Watch our latest Product Showcase

Group 370

Meet us at WeAreDevelopers World Congress in Berlin

Group 370

Spotlight Whitepaper by IDC on Importance of Automated Code Review Technologies

Group 370

Software Composition Analysis (SCA): A Complete Guide

In this article:
Subscribe to our blog:

Say you want to make a pizza from scratch. You have to combine ingredients like flour, yeast, water, tomato sauce, cheese, and any other topping you might want. Each ingredient contributes to the flavor of the final product.

In software development, the process of Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is akin to carefully inspecting each ingredient before assembling your pizza.

Just as you would check the quality of your pizza ingredients, SCA examines the components of an application for potential security vulnerabilities, licensing issues, or outdated versions. 

SCA serves as a quality control process, ensuring that each component of your software is of high quality and contributes to a functioning and safe end product.

What Is Software Composition Analysis (SCA)?

The fact that most applications today run on some type of open-source component complicates matters. According to GitHub’s recent Octoverse report, 97% of apps today use open-source software.

To continue the earlier analogy, imagine you've decided to use some specialty cheeses on your pizza that you found for free at a community market. These cheeses are like open-source components in your software development—freely available and contributed by others.

While the cheese looks great and smells fine, you’re not sure how long it’s been sitting at the market, and you don’t want to risk serving spoiled food to your customers. Similarly, utilizing open-source components without thorough scrutiny in software development could introduce security vulnerabilities and quality issues into your software. 

Software Composition Analysis ensures that all components, including open-source ones, meet quality and security standards before being integrated into the final product. It involves analyzing the entire software supply chain, including both proprietary code and third-party components such as open-source libraries, and aims to address several key concerns:

  • Security: Identifying software component vulnerabilities, including known third-party libraries or dependencies issues.

  • License Compliance: Checking the licensing terms of the components used in the software to ensure compliance with legal requirements and avoid potential licensing conflicts.

  • Quality Assurance: Helping ensure the quality and reliability of the software by identifying outdated or deprecated components that may need updating or replacing.

In today’s DevSecOps processes, SCA has become an integral part of shifting software testing left—integrating security testing earlier in the development process and maintaining continuous monitoring to enhance productivity while upholding code security and quality standards

How Does Software Composition Analysis Work?

SCA works with the help of specialized software composition analysis tools. These tools are embedded in the development process—through integrated development environment (IDE) plugins—and used early in the software development lifecycle (SDLC). SCA tools allow developers to check their code's security, quality, and compliance as they create it. 

SCA tools scan your software components, analyzing all its components, all associated libraries, and every direct and indirect dependency. They also identify software licenses, potential exploits, and security vulnerabilities. 

Automated comments appear in pull requests before code is committed to a repository, showing developers issues that the tool has uncovered. This essentially blocks code from being committed until it meets every secure, high-quality code requirement. 

Once the scan and analysis have been completed, the SCA tool provides you with a software bill of materials (SBOM). The SBOM offers a detailed inventory of open-source and third-party elements incorporated within a codebase, including pertinent information such as licensing agreements, component versions, and patch statuses. 

There are two standard methods by which SBOMs are created: 

  • Manifest scanning: The SCA tool generates a list of dependencies using the application's build manifest files, such as package-lock.json for JavaScript projects. This is best used when scanning applications without the final build artifacts or from a source control management (SCM) system.

  • Binary scanning: The SCA tool inspects build artifacts to identify open-source components through binary fingerprinting, specifically targeting packages included in the application's final build, minimizing false positives, and capturing third-party software added in non-standard ways. 

Some SCA tools can combine the two methods. Once the SBOM is created, it is compared against various public and private databases, such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD), checking for common and known vulnerabilities, licensing information, and other potential risks.  

Finally, developers and application security program specialists check all this data against their coding standards and governance policies. A list of issues is then created, and the issues are prioritized according to their threat level. The best SCA tools also offer recommendations for how to fix the uncovered problems and critical vulnerabilities. 

Why is SCA Important? 

Software Composition Analysis is crucial due to the increasing reliance on open-source components in modern application development. Most applications are now built using these components, which provide developers with efficiency, functionality, and flexibility. However, the use of open-source components does not guarantee security, as vulnerabilities can exist within them, posing significant risks to the overall security posture of an application or system.

Open-source projects, being openly accessible to all, are susceptible to scrutiny by legitimate contributors and malicious actors seeking vulnerabilities to exploit. Consequently, any vulnerabilities identified and remediated within these projects become potential targets for attackers, particularly in widely used projects where the impact of an attack can be more widespread due to their popularity.

Security vulnerabilities discovered within these components require developers to remain vigilant and update their source code promptly to address any identified vulnerabilities. Since vulnerabilities can be exploited once public exploits are available, even low-level attackers can capitalize on these issues, underscoring the critical importance of timely updates.

