What Is Software Composition Analysis (SCA)?

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is an essential tool in your cybersecurity arsenal if you use open source libraries, components, and dependencies, which 97% of commercial codebases do.

The widespread use of open source has fueled innovation and accelerated development cycles. It has also introduced risks and challenges for security teams and developers:

  • Vulnerabilities are publicly disclosed and therefore easy to exploit
  • Hackers can use one vulnerability to exploit a number of companies — as many as are using that particular library or component
  • Vulnerable open source components can be used to execute software supply chain attacks

Keep reading to find out how SCA can help and how to choose the right tool.

What Is Software Composition Analysis (SCA)?

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is the automated, continuous identification and review of open source and third-party libraries in a codebase. SCA scans and analyzes open source components for known vulnerabilities and license compliance issues to ensure the integrity and security of code and to protect the software supply chain. 

In the simplest terms, software composition analysis (SCA) scans your codebase to automatically identify the following:

  • Open source inventory: What open source dependencies, including direct and indirect, are in your application?
  • Licensing compliance: Do you have any restrictive open source licenses that prevent derivative proprietary works? 
  • Security vulnerabilities: Are there any known weaknesses in these components that could be exploited?

By understanding these aspects of code, developers can build more secure and reliable software. 

Until the early 2000s, teams relied on manual processes for managing open source components. This was time-consuming and error prone, especially for complex projects with many dependencies. 

The introduction of SCA tools has helped developers and security teams identify and address vulnerabilities earlier in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), which reduces the cost and effort required for remediation downstream.

How Do SCA Tools Work?

Step 1: Component Identification

SCA tools start by scanning the software project’s dependencies to create an inventory of all components used. This includes libraries, frameworks, modules, and other third-party code integrated into the project. 

There are two primary methods used (and many tools take a hybrid approach):

  • Manifest Scanning: SCA tools can parse your project’s manifest files, like package.json or pom.xml, which typically list the dependencies explicitly declared during development. This provides a clear picture of the intended components.
  • Binary Scanning: For compiled applications or container images, manifest files might not be readily available. Here, SCA tools leverage a technique called binary fingerprinting. Essentially, they create a unique signature based on the code’s characteristics, which can then be compared against databases of known open source components.

Modern SCA tools integrate with continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines, enabling automated scanning (and remediation) as part of the DevSecOps workflow. 

Step 2: License Compliance 

Once third-party components have been identified, SCA tools assess their open source licenses to ensure they are compliant. Metadata is analyzed to ensure that the project adheres to relevant open source licenses and meets legal obligations. This helps organizations avoid licensing conflicts, infringement issues, and legal liabilities associated with non-compliance.

Step 3: Vulnerability Detection

SCA tools are most known for their ability to identify known open source vulnerabilities. They do this by cross-referencing identified components against vulnerability databases like the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) or the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database. Once vulnerable components are identified, SCA delivers insights into the severity of each vulnerability though tools like CVSS score or  risk scoring.

Step 4: Prioritization and Remediation

Finally, SCA tools analyze any identified vulnerabilities to prioritize findings and make recommendations for remediation. This includes both reachability analysis and exploitability.  Reachability analysis determines whether an application’s execution path reaches the vulnerability in a way that could be exploited at run time. Exploitability identifies the likelihood or ease with which an attacker could exploit a vulnerability. 

Most SCA tools provide remediation advice that identifies the fix for a vulnerability. They also integrate with issue tracking systems and version control platforms to streamline remediation workflows. Through advanced prioritization and remediation, cybersecurity teams can be sure that they are addressing the riskiest vulnerabilities first, while safely deprioritizing unreachable vulnerabilities.

SCA and Software Bills of Materials (SBOMs)

A software bill of materials is a formal record containing the details and supply chain relationships of the various components used in building a software application, including all open source and third-party dependencies. Think of it as a list of ingredients in your software.

This “list” offers much-needed transparency, and helps organizations properly assess and identify supply chain risk, which is precisely why they’ve become industry standard for software suppliers to produce and share with companies they’re selling to. 

SCA plays a crucial role in creating SBOMs by providing the necessary data and insights required to accurately document the software components used within an application. SBOMs, in turn, help companies improve software security and compliance, just two of the benefits of SCA.

Learn more about the minimum requirements for SBOMs.

