an open source software approach does not assure security. A vulnerability introduced somewhere in the software supply chain has cascading detrimental effects on the source code. Furthermore, modern applications are built modularly; they are assembled with interconnected internal and external modules. As a result, the modules in the software supply chain should be tested repeatedly and automatically for security issues before full code development.
2. Establish policies for automated enforcement
Adding externally-developed software modules introduces risk because control is in the hands of the open source project contributors. Therefore, organizations need to align their risk tolerance and enforce it across the various stages of the software development lifecycle (SDLC). Creating internal policies that assess open source components is a powerful way to avoid adding modules that pose security threats.
3. Position SCA prominently
Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is a methodology for securing applications that use open source components. The importance of SCA lies in how it increases how fast development teams can track and analyze external components such as support libraries, dependencies, licenses, and security vulnerabilities.
4. Implement SCA tools to the application security testing toolkit
The traceability of SCA tools helps teams quickly find and address license and security issues, making it an integral part of open source strategies and existing development workflows. Implementing SCA tools should be the default approach rather than the exception.
5. Fork changes to external source code
“Forking” is a process by which developers clone open source code before modifying it. Forking still allows for tracking code changes, but also separates the original code from the modified code. It also leverages one of the great benefits of OSS: the ability to customize the source code of an existing module for your specific application.
6. How Snyk can help with open source component scanning
One of the best ways to manage open source components is to select a robust security management tool like Snyk Open Source. This can provide a “software bill of materials” view of all of a project’s open source components and dependencies, allowing developers to fix vulnerabilities introduced into their project by open source libraries. In addition, Snyk Open Source can provide security runtime monitoring.
Snyk Open Source can further help users since it’s also an open source license compliance tool. Developers continue to add new libraries and dependencies to a project as it grows, which could also introduce noncompliant code. By tracking and managing these licenses, organizations can ensure the open source code they’re using complies with custom policies they set.
Snyk open source is available within many developer tools, like VSCode, Jetbrains, etc. This allows for developers to easily see more information about the components they are introducing while writing code.
“When we first started using Snyk, we found that there were a high number of vulnerabilities from third-party open source packages we had been using… Over a few weeks, we managed to get this number down to something more reasonable. But the sheer reduction in vulnerabilities we have now compared to only a few weeks or even a month ago is nothing short of incredible.”
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Open source components are a great way to develop code quickly and efficiently. However, despite the improved development speed, it remains critical to address security vulnerabilities during code creation. Understanding the risks of an open source component and applying these six tips for managing the components will help you deliver secure code without sacrificing speed or developer time.
Don't forget to contribute back to open source projects. These open source communities do amazing work but they are only as strong as their contributions, so organizations that utilize open source components should support these projects. With the recent Log4shell vulnerability, the community came together to resolve the issue, share the fix broadly, and evaluate the impact.
What are open source components?
An open source software (OSS) component is software that’s licensed for distribution and use in other applications. It has defined interfaces and dependencies, is licensed to include the source code, and complies with the open systems interconnection (OSI)-specified definition for open source.
How do you manage open source components?
To successfully implement open source modules, make sure you have secured your supply chain. Developed policies for adopting external components and implementing the SCA methodology sets your team up for success when using open source modules. In addition, forking changes to existing third-party code and deploying open source vulnerability scanning protects the security of the entire integrated code.
Visit our Snyk Open Source Security Management page to learn more about Snyk’s innovative solution to manage and secure open source components.
Next in the series
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