Moreover, the complexity of dependencies within open-source components adds another layer of security risks. While vulnerabilities may originate in root packages, they often permeate through dependencies multiple layers deep, necessitating comprehensive updates beyond just the immediate components in use to ensure the security of the entire software ecosystem.

With the prevalence of cyberattacks escalating, organizations face a heightened risk of exploitation through vulnerabilities present in open-source components. The costs associated with a data breach include financial losses from stolen data, regulatory fines, legal fees, reputational damage, and more.

Additionally, the diverse landscape of open-source licenses presents compliance and license identification challenges. Open-source components often have various licensing agreements that define how they can be used, modified, and distributed. Failure to comply with them can result in legal disputes, financial penalties, and reputational damage.

Compliance issues are also significant considerations in software composition analysis (SCA). Many organizations from various industries are subject to regulatory requirements and standards that mandate specific security measures and practices to protect sensitive data and ensure the integrity of systems.

Common Software Composition Analysis (SCA) Challenges

Dependencies: A deep comprehension of ecosystem-specific dependency resolution mechanisms is necessary to accurately identify dependencies and associated vulnerabilities. Factors such as package resolution during installation, lock files, and development dependencies influence vulnerability identification and subsequent remediation steps, requiring SCA solutions to navigate these nuances effectively.

Maintaining Development Speed and Productivity: Traditional security checks integrated into the software development lifecycle may slow development or be bypassed, highlighting the necessity for a DevSecOps approach to embed security seamlessly into development workflows.

Legacy Code Compatibility: Legacy applications often contain outdated or unsupported open-source components, making integrating modern SCA tools and practices challenging without disrupting existing workflows or risking compatibility issues.

Lack of Standardization: The absence of standardized practices and tools across development teams or departments within an organization can hinder the consistency and effectiveness of SCA efforts, leading to fragmented approaches and potential gaps in security coverage.

Resource Constraints: Limited resources, including budget, staffing, and technical expertise, may impede the implementation of comprehensive SCA strategies, resulting in suboptimal vulnerability management and mitigation efforts.

Vendor and Third-Party Risk: Organizations may face challenges in assessing and mitigating risks associated with third-party vendors or service providers contributing to or relying on open-source components within their software ecosystem, necessitating robust vendor risk management practices.

Cross-Platform Compatibility: Ensuring SCA tools and practices are compatible with diverse development environments, including different programming languages, frameworks, and platforms, presents technical challenges and requires adaptable solutions to accommodate varying requirements.

False Positives and Noise: SCA tools may generate false positives or excessive noise, particularly when scanning large and complex codebases, leading to alert fatigue and potentially overlooking genuine security vulnerabilities amidst the noise.

Addressing these additional challenges requires organizations to adopt a holistic approach to SCA that encompasses technical considerations, organizational alignment, resource allocation, and ongoing collaboration between development, application security, and compliance stakeholders.

Software Composition Analysis Benefits

We’ve already discussed the prominent benefits of SCA, such as vulnerability identification, dependency management, license compliance,  and risk mitigation. Other benefits of SCA tools that result from these main benefits include:  

  • Efficiency and Automation: SCA tools automate scanning, analyzing, and managing open-source components, saving time and effort for development and security teams and allowing them to focus on higher-value tasks.

  • Visibility and Transparency: SCA tools provide visibility and transparency in using open-source components within software applications, empowering organizations to make informed decisions and mitigate risks effectively.

  • Continuous Monitoring: SCA tools offer continuous monitoring capabilities, allowing organizations to stay updated on new vulnerabilities, security patches, and updates related to open-source components, ensuring ongoing security and compliance.

Choosing a “Developer-First” SCA Tool

When evaluating Software Composition Analysis solutions, it’s important to find ones that prioritize the needs and workflows of developers. By placing developers at the forefront, a developer-first SCA solution ensures that security measures do not disrupt or slow down development cycles, fostering a culture of security awareness and responsibility among developers. 

Codacy offers a range of code analysis and quality assurance features, including identifying security vulnerabilities and code quality issues, helping developers and organizations build secure software by automatically analyzing code changes, and providing actionable feedback.

To give Codacy a try, sign up for a free trial today



Why Scala Is Our Programming Language of Choice
We truly love Scala. Scala has been one of the pillars of Codacy from the start. Joao, who has an Enterprise Java background, has loved the language...
6 top products for Scala developers
Scala developers looking for some great open source libraries can go to the excellent Awesome-Scala List or the newly created Scaladex.
Tricity Scala Meetup With Codacy
We attended the Tricity Scala Users Group scala meetup recently where I did a short presentation about Codacy’s project structure and architecture....

Automate code
reviews on your commits and pull request

Group 13