Open source software, or OSS, is essentially code that anyone can see, modify, and distribute new versions of (though some OSS licenses are more restrictive). It’s created and maintained collaboratively and voluntarily by software developers, usually because of a passion for the project. In addition to modifying the code itself, it’s very common for developers to use OSS code to create new stand-alone software, or to add new functionality to existing software. In fact, some estimates say that up to 90% of all commercial software uses open source components.
Since OSS code is publicly available—and often free—there is the potential for hackers to find and exploit security vulnerabilities. For that reason, many enterprises view open source software as inherently less secure than closed source. Let’s discuss why that may not be true, before diving into the open source enterprise security considerations your company needs to be aware of before using OSS.
Is Open Source Software (OSS) Less Secure?
Security is one of the top reasons why companies shy away from open source software, and it’s a reasonable concern. Major breaches are happening more frequently than ever before, and they’re also more expensive and destructive for businesses. However, OSS can actually be more secure than closed source software, for the following reasons:
Crowdsourcing Solutions: Since open source code is publicly available, there are many eyes looking for problems and finding solutions. While it’s true that hackers could use this to find and exploit security vulnerabilities, it also means that white hat hackers and other benevolent contributors—who exist in much larger numbers—can discover and fix the problems much faster. Many open source projects have hundreds or thousands of contributors who have a vested interest in improving and patching the code, because they’re using it themselves. When you use OSS or integrate it with your existing software, you’re benefiting from the combined knowledge and experience of all those developers.
Faster Patches and Updates: When a security vulnerability, bug, or quality issue is spotted in open source code, it’s often fixed within a day or two. That’s because, as mentioned above, there could be hundreds or thousands of developers contributing to the project. By comparison, commercial software vendors often have much longer update and release cycles, so it can take months or years to address known security vulnerabilities in their code, leaving customers exposed. There are a variety of reasons for that (such as a relative lack of manpower, or pre-determined release schedules) but ultimately, they all boil down to motives: a commercial software company is usually going to prioritize profits, whereas an open source community almost always prioritizes the quality and security of the code.
Commercial Software Already Uses OSS: There’s a common saying in the software development world—“don’t reinvent the wheel.” If there’s already software—especially open source code—that can do what you need, you shouldn’t waste a lot of time developing it yourself. That’s why many, if not most, commercial developers build their custom software on top of a backbone of open source components. However, many of the commercial software vendors who use open source code don’t properly track and manage security vulnerabilities, bugs, and other issues. That means the open source community may find and fix major issues with the code, but your software vendor could still be using an outdated and insecure version. The result is that your commercial software may actually be less secure than the open source code it’s based on.
While it’s true that open source enterprise code can be more secure than commercial software, there are still some security risks to consider.
Open Source Enterprise Security Considerations
Before you implement OSS in your enterprise or integrate open source code with your existing software, there are some risks to be aware of. However, there are also easy ways to address and overcome these risks.
Open Access Creates Opportunities for Hackers
Since open source code is available to the public for review, and since any known security vulnerabilities and issues are published as soon as they’re found, there is a chance that hackers could use this information. A malicious actor could manipulate the code or exploit a vulnerability to gain access to your network and data.
However, as mentioned earlier, open access to OSS code also means that white hat hackers and other contributors can find and fix vulnerabilities much faster than a commercial software vendor can. Plus, you should conduct your own security testing on any third-party code you integrate, whether it’s open source or commercial. Ideally, you’ll use CI/CD (continuous integration and continuous delivery) automated quality and security testing that runs continuously as new code is integrated and deployed. Automated testing ensures that any quality or security issues are found and remediated as early as possible, which eliminates the top security risk of using open source enterprise code.
A Lack of Quality and Security Verification
With a lot of free open source code, there aren’t any guarantees that experts have conducted quality assurance and security testing throughout the development process. This is especially onerous for companies who need to meet certain compliance and regulatory standards with their software, data, and systems that use open source code.
As mentioned above, regardless of whether you use open source or closed source code, you should be conducting your own quality assurance and security testing at every step of the software development lifecycle. In addition, as OSS gains popularity, it’s becoming more common for open source developers to hire third-party compliance and security testing organizations to verify and certify their code. This is especially common for OSS code that’s developed for heavily regulated industries like healthcare or the federal government. So, between your own internal testing and the availability of third-party certification, you can overcome the potential quality risks of using open source enterprise code.
Limited Professional Support Options
A lot of OSS doesn’t come with dedicated support, and instead relies upon the community to find and fix issues as well as help other users troubleshoot. This also means there may not be an official release schedule for patches and updates, and you might not even have a way to get notified when new versions are released.
If dedicated technical support and a vendor relationship are a high priority for your organization, then you should look for an open source project that offers premium licensing options. Most of the major open source projects—like Kubernetes, or Linux, for example—have been customized and repackaged with paid support and premium licensing options. That means you can get the best of both worlds: code that’s developed and managed by a large open source community, and enterprise-level vendor support and assistance. The level of support you’ll receive from a premium OSS license is comparable to most commercial vendors, so there really isn’t any extra risk involved in premium open source software vs. closed source software.
Addressing Open Source Enterprise Security Considerations
Though using open source enterprise software doesn’t necessarily carry any more risks than commercial software, you still need to follow security best practices when integrating third-party code. The key is to perform continuous security and quality assurance testing at every stage of the software development lifecycle. You also need to research your open source components before using them to ensure the community is still actively tracking and fixing issues. Keep an eye on the public security vulnerability databases for your OSS as well, so you can be immediately notified of any known security issues and patches.
And if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask—companies like Copado are here to help you safely take advantage of open source enterprise code while minimizing the risks to your organization.