Open source components are used in most modern organizations, either included directly into software as code or as tools integrated into workflows. In DevOps environments, often a combination of the two occurs. These components can help speed development processes, provide functionality that isn’t otherwise available and decrease operating costs of teams.
To successfully implement open source components, in software or pipelines, teams need to carefully evaluate what projects are included. Although most open source is free and supported by developer communities, there is no oversight guaranteeing that components are well-made and licensing can vary widely. This means that teams are responsible for ensuring that code is safe, stable and implemented legally.
DevOps and Open Source Software Development
When you are considering including open source components in your projects and pipelines, it is important to evaluate those components first. A well-developed evaluation process can help teams verify open source components and protect from:
- Security vulnerabilities—Components are made by a community of developers, many of whom do not have extensive security knowledge. Additionally, because projects are worked on by many developers, code may not be uniform, creating bugs that can turn into security vulnerabilities.
- Operational risks—Open source projects are maintained voluntarily. This means that project support may wane or unexpectedly drop. Additionally, updates and patches may not be released as reliably as with proprietary software. Since continued support is not guaranteed, you may be left with significantly more responsibility for maintaining and updating components that you originally planned for.
- Legal risk/license IP compliance—Not all components are freely available for use by every organization or project. If you use these components unlawfully you can later be held accountable for breaking license agreements, even if you were unaware of doing so.
Why Open Source Compliance Is Important
Open source license compliance and legal risk are especially important and complex for commercial development teams. There are more than 200 open source license variations, each with different standards for when projects can be used, by whom and in what capacity. Compliance strategies ensure that you are aware of the licensing requirements of any component you use.
In particular, the things you need to be aware of when it comes to open source compliance is whether projects can be included in commercial products or used by teams of your size and type. If projects cannot be used in commercial projects or require projects to be made open source upon inclusion, you are risking your own intellectual property.
Including open source projects against license can open you to legal action from project maintainers, contributors or third-party organizations. For example, some projects are part of a dual-licensing strategy with companies looking to protect their own financial interests. Or, cases may be brought as a means to raise awareness about open source licensing by concerned community members.
Another possibility is being actively targeted for financial gain. Some projects are contributed to by open source trolls, software developers who have made a business of suing for license non-compliance. These developers take advantage of licenses such as GNU General Public License v2.0 (GPL-2.0), which terminates usage and distribution rights when breached, enabling developers to sue to stop distribution or to demand a portion of profits.
Open Source Compliance Tips for DevOps Pipelines
There are several practices you can implement to ensure that your pipelines and products are in compliance when it comes to open source. These practices are especially important to integrate throughout your pipeline to help identify and correct any issues that may exist before products are pushed to production. Below are some practices to get started with.
Create an Open Source Review Board (OSRB)
An OSRB is a group responsible for creating and enforcing open source policies and procedures within your organization. These boards often include members from development, operations, legal and management teams.
OSRBs can serve as advocates for open source use with executives and stakeholders. They can also serve as a source of information for teams looking to incorporate or contribute to open source projects. These boards can help you ensure that you remain in compliance while deriving the greatest benefit from open source.
Incorporate Compliance Processes Throughout Development
Compliance policies should be created and incorporated into all steps of the software development life cycle (SDLC). These policies should outline how components are vetted, by whom, how and when components can be included, and how tracking is done.
Ideally, compliance processes and policies should be built into your pipeline processes. For example, by returning builds to developers if they include blacklisted licenses. By incorporating compliance, you reduce the chance that it is overlooked and minimize interruptions to productivity. Incorporation also helps you ensure that licensing issues are found sooner rather than later, minimizing the impact if components need to be replaced or removed.
Create ‘Playbooks’ for Commonly Used Licenses
While there are many licenses that open source projects can fall under, there are several that are significantly more common than others. For example, MIT or Apache—for these licenses, you can simplify compliance procedures by creating playbooks.
Playbooks outline the details of licenses, including license grants, obligations, restrictions and patent impacts. When a developer wants to include a component, they can use these playbooks to quickly determine whether that component is eligible for use. While this won’t eliminate all legal questions when it comes to licensing, it can significantly reduce how often you need to confer with legal counsel about inclusions.
Use Software Composition Analysis (SCA) Tools
SCA tools can help you identify open source components in your own products and in any tools you adopt. These tools enable you to scan source code to determine what components are inside and create an inventory that you can then use to verify compliance. As a bonus, these tools can also help you identify components with known vulnerabilities, which you can then mitigate.
SCA is especially helpful when you are newly implementing open source compliance policies. It can provide information on the types of components you are already using and help you ensure that those existing components meet your newly applied standards. Some tools even enable you to set up alerts for license conflicts or irregular version use, making verification easier.
Open source compliance is a critical component of most DevOps implementations. To ensure compliance, teams need to carefully choose and then properly keep track of open source components. You can do that by creating an open source review board (OSRB), which can help enforce open source compliance policies. You should also incorporate compliance throughout your pipeline, create playbooks for commonly used licenses and leverage SCA tools.