What is Software Composition Analysis (SCA): A Guide
What is a Software Composition Analysis (SCA): A Guide
Software composition analysis (SCA) is becoming a developer’s new best friend. While not new, the technology has gained traction in the enterprise because of the predominance of open source software in the past few years. No matter how well-intentioned developers are, they are only human, and many open source components come with known software vulnerabilities.
This comprehensive guide will explain how SCA works, security issues to consider and what to look for in an SCA provider.
A software development team is ideally positioned to be the creator and maintainer of the Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) for its software because modern engineering practice dictates that engineering teams maintain and understand the modules used in their code.
What is Software Composition Analysis?
Software composition analysis came onto the scene around 2002 when the first open source manual scanner was released. Even though SCA provided greater visibility into the code bases organizations used, it resulted in a high rate of false positives in the early days. It also required manual intervention to resolve issues and did not adhere to the principles of agile development methodologies.
Today, while reusable components and open-source software have simplified software development, it comes at a price: a critical visibility gap that leaves organizations unable to accurately record and summarize the massive volume of software they produce, consume and operate, according to Gartner. With this lack of visibility, software supply chains are vulnerable to security and licensing compliance risks within software components.
Software composition analysis identifies the open source software in a code base. With pressure on teams for faster release cycles, the tool automates the process of tracking and analyzing open source software components and their dependencies.
Why SCA is important?
SCA has spurred the ‘shift left’ paradigm adopted in modern DevOps and DevSecOps environments. Earlier and more regular SCA testing helps enables developers and security teams increase their productivity without compromising security and quality.
From a security perspective, as noted above, SCA tools can help identify vulnerabilities in open source code. Analyzing software is important to determine security issues as well as license compliance and code quality. This is arduous work when done manually, especially because of the vast amount of open source software. SCA automates the process and offers security, speed and reliability.
“Attackers are no longer waiting to exploit publicly disclosed vulnerabilities but aggressively implanting malicious code in open-source projects,’’ observed a February 2022 Gartner report. “The resulting adverse ripple effect in software supply chains creates a need to verify SBOMs for third-party and open source software.”
SCA can also help organizations stay in compliance with regulations. Significantly, SCA tools remove the gap between detection and remediation by flagging the location of vulnerabilities, assessing their impact, and suggesting remediation steps organizations should take.
SCA and SBOM
By 2025, 60% of organizations building or purchasing critical infrastructure software will mandate and standardize SBOMs in their software engineering practice, according to Gartner. This is up from less than 20% in 2022. By 2024, the firm says that 90% of software composition analysis tools will be able to generate and verify SBOMs to help securely consume open source software, up from 30% in 2022.
When an SCA tool runs scans on a code base and analyzes them for vulnerabilities, the analysis generates an SBOM, which lists all of an application’s software components and their dependencies. The SBOM can be used to track licenses and vulnerabilities for every component and it is compared against several databases, including the National Vulnerability Database.
By comparing the SBOM against a database, security teams are able to identify critical security and legal vulnerabilities and take steps to quickly fix them. Then the SCA tool offers suggestions to remediate dangerous vulnerabilities.
Why you need to have SCA as part of your software stack
Because of the growing number of vulnerabilities that organizations must remediate, it has become necessary to look beyond CVSS scores to fix those with the highest risk first.
It is not enough to scan your application code for vulnerable dependencies. Modern threats require scanning your entire SDLC for many types of vulnerable dependencies that exist throughout your entire pipeline. These include dev tools, dev tool plugins, build modules, build module dependencies and infrastructure as code (IaC) dependences.
Increasing risks of vulnerabilities and software supply chain security
There are many software interdependencies in an open source project. To navigate these relationships and dependencies, Gartner recommends that software engineering leaders adopt one common industry standard for SBOM formats. There are three SBOM standards: SPDX, SWID and CycloneDX. SPDX and CycloneDX have wide market traction and community support, according to Gartner.
By standardizing, software engineering teams can more easily share metadata about the components that make up software packages. “A common data exchange format will also make it easier for teams to automate the process of generating and verifying SBOMs, and to ensure interoperability and sharing of provenance data throughout the supply chain,’’ the firm said.
What to look for in an SCA tool provider
SCA offerings fall into two broad categories: governance systems used by management, security, DevOps and legal teams. They are designed to provide full visibility and control over an organization’s software portfolio. The other category is developer tools, which aim to help developers avoid use of vulnerable open source components and fix any that are detected through tools used with native development environments.
There are a number of factors to consider when looking at SCA tools:
- Will it scan code in the languages your development team uses?
- Does it scan source code and binaries?
- Is it reliable and accurate?
- Does it identify open source components and licenses?
- Does it generate reports that are easy to understand?
- Does it stay current with the latest security vulnerabilities?
- Will it integrate well with your other development tools in a wide range of environments at every stage of the SDLC?
- With several SCA tools available, make sure the one you choose is affordable and provides a solid price-to-value return on your investment.
What SCA does not do
Bear in mind that while SCA analysis provides remediation suggestions for critical vulnerabilities, it does not prioritize them. As a result, IT pros are left to determine which issue to address first based on the current vulnerabilities and risk priority order. With limited time and resources, it can be difficult for security teams to prioritize vulnerabilities without deeper analysis.
Lastly, SCA tools don’t provide information about which pending issues are the most critical to your business assets. They also provide no context surrounding a vulnerability’s point of origin.
Final Thoughts on SCA
Open source components have become ubiquitous as the main building block for developing software applications in all industries. Yet, even with this heavy reliance on open source, many organizations don’t do their due diligence in ensuring that the open source components they use meet basic security standards or that they comply with licensing requirements.
SCA can change that. The tools offer many benefits:
- An inventory, analysis and control framework to give teams full visibility into their open source usage as well as guidance on how to resolve issues.
- Automated tracking of open source components
- Detection of weak points through continuous monitoring
- Identification and prioritization of automated management tools to fix them throughout the SDLC
- Management of software licenses, which are challenging to keep track of, given how widespread the use of open source is
- The ability to set license policies to check whether your software is in compliance.
Just as SBOMs are an essential tool in your security and compliance arsenal, they are enhanced when SCA is used to fully ensure the health and well-being of an open source project.