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Open Source Code In Product Development: Best Practices And Risk Mitigation

open source code in product development - how to minimize risks

by Vasily Gvazdovich

Modern software development involves the increased use of open source code as an essential part of product-tailoring projects. The Linux Foundation survey on corporate open source programs says that 72% of organizations make non-commercial use of open source code and 55% use it for commercial product development. Large open source communities worldwide contribute to the development and support of open source components, which increases code quality and expedites bug-fixing processes.

Developers can access open source resources for free or partly free, but it doesn’t mean they may borrow and employ code any way they like. They can use open source code on attractive terms and gain the advantage of speed, quality and reduced costs. Enterprise code versions can also offer extended features to harness. However, there are conditions of use that engineers have to meet.

It’s crucial to make sure that every component is well scrutinized before it’s integrated into your project. Unlicensed or outdated open source code or libraries of unknown origin might conceal vulnerabilities, such as licensing, maintenance and security issues accompanied by legal and financial risks.

We have outlined three key bottlenecks related to the use of open source code that you and your team might wish to avoid in your product development project. Read on and learn how to prevent future or fix current flaws.

Problem 1: Violation of license agreement for commercial uses

Using unlicensed open source сode is unsafe. You might end up violating intellectual property rights or bringing security vulnerabilities and risks into your project, which can translate into financial and legal consequences. Despite that, most developers strive to release faster or cut costs so much that they don’t stop to think about the origin of the components they are going to use.

Now, how does licensing work? A code license allows developers to use, copy, modify, and share the component in a certain way, while unlicensed parts make those aspects unclear. There are 20 common licenses, such as Apache License 2.0, MIT License, GNU General Public License (GPL), and others.

Still, 33% of codebases contain unlicensed open source components. So if you bump into an unlicensed component, be extremely careful. Adopting unlicensed components entails great risks of copyright violations.

Tip: Watch out for hidden inconsistencies

You must be wondering how to stay on the safe side. Firstly, document the use of all third-party resources on the project. Although it requires time and resources, you get to know where all your open source elements come from. Secondly, import libraries only after getting approval from the project tech lead.

Problem 2: Use of libraries without community support

open source code in product development - how to minimize risks

Another aspect you might stumble over is using open source libraries that a developer community doesn’t support. These libraries might often fail to comply with security standards, work incorrectly with other open source components, be out-of-date or have no license at all. Furthermore, developers of open source components may create custom licenses or distribute their code without any information. Unaware of such specifics, your team might neglect the licensing terms, and, in the end, your organization will bear all legal responsibilities.

Black Duck Audits says that out of all audited codebases, 31% of open source components have custom licenses, and their usage might result in license conflict. Business and legal risks are likely aftermaths that your development team may wish to dodge by comprehensively analyzing open source code and its origin.

Open source code that is supported by community usually comes with regular updates as its creators take responsibility to ensure security compliance and compatibility with new language versions. They focus on constant and timely delivery of all necessary support, thus reducing the risk of product developers using outdated code. Moreover, community is usually quick to detect bugs and fix them. All this dramatically increases the trustability of open source libraries that enjoy community support.

Tip: Check the origin of the libraries you use

If your project requires an open source library, start with scrutinizing the component you need: сheck its license, source and version before you use it. Otherwise, your engineering team may neglect the license policy, which is likely to ruin the final product and result in legal action from copyright holders. Also, try to only use libraries from official sites, and if possible, do not import code manually. Do it with the help of builders instead.

There is another way that might work for you: opt for the help of a professional provider of software evaluation services. You’ll have a highly qualified team at your service, sharing their vast experience of product quality assessment, and doing research instead of your engineers.

Problem 3: Use of outdated open source components causing vulnerability risks

open source code in product development - how to minimize risks

A huge number of product development projects (91%, to be precise) use outdated open source components, thus jeopardizing project security significantly. According to Synopsys, 82% of codebases have four-year-old parts and 88% have had no add-ons during the last two years.

Providers of open source code sooner or later withdraw support of earlier versions and stop delivering new patches. If your organization is using legacy software, this may result in security breaches. Your business-critical files or customer data may be stolen or become publicly available as it happened to the American credit ranking giant Equifax.

They used an open source server framework that had security vulnerability already detected by the solution provider. The latter had released the patch to fix the issue, but the credit ranking company continued using the outdated version. This company suffered a hacker attack through the vulnerable open source code, and 143 million sensitive customer records leaked into the public domain.

Tip: Track the software versions you use

To avoid security risks, failures and corruption of data-related processes, you need to be sure that the software you use is brand new and receives vendor support and upgrades. In case you work with different frameworks, you need to check that all libraries work together correctly.

How can you do this? One method is to set regulations for your development team and make sure they use open source code carefully, and consistently record all resources and elements.

On the other hand, you may choose automated open source code assessment tools that help verify the relevance of code elements. A top-notch tool automatically tracks possible vulnerabilities in open source code and spots issues on time.

Final recommendations

When your development team works on a new product and uses open source code, it is vital to make sure that they use licensed and up-to-date third-party components. This helps you mitigate legal, security and operational risks.

The following general steps can help you deal with major open source code issues:

  • Inventory your open source components right now. Structured records can help you navigate through and monitor all the elements.
  • Create policies for your development and legal teams to regulate every open source activity in the project.
  • Keep on auditing your open source code regularly. It is the best way to detect and troubleshoot issues on time.
  • Engage in open source communities. In this way, your engineers improve knowledge of the components they employ in the project.

If you are not confident about the product quality and wish to scrutinize your open source components, go for a large-scale software project assessment. We recommend the TETRA platform. It can help you uncover technical debt and get an in-depth analysis of code quality, as well as useful ideas for solving your burning issues.

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