4 Best Practices for Securing Your Open Source Components

Open source components enable you to quickly develop software. You don’t need to start from scratch. Rather you can find a project that already exists and build on it. Using open source components can save you a lot of dev time. However, to avoid introducing vulnerabilities into your quality codebase, you need to properly secure your open source components.

What Is Open-Source Software?

Open-source software is a project that makes source code publicly available. These projects are protected by open-source licenses which restrict how code can be used and for what purposes. Open-source software is generally free for use or modification by standard users.

Open-source projects are typically created and maintained by community volunteers. Some projects, however, also benefit from contributions by major organizations. For example, Linux and Kubernetes . This collaboration can produce more innovative applications and tools and can eliminate biases or the lack of compatibility that are often present in proprietary software.

The flexibility and free availability of open-source code have made it a welcome addition by many teams. Where organizations once relied solely on proprietary code, many are instead choosing to use and customize open-source components . This has helped level the playing field in many industries, allowing more individuals and organizations to contribute to the advancement of various technologies.

The Importance of Security for Open-Source Components

While open-source components can be a welcome addition, these projects can also create a significant security risk . Open-source applications require a level of expertise and responsibility that proprietary software does not. If users do not manage risks appropriately and take responsibility for security, these components may be more harmful than beneficial.

Some security risks in open-source may be included intentionally but more likely, risks stem from how components are developed. Below are some of the most common factors leading to security issues in open-source:

  • Distributed development —when code is created collaboratively, the various additions may not all interact smoothly. Additionally, issues can be more difficult for developers to spot due to inconsistent styles, practices, and implementations. The reason for this lack of standardization is that open-source contributors are typically volunteers with no controlling organization to enforce strict protocols or policies.
  • Fast release cycles —open-source components tend to be released in many short cycles . As fixes are applied or new features are developed, project maintainers can immediately release code after verification. While this means that bugs are constantly being fixed it also means you have to constantly work to keep components up to date.
  • Lack of quality standards —there isn’t one standard of quality that is applied to open-source. Instead, it is up to project maintainers to define a standard and uphold it. This means that some projects are likely to be better crafted than proprietary code while others may be of far lower quality. To ensure that a project’s standards match your own, you need to put some work into researching components and verifying quality.
  • Public nature of vulnerabilities —the public nature of open-source code means that anyone can test for and locate vulnerabilities. Additionally, when vulnerabilities are found by community members, the issues are often made public to users and vulnerability databases. This ensures that you are aware of risks and are notified of what actions need to be taken. Unfortunately, it also means that exploit information is freely available to anyone who wants to abuse it.

Best Practices for Managing Open Source Components

Although using open-source can present risks, it can also significantly contribute to your productivity. Rather than simply writing off these components, consider implementing the following best practices. These practices can help you safely adopt open-source components and ensure that you do so consistently and sustainably.

1) Define a use policy

As an organization, one of the first steps you should take is to define a use policy for open-source. This policy should establish what types of open-source components can be used, in which ways, and what is required for adoption. Clearly defining these aspects can help you ensure that only high-quality projects are included and that use is trackable and consistent.

In your policy, make sure to specify who is responsible for tracking components, verifying licensing, and maintaining updates. These specifications can help you create an inventory of components and can make the job of IT and security teams much easier.

2) Monitor for vulnerabilities and updates

Open-source projects do not push updates as proprietary software does. Instead, it is up to you to ensure that you are aware of any vulnerability or update announcements. It is also up to you to decide how and when to apply updates. If you choose not to update, for example, because of compatibility issues, it becomes your responsibility to patch future vulnerabilities.

The best way to ensure that you are up-to-date is to follow vulnerability and threat intelligence feeds. These feeds can notify you when issues are reported and can provide remediation information. If possible, you should also be sure to follow project community communications, such as forums or newsletters. Some projects only report vulnerabilities internally so relying on public notifications can put you at risk.

3) Emphasize quality

You should be verifying the quality of any open-source components you choose to include. Evaluate the standards that communities claim to uphold and check that the claims are valid. If possible, you should apply the same tests to open-source code as you would your own before inclusion.

It’s also important to keep in mind that familiarity with projects or a project’s popularity are not enough to determine a component’s quality. Consider OpenSSL, for example. This project was widely used and yet was still found to contain a significant vulnerability, Heartbleed. These traits should be considered as just part of the larger quality picture.

4) Use a binary repository

Binary repositories enable you to cache local copies of any open-source code you are using. This helps you ensure that you are only using clean and verified copies of components. It also helps prevent you from being unintentionally affected by source code changes or updates that may be included if someone uses a different copy.

Additionally, binary repositories can help you better manage, approve, and track what components are included and where. For example, some repository managers enable you to block the addition of specific libraries or artifacts.

Conclusion

Open source components have become a standard in most dev processes. Hardly anyone develops completely proprietary software. Now, while open source can expedite your development time, it also creates a complex code mix. It falls unto you to keep track of all your code elements, and ensure there are no vulnerabilities.

Ideally, you should know your open source components better than you know your own code. Define a use policy for open source and do not deviate. This can help you ensure only top quality components are introduced into your codebase. Monitor all code components on a continuous basis, and patch as soon as a high-risk vulnerability is discovered.

Vulnerabilities have become a reality, but it does not have to be a terrible one. By emphasizing quality, and keeping your components monitored and patched, you can ensure that your software remains secure at any given time.

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