Open-source (OS) software is software with a publicly accessible codebase, built and supported through community collaboration. It is often freely available for use or inclusion in other projects. It’s important to note, however, that who can use software or how it can be included, depends on the type of licensing attached.
Open-source software is often created as part of a larger ideology in which communities and industries collaborate to advance the whole. This movement can lead to innovation that is difficult or too costly to accomplish in isolation. However, improper management of open source components can lead to serious security issues.
In this article, you’ll learn why open source is a crucial element of most digital ecosystems, and top open source security best practices that will make your CSO happy.
The Importance of Security for Open-Source Components
Many if not most modern software and environments include multiple OS components. These components can enable developers to work more efficiently and productively. However, incorporation of these components can also introduce vulnerabilities into your applications and systems.
The community nature of OS development can lead to the inclusion of vulnerabilities that are avoided in proprietary code. These inclusions arise for several reasons, including:
Distributed development—it can be more difficult to maintain coding standards and security guidelines when code is created voluntarily and collaboratively. Varying skill levels, amounts of dedication, and programming styles can increase code complexity, making bugs more likely.
Fast release cycles—OS components may be modified continuously, making patching and remaining up to date difficult. Likewise, fast changes make it more difficult to verify the security of releases efficiently.
Lack of quality standards—it can be difficult to hold open-source components to the same standards as proprietary code because it is a volunteer effort. Additionally, standards that are applied are at the discretion of the code maintainers, which may not align with your standards.
Public nature of vulnerabilities—when vulnerabilities are discovered in OS code, the issue is typically publicly announced after a patch is made available. This can help ensure that users are made aware of vulnerabilities. At the same time, it provides information on exploitable flaws to attackers.
Increased responsibility—inclusion of OS components requires more in-house maintenance and expertise than purchased, proprietary software. Security teams need to understand how to evaluate the safety of software and work to ensure it stays properly patched. If an organization lacks the ability to perform these tasks, vulnerabilities increase.
Best Practices for Managing Open Source Components
Although OS software can present risks, you shouldn’t just dismiss its inclusion. Adopting these best practices can help you integrate components safely and provide access to the benefits of open-source code.
Create Usage Policies
You can better ensure the safe use of open-source components by implementing usage policies that define conditions for inclusion. Official policies can set standards for the type, quality, and versions of OS components your teams can use. Policies should include clear steps for verifying that code meets policy guidelines. Your policies should also include procedures for downloading, documenting, and tracking components.
Keep Components Updated
You should have a system in place for tracking vulnerability reports and patch releases. As soon as vulnerabilities and patches are made public, you should update and verify the security of your components.
Software composition analysis (SCA) tools can help you track and monitor your components to ensure software stays up to date. The tools often incorporate information from vulnerability databases and feeds, automating the monitoring process for you.
Select Components Carefully
Make sure that you are only including the highest quality components. Look for projects with greater community support, structured documentation and oversight, and consistent releases. These factors help ensure that code is more reliable and reduce the chance that projects will be suddenly abandoned. However, keep in mind that these aren’t guarantees for safety.
To assess these factors check the number of historical bugs, a number of bugs found and fixed per version, and severity or type of flaws discovered. You should also consider the number and frequency of commits or contributions made to the source code.
Use a Binary Repository Manager
A binary repository manager is a tool you can use to store local copies of your OS components. This local storage helps you ensure that dependencies remain available. It can also help you ensure that malicious or breaking changes to component sources are not automatically included in your projects.
Repository managers can also help you better verify and approve components before inclusion. You can use these tools to separately store validated components from those still being tested. Some tools also enable you to blacklist components or versions, ensuring that code is not included in projects.
Consider Customizing Components
Once an open-source component is in your possession, you can typically customize it as you see fit. “Forking” or copying code to your own repositories enables you to alter the source code without affecting the contents of the base project.
This enables you to make your own changes, fixing security vulnerabilities or configurations as needed. However, keep in mind that once you begin making changes to an open-source component, future patches may not work. In these cases, security becomes entirely your responsibility.
In today’s agile-oriented culture, open-source plays a crucial role in enabling fast product release. However, productivity should not come at the expense of security. Open source components are as vulnerable as any piece of code and should be properly secured.
Be selective, and don’t use just any available code. Check for vulnerabilities, get feedback from peers on code quality, run automated tests, and fork as needed. Strive to make your code as secure as possible, and that will surely make your CSO happy.
Gilad David Maayan is a technology writer who has worked with over 150 technology companies including SAP, Samsung NEXT, NetApp and Imperva, producing technical and thought leadership content that elucidates technical solutions for developers and IT leadership.