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About SLSA

This page is an introduction to SLSA and its concepts. If you’re new to SLSA, start here!

What is SLSA?

SLSA is a set of incrementally adoptable guidelines for supply chain security, established by industry consensus. The specification set by SLSA is useful for both software producers and consumers: producers can follow SLSA’s guidelines to make their software supply chain more secure, and consumers can use SLSA to make decisions about whether to trust a software package.

SLSA offers:

  • A common vocabulary to talk about software supply chain security
  • A way to secure your incoming supply chain by evaluating the trustworthiness of the artifacts you consume
  • An actionable checklist to improve your own software’s security
  • A way to measure your efforts toward compliance with forthcoming Executive Order standards in the Secure Software Development Framework (SSDF)

Why SLSA is needed

High profile attacks like those against SolarWinds or Codecov have exposed the kind of supply chain integrity weaknesses that may go unnoticed, yet quickly become very public, disruptive, and costly in today’s environment when exploited. They’ve also shown that there are inherent risks not just in code itself, but at multiple points in the complex process of getting that code into software systems—that is, in the software supply chain. Since these attacks are on the rise and show no sign of decreasing, a universal framework for hardening the software supply chain is needed, as affirmed by the U.S. Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity.

Security techniques for vulnerability detection and analysis of source code are essential, but are not enough on their own. Even after fuzzing or vulnerability scanning is completed, changes to code can happen, whether unintentionally or from insider threats or compromised accounts. Risk for code modification exists at each link in a typical software supply chain, from source to build through packaging and distribution. Any weaknesses in the supply chain undermine confidence in whether the code that you run is actually the code that you scanned.

SLSA is designed to support automation that tracks code handling from source to binary, protecting against tampering regardless of the complexity of the software supply chain. As a result, SLSA increases trust that the analysis and review performed on source code can be assumed to still apply to the binary consumed after the build and distribution process.

SLSA in layperson’s terms

There has been a lot of discussion about the need for “ingredient labels” for software—a “software bill of materials” (SBOM) that tells users what is in their software. Building off this analogy, SLSA can be thought of as all the food safety handling guidelines that make an ingredient list credible. From standards for clean factory environments so contaminants aren’t introduced in packaging plants, to the requirement for tamper-proof seals on lids that ensure nobody changes the contents of items sitting on grocery store shelves, the entire food safety framework ensures that consumers can trust that the ingredient list matches what’s actually in the package they buy.

Likewise, the SLSA framework provides this trust with guidelines and tamper-resistant evidence for securing each step of the software production process. That means you know not only that nothing unexpected was added to the software product, but also that the ingredient label itself wasn’t tampered with and accurately reflects the software contents. In this way, SLSA helps protect against the risk of:

  • Code modification (by adding a tamper-evident “seal” to code after source control)
  • Uploaded artifacts that were not built by the expected CI/CD system (by marking artifacts with a factory “stamp” that shows which build service created it)
  • Threats against the build system (by providing “manufacturing facility” best practices for build system services)

For more exploration of this analogy, see the blog post SLSA + SBOM: Accelerating SBOM success with the help of SLSA.

Who is SLSA for?

In short: everyone involved in producing and consuming software, or providing infrastructure for software.

Software producers, such as a development team or open source maintainers. SLSA gives you protection against insider risk and tampering along the supply chain to your consumers, increasing confidence that the software you produce reaches your consumers as you intended.

Software consumers, such as a development team using open source packages, a government agency using vendored software, or a CISO judging organizational risk. SLSA gives you a way to judge the security practices of the software you rely on and be sure that what you receive is what you expected.

Infrastructure providers, who provide infrastructure such as an ecosystem package manager, build platform, or CI/CD system. As the bridge between the producers and consumers, your adoption of SLSA enables a secure software supply chain between them.

How SLSA works

We talk about SLSA in terms of tracks and levels. A SLSA track focuses on a particular aspect of a supply chain, such as the Build Track. SLSA v1.0 consists of only a single track (Build), but future versions of SLSA will add tracks that cover other parts of the software supply chain, such as how source code is managed.

Within each track, ascending levels indicate increasingly hardened security practices. Higher levels provide better guarantees against supply chain threats, but come at higher implementation costs. Lower SLSA levels are designed to be easier to adopt, but with only modest security guarantees. SLSA 0 is sometimes used to refer to software that doesn’t yet meet any SLSA level. Currently, the SLSA Build Track encompasses Levels 1 through 3, but we envision higher levels to be possible in future revisions.

The combination of tracks and levels offers an easy way to discuss whether software meets a specific set of requirements. By referring to an artifact as meeting SLSA Build Level 3, for example, you’re indicating in one phrase that the software artifact was built following a set of security practices that industry leaders agree protect against particular supply chain compromises.

What SLSA doesn’t cover

SLSA is only one part of a thorough approach to supply chain security. There are several areas outside SLSA’s current framework that are nevertheless important to consider together with SLSA such as:

  • Code quality: SLSA does not tell you whether the developers writing the source code followed secure coding practices.
  • Developer trust: SLSA cannot tell you whether a developer is intentionally writing malicious code. If you trust a developer to write code you want to consume, though, SLSA can guarantee that the code will reach you without another party tampering with it.
  • Transitive trust for dependencies: the SLSA level of an artifact is independent of the level of its dependencies. You can use SLSA recursively to also judge an artifact’s dependencies on their own, but there is currently no single SLSA level that applies to both an artifact and its transitive dependencies together. For a more detailed explanation of why, see the FAQ.