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Demystifying source code v/s binary-based SBOMs : A guide

Managing software risk is of utmost importance in cybersecurity, and creating Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) is a key component of this effort. 

This guide explores the nitty-gritities of two ways of SBOM generation, namely - source code-based SBOMs and binary-based SBOMs along with the differences between both approaches. It also has a list of factors that will help you decide which one fits the bill for your business. 

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Introduction to Software Bill of Materials (SBOM)

Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) is a detailed inventory list that provides transparency into the components that constitute a software application. SBOM details all the open-source and third-party software libraries and frameworks used in mobile apps. It serves as a foundational tool for effective management of cybersecurity risks. SBOMs are generated by analyzing the compiled binary artifacts of a software application, providing essential insights into software composition and vulnerabilities. 

Importance of SBOM in securing your mobile application

Without SBOM, identifying potential security issues is akin to solving a puzzle without a picture. The missing pieces are challenging to identify, and completing the puzzle becomes almost impossible. Maintaining SBOM is important for mobile app security for several reasons.

Vulnerability detection 
SBOM helps quickly identify if your app is affected by vulnerabilities in third-party or open-source libraries and frameworks, enabling prompt action to secure your app.

License compliance
It ensures compliance with licensing requirements for open-source libraries, helping you avoid legal issues.

Risk awareness
SBOM provides visibility into potential risks associated with third-party or open-source libraries and frameworks, ensuring you use high-quality, well-maintained components.

Efficient audits
During security audits, SBOM streamlines the process by providing auditors with a comprehensive list of your app's components for faster and more effective assessments.

Having an up-to-date SBOM for your mobile app is a crucial security measure. It provides you with transparency and authority over the contents of your app, allowing you to identify and address risks proactively to guarantee a secure and high-quality experience for your users.
SBOM is an essential component of any effective mobile app security program.

The evolution of SBOM from source code to binary

Creating Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) started with source code as an approach. This approach was initially used to track the dependencies of open-source software libraries in various software projects. However, with the limitations of source code as an approach, binary-based SBOM emerged to address the challenges faced in cases where access to the source code was restricted or unavailable.

Evolution of SBOM

Tools and standards in SBOM

As the concept of SBOM evolved, tools initially emerged to generate SBOMs from source code. The earlier tools like Apache Maven Dependency Plugin and NPM focused on tracking dependencies on open-source libraries and managing licenses. 

In response to the growing importance of SBOMs in software supply chain security, automated tools started gaining prominence. These tools enabled the generation of SBOMs from source code projects in a more efficient manner. Additionally, the SPDX format became a widely accepted standard for documenting open-source components and licenses.

As the adoption of binary-based SBOMs increased, tools and standards were also evolving. CycloneDX, introduced as a lightweight SBOM standard, addressed the need for a common format for documenting software components. Commercial and open-source tools like WhiteSource, Snyk, and Aqua Security have adapted to offer capabilities for generating binary-based SBOMs. These tools have played a significant role in making binary-based SBOMs more accessible and widely used in the software industry.

Understanding source code-based SBOM

As the term ‘source code’ suggests, it employs source code to generate SBOM, including third-party libraries, frameworks, programming languages, and other tools involved in the software's development. Source code-based SBOM aims to offer a detailed and transparent understanding of what constitutes software.

With source code analysis, developers can identify-

- Third-party libraries and frameworks
- Open source components
- Languages, compilers, and toolchains that are used

Methodology for creating a source code SBOM_

Inherent limitations of source code-based SBOM

Requires manual analysis
Analyzing source code-based SBOM requires a manual examination, which can be time-consuming for extensive and intricate programs. Developers must scrutinize files line by line to identify each component and capture crucial metadata.

Complex and time-consuming
Source code-based SBOM can be complex, especially for large companies that develop complex software systems. Extracting information from source code can be a time-consuming process, as it requires careful analysis of the code to identify the relevant information

Not suitable for closed-source software 
It's important to note that source code-based SBOMs may not be suitable for closed-source software or situations where access to source code is restricted. In such cases, other methods, such as binary analysis, may be more appropriate for generating SBOM.

Dependency on source code access
Source code-based SBOM can only be generated if the developer can access a program's source code. Many commercial software products, however, do not disclose their source code.