Why Is SCA Important?

SCA helps organizations identify publicly disclosed vulnerabilities before they become critical breaches and improves developer experience. This translates to better products, a more secure supply chain, and happier customers. Let’s explore these benefits in more detail.

Enhanced Security Posture

SCA empowers organizations to systematically identify and address vulnerabilities in their software supply chains. By proactively managing third-party and open source dependencies, organizations can prevent costly security breaches and safeguard sensitive data.

Regulatory Compliance

SCA plays a pivotal role in ensuring compliance regulations like GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI DSS by enabling organizations to track and manage the use of third-party components, verify licensing obligations, and demonstrate due diligence in safeguarding data. 

SBOMs are crucial here. They enable organizations to accurately track and trace the origins of the software components they use in different products and applications, and facilitate transparency and accountability throughout the software supply chain.

Assured Quality and Reliability

Customers entrust organizations with their sensitive data and rely on software products to deliver seamless experiences. SCA plays a pivotal role in upholding this trust by ensuring the quality and reliability of software applications. 

Streamlined Development Processes

Developers are constantly trying to balance speed, innovation, and security. By automating the identification and management of third-party dependencies, and integrating with their workflows, SCA helps free up developer time, increase developer productivity, and accelerate time-to-market.

Empowerment Through Insights

SCA provides security and business leaders with the insights they need to make informed decisions about dependency selection, version management, and vulnerability remediation. By leveraging these insights, developers can take ownership of software security, mitigate technical debt, and foster a culture of continuous improvement.

Challenges with SCA

While SCA is an important component of an effective security strategy, it has some challenges teams need to overcome in order to ensure cyber and business resilience.

Limited Visibility and Context

Because many projects rely on multiple third-party libraries and frameworks, it can be challenging to maintain an up-to-date inventory of components. And, without visibility into these dependencies, it becomes difficult to accurately assess the security posture of the application.

But it’s not just visibility of dependencies that teams need. A comprehensive, contextual view of all stages of the SDLC is needed to interpret data for SCA tools accurately. That means teams must combine SCA with other inputs to get a more holistic view, from development to deployment. 

Risk Prioritization

SCA tools often generate a significant number of alerts. They can be both time-consuming and overwhelming for security teams and developers to sort through. That means teams may struggle to prioritize vulnerabilities and may miss a critical alert due to the sheer volume of them.

Software Supply Chain Security

SCA identifies vulnerabilities in open source and third-party dependencies. It plays an important part in locking down software supply chains. However, for full coverage of software supply chain, SCA needs to be used alongside solutions that identify tool and server misconfigurations across the SDLC and as well as compromised credentials and secrets in code.

Shifting (Too Far) Left 

While most SCA tools integrate with developer tools and workflows, many teams still lack the context needed to successfully remediate issues. This unfairly places the burden of security onto developers without giving them what they need to succeed.

That’s why it’s so important that security and development teams work together to find, rollout, and maintain SCA solutions. That way, developers can easily fix issues, without slowing down velocity.

To overcome these challenges, security professionals should choose a tool that:

  • Offers clear visibility of dependencies
  • Pulls in context from the wider SDLC
  • Integrates seamlessly with developer tools and workflows
  • Helps teams prioritize and remediate threats
  • Doesn’t impact the speed or efficiency of software development

With this criteria in mind, point solutions just don’t offer teams the features and functionality they need. Instead, organizations should consider a platform approach.

How Can Cycode Help?

Cycode’s security-first, developer-friendly Application Security Posture Management (ASPM) platform provides visibility, prioritization, and remediation for security, engineering, and DevOps teams throughout the software development lifecycle. This includes our SCM-first approach to SCA in which we identify all dependencies without having to intervene in the CI/CD process. Furthermore, our SCA solution delivers code-to-cloud visibility where we trace a container image back to a specific code repository to identify how vulnerabilities move through pipelines. 

Cycode offers a unified security platform that consolidates application security testing and pipeline security to deliver code-to-cloud security coverage. In addition to SCA, our application security testing includes SAST (which scans 31% faster than the competition), IaC, and container scanning. Cycode ASPM not only provides our own suite of scanning tools, we also ingest data from third-party scanners to give you a full view of your application risk.

Book a demo now to learn more.

Originally published: April 23, 2024