Published on
January 24, 2023

Software Composition Analysis: The Complete Guide

min read

In today's software development industry, where developers focus on developing applications as early as possible, the use of open-source components has become inevitable. Using open-source components accelerates the speed without compromising the quality of the application. However, each of the components needs to be tracked in order to avoid license compliance issues and security risks. Also, the entire process of tracking and fixing issues shouldn't slow down the process. This is where Software Composition Analysis comes in the scenario.

What is Software Composition Analysis?

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is an application security testing methodology for managing open-source components in software. It automatically identifies open-source components in a codebase and evaluates them for security, license compliance, and code quality. The scanning process generates a bill of materials (BoM) and provides a complete inventory of a project's software assets.

Why is Software Composition Analysis (SCA) Important?

Modern applications use several open-source components, but these components come with their own set of vulnerabilities. An SCA tool allows for risk management of open-source use throughout the software development lifecycle. Features of SCA include

  • Create a Bill of Materials (BOM) for all your applications: A bill of materials describes everything about the open-source components used in an application. With a detailed BOM, cybersecurity professionals can get a better understanding of all such components and check if there are any potential vulnerabilities and licensing issues. An SCA tool generates a bill of materials for all resources used that can be shared with internal as well as external stakeholders.
  • Spot and track all the open-source components: An SCA tool allows organizations to discover all the open-source used in the source code, binaries, direct and indirect dependencies, subcomponents, and OS components.
  • Automatic and regular monitoring: In order to improve productivity and focus on important tasks, developers need to automate repetitive tasks. Scanning open-source for detecting potential vulnerabilities is one such task. An SCA tool regularly monitors the code, allowing developers to focus on more important tasks.
  • Setting policies: OSS license compliance is vital for any organization and at all levels from developers to upper management. An SCA tool highlights the importance of having policies, responding to license compliance and security events, and then providing adequate open-source training across the organization. Several SCA solutions automate the approval process and set guidelines for open-source usage and remediation.
  • Easily integrate open-source code monitoring into the development environment: Integrate OS security and license management in the DevOps environment to regularly scan the codebase to identify dependencies.
  • How Does Software Composition Analysis Work?

    An SCA tool starts with running scans on the code base to check for potential vulnerabilities. The analysis results in a software bill of materials that includes all the open-source components used and their respective licenses. Moreover, it detects all the vulnerable third-party libraries and offers in-depth details on open-source dependencies. At last, it provides remediation suggestions to the developers to fix potential threats.

    Here's what a typical SCA process looks like

    Step 1: An SCA solution scans the codebase and builds a software bill of materials (SBoM) of all the open-source components used in the application, including dependencies that get resolved during the build process.

    Step 2: The tool provides specific details about the open-source components. The details include licensing information, components version, and location of the detection. Here the accuracy of the information is completely dependent on the open-source database the tool is using to extract the data from.

    Step 3: Now, the main job of the SCA tool starts to detect all the vulnerabilities associated with the open-source components.

    Step 4: Once all the vulnerabilities are detected, the tool alerts the administrators and the other stakeholders involved in the process.

    Step 5: The best software composition analysis tools compare each detected component against the pre-set policies and automatically stop the promotion of the application to the next stage of the development process until proper remediation steps are taken.

    Step 6: Provides remediation suggestions to fix the vulnerabilities.

    Step 7: The vulnerabilities are fixed, and the application moves forward in the development process. The SCA tool continues to monitor the application on a regular basis until it finds another vulnerability and pauses the process.

    Scantist SCA

    Software Composition Analysis Challenges

    Now that we know what SCA is and how it works, it's also important to know the challenges that could come while using an SCA tool. Here are some of the most common challenges

    Visibility Issues

    The way open-source codes are embedded into an application's code base can lead to visibility issues. There are chances that a developer might unknowingly add several open-source components in the codebase that rely on additional open-source packages. These indirect or transitive dependencies can be so deep in the codebase that it could be very challenging to gain end-to-end visibility into what open-source is actually being used by an application.

    Prioritizing Vulnerabilities

    The number of vulnerabilities is increasing rapidly. There are thousands of open-source-related vulnerabilities that can affect an application's security. Now analyzing all these vulnerabilities and then prioritizing them according to the risk they come with has become very difficult, especially if you don't have enough tools and resources. So an SCA tool should be able to dig up the vulnerabilities and prioritize the ones that come with heavy threats to the application and recommend possible fixes.

    Dependency Logic

    To precisely determine the dependencies an application is leveraging along with the vulnerabilities they come along with, an in-depth analysis of how each ecosystem handles is necessary. Package resolution during the time of installation, lock files, and development dependencies are some examples of factors that influence the identification of vulnerabilities in open-source components as well as the determination of remediation processes. It'sIt's crucial for any SCA tool to understand all these nuances to avoid creating too many false positives.

    Fast and Reliable

    The speed of development to production for any application is increasing, thanks to the evolution of technologies. However, this has led to a new challenge for security teams. They now need to cope with the development process speed and make sure that they fix almost all the security issues before the application goes to the production stage. If they don't, it could delay the development process.

    Languages Used

    There are chances that an application is developed using multiple programming languages, and if an SCA tool is being used to scan the code, it's imperative that it supports all the languages used. If the SCA tool fails to determine or scan the language used in developing the application, there's no point in using it.

    Meaningful and Comprehensive Reports

    The primary use of SCA tools is to scan the codebase to identify open-source components. Now in order to leverage this information, it's imperative that the developers have a detailed report of everything related to the open-source components. SCA tools should be able to offer a variety of report features, integration options, and extensive APIs that can be used by all the stakeholders involved in the development process.