Despite its imperfections, source code-based SBOM can offer valuable insights into software components and dependencies. When combined with other SBOM generation methods like binary analysis, it contributes to creating a more comprehensive understanding of the software that drives today's applications.

Understanding binary-based SBOM

Unlike analyzing the original source code, binary-based SBOM is a unique method of creating a detailed inventory of all the components used in a software application. It directly inspects the compiled binary code, which is the final product of the software.

Binary-based SBOM is efficient and fast and allows quick identification of all the components that make up the software, including open-source libraries, proprietary elements, and other tools. It is particularly useful for security and compliance assessments that require a quick evaluation of software components.

Binary-based SBOM typically contains:

Third-party libraries
Open-source or commercial libraries like Firebase, Fabric, etc. These libraries can potentially have vulnerabilities that get exposed.

Frameworks provide structure, facilitate development, and increase the attack surface. Flutter, React Native, Xamarin, etc., are examples of frameworks.

Service providers provide Software Development Kits or SDKs to access their services. SDKs can be a source of vulnerabilities, too.

The compilers used to build app binary. Different compilers have different security risks.

Hardware abstractions
Any hardware abstraction layers used. These connect to device hardware and sensors.

By reviewing binary-based SBOM, security researchers can identify vulnerable components, spot any outdated libraries, and analyze the overall security posture of an application.

Unlocking the benefits of binary-based SBOM

Includes all dependencies and components in compiled software, not just source code.

Source code independence
Useful when source code is unavailable, such as in commercial software or due to intellectual property concerns.

Higher accuracy
Analyzing the binary directly is more accurate, as the build process can introduce changes.

Automated generation
SBOM generation is automated, saving time and reducing costs.

Easy-to-read report
Compiles information into an easy-to-understand SBOM report.

Minimal manual work
Requires no manual effort, ensuring consistency and cost-effectiveness.

Enhanced security insights
Identifies known vulnerabilities, aiding in software security efforts.

App and user safety
Supports efforts to maintain the security and safety of apps and users.

The right tool for the job: source code or binary-based SBOM

The choice between source code-based SBOM or binary-based SBOM depends on the needs and technical abilities. For many organizations, binary-based SBOM is a more practical option.

Here’s a quick comparison table that evaluated source code-based SBOM and binary-based SBOM on technical abilities.

Edited methodology


Unlocking the power of binary-based SBOMs for mobile app security

While source code-based SBOMs provide a meticulous examination of codebases, unveiling issues, enhancing quality, and ensuring adherence to standards, their potential for false positives makes them less suited for enterprises seeking automation and precision in their development processes. And here’s exactly why binary-based SBOMs work much better for enterprises.

Easier to generate
Binary-based SBOMs can be created without programming experience.

Faster to produce
Analyzing binaries takes less time than reviewing source code.

Intellectual property remains protected
Binaries contain compiled code, not human-readable source code.

Provides useful information
Binary-based SBOM can identify software dependencies, components, versions, licenses, and more to help manage security and compliance risks.

Accessible output
Binary-based SBOM reports can be provided as JYSON and PDF.

While source code-based SBOM may be popular, binary-based SBOM can do the job for most use cases. Your approach ultimately balances transparency, practicality, and business needs. With the right tools and standards, binary-based SBOMs offer an effective solution.

Appknox’s streamlined binary-based SBOM elevates mobile app security 

Appknox is a mobile application security platform built for enterprises that offers automated security assessments for iOS and Android mobile apps. One of the key reports Appknox generates is the binary Software Bill of Materials or binary-based SBOM.

Appknox scans through all the files and libraries within your app to build an inventory of the following:

- Frameworks and libraries included (Firebase, Fabric, etc.)
- Components and their versions.
- Licenses associated with each open-source element.

The information gathered is packaged into an easy-to-read binary-based SBOM report, along with identifying vulnerable components.

With Appknox’s SBOM built for mobile applications, secure your applications by design rather than chance. 

With Appknox’s binary-based SBOM - 

- Get visibility into the libraries and frameworks integrated within all mobile applications
- Precisely identify libraries and frameworks utilizing outdated versions
- Detect component-level vulnerabilities along with criticality and get direct visibility within minutes
- Detect components that were once mandated for removal but are now available
Comprehend data destinations including unauthorized APIs and endpoints

The Appknox SBOM generation process

The 4 step Appknox SBOM process


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