The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has always been at the forefront of setting benchmarks and standards for industry. They recently released a draft publication, 800-240D, titled “Strategies for the Integration of Software Supply Chain Security in DevSecOps CI/CD pipelines.” This document is exciting as it's a testament to their commitment to evolving with the times and addressing challenges with supply chain security.

It should be noted that this current document is a draft. NIST is seeking guidance from stakeholders in order to write the final draft. Anyone who has input on this topic can and should contribute suggestions. NIST guidance is not produced in a bubble, it’s important we all help collaborate on these documents.

Understanding the Significance of the Supply Chain

Before we explain the purpose of the document, it's important to understand the software supply chain's complexity. When we think of "supply chain" we have historically imagined lines of code, software packages, and developer tools. However, it's a complex system that spans the foundational hardware, operating systems that run on them, developer workstations where software is crafted, and even the systems that distribute our software to users worldwide. Each node in this chain presents unique challenges with the idea of security.

A great deal of previous guidance has been heavily focused on the development and procurement of software that goes into products. NIST 800-240D is a document that focuses on continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) systems. The security of a CI/CD system is no less important than the security of the packages that go into your software.

NIST's Holistic Approach

With 800-240D, NIST isn't merely adding another document to the pile. NIST recently released 800-218 or the Security Software Development Framework; they maintain 800-53, the granddaddy of most other cybersecurity compliance frameworks. NIST is signaling they want to help move the goal in how the industry should approach software supply chain security. In this instance by emphasizing CI/CD pipelines, NIST is highlighting the importance of the processes that drive software development and deployment, rather than just the end product.

While there's no shortage of guidance on CI/CD pipelines, much of the existing literature is either outdated or too narrow in scope. This is where NIST's intervention should make us pay attention. Their comprehensive approach ensures that every aspect of the software supply chain, from code creation to deployment, is under scrutiny.

Comparing with Existing Content

The CNCF supply chain security white paper serves as an example. A few years ago, this document was hailed as a significant step forward. It provided a detailed overview of supply chain concerns and offered solutions to secure them. However, the document hasn’t seen an update in over two years. The tech landscape is ever-evolving. What was relevant two years ago might not hold today. This rapid evolution underscores the need for regularly updated guidance.

Maintaining and updating such comprehensive documents is no small feat. It requires expertise, resources, and a commitment to staying on top of industry developments. NIST, who has been providing guidance like this for decades, is uniquely positioned to take on this challenge. Their track record of maintaining and updating documents over extended periods is unparalleled.

The Promise of Modern Initiatives

Modern projects like SLSA and S2C2F have shown promise. They represent the industry's proactive approach to addressing supply chain security challenges. However, they face inherent challenges that NIST does not. The lack of consistent funding and a clear mandate means that their future is less certain than a NIST document. Key personnel changes, shifts in organizational priorities, or a myriad of other factors could unexpectedly derail their progress.

NIST, with its government backing, doesn't face these challenges. NIST guidance is not only assured of longevity but also of regular updates to stay relevant. This longevity ensures that even as projects like SLSA or S2C2F evolve or new initiatives emerge, there's a stable reference point that the industry can rely on. Of course, something becoming a NIST standard doesn’t solve all problems, sometimes NIST guidance can become outdated and isn’t updated as often as it should be. Given the rash of government mandates around security lately, this is not expected to happen for supply chain related guidance.

The NIST Advantage

NIST's involvement goes beyond just providing guidance. Their reputation and credibility mean that their publications carry significant weight. Organizations, both public and private, pay attention when NIST speaks. The guidance NIST has been providing to the United States since its inception has helped the industry in countless ways. Everything from safety, to measurements, even keeping our clocks running! This influence ensures that best practices and recommendations are more likely to be adopted, leading to a more secure and robust software supply chain.

However, it's essential to temper expectations. While NIST's guidance is invaluable, it's not magic. Some NIST standards become outdated, some are difficult for small businesses or individuals to follow. Not all recommendations can be universally applicable. However given the current global focus on supply chain security, we can expect NIST to be proactive in updating their guidance.

It should also be noted that NIST guidance has a feedback mechanism. In the case of 800-240D, the document is a draft. NIST wants feedback. The current document will change between the current draft and the final version. Good feedback is a way we can all ensure the guidance is high quality.

Looking Ahead

The broader message from NIST's involvement is clear: broad supply chain security is important. It's not about isolated solutions or patchwork fixes. The industry needs a comprehensive approach that addresses risk at every stage of the software supply chain.

In NIST's proactive approach, there is hope. Their commitment to providing long-lasting, influential guidance, combined with their holistic view of the supply chain, promises a future where supply chain security is not just an afterthought but an integral part of software development and deployment.

NIST's 800-240D is more than just a publication. It's a call for the industry to come together, adopt best practices, and work towards a future where software supply chain security is robust, reliable, and resilient.

If you’d like to learn more about how Anchore can help with NIST compliance, feel free to book a time to speak with one of our specialists.

Josh Bressers

Josh Bressers is vice president of security at Anchore where he guides security feature development for the company’s commercial and open source solutions. He serves on the Open Source Security Foundation technical advisory council and is a co-founder of the Global Security Database project, which is a Cloud Security Alliance working group that is defining the future of security vulnerability identifiers.