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Open Source Development Analysis: Development Trends

For the final installment of our analysis of the 2014 Open Source Development and Application Security Survey, we will focus on open source development trends. Our topic is less security per se, and more how developers use open source, how it is managed, and how it is perceived in the enterprise.

Are open source components more trustworthy than commercial software?

An unambiguous question in the survey asked, “Do you believe software assembled with open source is as secure as commercial off-the-shelf (COTS)?” Under 9% said that software assembled with open source is less secure, with over 35% stating they believed open source is more secure than COTS.

Even more interesting: survey participants who responded before Heartbleed believed applications assembled using open source components were more secure that COTS was at 34.83%. After Heartbleed: 36.06%.

Yes, after a major vulnerability in an open source component used in millions of systems around the globe, confidence in open source security did not suffer. In fact it ticked up a point. Ironic? Amazing? All I can say is I am surprised.

What people believe is not necessarily fact. And we can’t really perform a quantitative head-to-head comparison between applications assembled with open source components and COTS security to verify this belief. But the survey respondents deal with open source and commercial software on a daily basis – they are qualified to offer a professional opinion. The net result is for every person who felt COTS was more secure, four felt that open source was more secure. In any sort of popular vote that qualifies as a landslide.

Banning components

“Has your company ever banned the use of an open source component, library or project?”

The majority of respondents, some 78%, said “No”. Still, I have singled this question out as a development practice issue. Something I hear organizations talk about more and more.

Software organizations ban components for a number of reasons. Licensing terms might be egregious. Or they might simply no longer trust a component’s reliability or security. For example virtually all released Struts components have severe security exploits, described by critical CVE warnings. Poorly written code has reliability and security issues. The two tend to go hand in hand. You can verify this by looking at bug tracking reports: you will see issues clump together around one or two problematic pieces of software. Banning a module is often politically messy as because it can be difficult to find or build a suitable replacement. But it is an effective, focused way to improve security and reliability.

Post-Snowden we have seen increased discussion around trust and whether or not to use certain libraries because of potential subversion by the NSA. This is more of a risk perception issue than more tangible issues such as licensing, but nonetheless a topic of discussion. Regardless of your motivation, banning modules is an option to consider for critical – or suspect – elements of your stack.

Open source policies

Open source policies were a major focus area for the survey, and the question “Does your company have an open source policy?” was the lead in for several policy related questions. 47% of respondents said they have a policy.

When asked, “What are the top three challenges with your open source policy?” the top three responses were that 39% believed that a top challenge is that it does not deal with security vulnerabilities, 41% stated there is little enforcement so workarounds are common, and 35% said what is expected is not clear.

This raises the question: What is in an open source policy? The answer dovetails nicely with an early survey question: “When selecting components, what characteristics would be most helpful to you?” That is how you decide. Most companies have a licensing component to their policies, meaning which types of open source licenses are permitted. And most specify versioning and quality controls, such as no beta software. More often than not we see policies around security – such as components with critical vulnerabilities should be patched or avoided altogether. After those items, the contents of open source policies are wide open. They vary widely in how prescriptive they are – meaning how tightly they define ‘how’ and ‘what’.

“Who in your organization is primarily responsible for open source policy / governance?” While the bulk of responsibility fell on development managers (34%) and IT architects (24%), much of it landed outside development. Legal, risk, and executive teams are unlikely to craft policies which development can implement easily. So development needs to either take ownership of policies, or work with outside groups to define feasible goals and the easiest route to them.

We could spend many pages on policies, but the underlying issue is simple: Policies are supposed to make your life easier. If they don’t, you need to work on the policies. Yes, I know those of you who deal with regulatory compliance in your daily jobs scoff at this, but it’s true. Policies are supposed to help avoid large problems or failures down the road which cost serious time and resources to fix. Here is the simple dividing line: policies written without regard for how they will be implemented, or a clear path to make open source use easier and better, are likely to be bypassed. Just like development processes, policies take work to optimize.

Once again, you can find the final results of the survey here.

—Adrian Lane

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