    How Software Composition Analysis Reduces OSS Risk

    Open-source components have become almost ubiquitous in the software development industry. It allows the developers to quickly and easily scale their software development cycle. However, open-source software (OSS) components can also come with vulnerabilities, licensing problems, and security threats because of poorly written codes. That's where SCA tools help.

    Typically SCA tools use a framework to reduce the OSS risks. The framework comprises three simple steps Inventory, Analyze, and Control.

    Inventory: The first step is to understand all the dependencies that the application is using. After all, if we don't know what are the open-source components we're using, how can we address the vulnerabilities and license-related issues? So, SCA tools start with building an inventory of all the components used in the application.

    Analyze: Once all the components are detected, the SCA tools start analyzing them and check for all the crucial contextual information. This includes vulnerability details, source library, common vulnerability score, and its asperity, and more. The license part reflects compliance issues and other license-related terms.

    Control: In the last step, the SCA tools start to control the open-source risks. They come up with remediation suggestions. Applying the suggestion will remove the vulnerability.

    Software Composition Analysis (SCA) Best Practices

    SCA tools are essential when it comes to spotting vulnerabilities and fixing them. But in order to do it, you need to find the right tool. Here are some best practices that can help you while choosing the tool


    Developers are busy writing codes, and if you give them an unfriendly SCA tool to use, it might hamper the entire development process. So when you choose an SCA tool, you need to ensure that it is developer-friendly and can integrate easily with the existing workflows.

    Once you choose a tool, educate your developers about it so that they can get an understanding of its perks and usage. Developers may think that security doesn't come under their responsibilities, but it's essential to keep security in mind throughout the development process so that it doesn't become an issue after production.

    Integrates Into CI/CD Pipeline

    Your SCA tool needs to be able to integrate into your CI/CD pipeline. This will allow determining and fixing vulnerabilities become a functional part of your entire software development and production process.

    Inspects Dependencies

    There are two kinds of dependencies: direct and indirect. Direct dependencies are the components that you use in your project. Indirect dependencies are the ones that are used by one of your direct dependencies. According to studies, most of an open-source project's vulnerabilities come from indirect dependencies.

    A good SCA tool needs to inspect all kinds of dependencies that are available in the entire project so that you can fix all the vulnerabilities coming from all the dependencies and build a secure application.

    Automatic Scanning

    A developer might not have time to manually scan the code at every stage of the development process. However, scanning is imperative and needs to be done multiple times throughout the process. This is where a good SCA tool comes in handy. It automatically scans the code, flags potential vulnerabilities, and tells how to fix them.

    Reports and SBoM Capabilities

    Most organizations have made the use of inclusion of a Software Bill of Materials (SBoM) mandatory before they purchase any software. Providing an SBoM along with your software reflects that you understand the importance of tracking every component that is used in your application. Other than that, you can also share reports on your security scans and fixes. This will help you show your commitment towards the security and, in turn, improves your market position.

    Language Support

    Before you choose an SCA tool, make sure that it supports all the programming languages that you use while coding. After all, if it doesn't support the language you use, there will be no use for it.

    Binary and Source Code Scanning

    The right SCA tool should be able to scan both source code and binary code in order to identify all risky components.

    SCA and Software Bill of Materials

    In the section above, we have mentioned SBoM and why it is important, and in this, we're going to cover extensively the relationship between SCA and SBoM. This will help you understand why SBoM is so important when talking about SCA.

    In simple words, SBoM is a list of open-source components used in an application. The list includes all the licenses that govern those components, the version name of the components, and their patch status. This allows the security teams to determine any associated dependencies that could lead to potential security threats.

    In addition to that, providing an SBoM also enables other stakeholders and users to trust the application with their sensitive information.

    Here are the key details present in an SBoM

    Components: If you're using open-source codes in your application, it's imperative that you track all of them down and create a list. Doing it manually can take a lot of time and effort. So it's a good idea to use an SCA tool that does the drill for you.

    Versions: Open-source components have their version names that allow developers to track the new versions available and if they need to update them. An SBoM enlists all the open-source version names so that the developers can check which version have they used in the application.

    Licenses: All the open-source components come with licenses that reflect if the code is available for public use or not. It also tells developers what are the conditions for using the open-source components. Failure to comply with these licenses can put the organization in trouble which could lead to several legal consequences. An SBoM enlists all the licenses and the associated details to help the developers and the organization to stay away from legal issues.

    Vulnerabilities: Open-source components can come with several vulnerabilities that could lead to serious security problems. Also, checking all the dependencies, direct and indirect manually is a very tedious and unproductive process. Fortunately, an SBoM list highlights all the vulnerabilities coming from both direct and indirect dependencies. This, in turn, helps the development team to just check the list and work on fixing them.

    How to Get an SBoM?

    To get an SBoM, you will need to invest in a powerful Software Composition Analysis Tool. The tool will automatically and regularly scan your application's codebase and provide you with a software bill of materials so that you don't need to do it manually and waste your time or unnecessary tasks.

    But here's the thing finding the right SCA tool can be tricky and so we're going to discuss how you can choose the right tool and improve the security of your application. Keep reading!

    How to Choose a Software Composition Analysis Tool?

    When it comes to finding as well as fixing vulnerabilities, an SCA tool is all you need. It allows you to automatically detect issues in your application and then fix it without slowing down your software development process.

    But here's the problem finding the right SCA tool isn't easy. You may need to test several before choosing the right one. But the best way to do it is by checking if the SCA tool you're going to use has all the aforementioned features.

    How Can Scantist Help?

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