A chef understands the goal of the dish they make. They carefully choose the right ingredients. They have a complete picture of every component and how it makes the meal better. They discard what doesn’t add to it.

Similarly, software composition analysis (SCA) can tell you what ingredients are in the software you’re building and deploying into your environment. In practical terms, it can help organizations identify, analyze, and control risk in the open source components of their codebase. But how, exactly, does SCA work, and what does it do to reduce risk?

Why Software Composition Analysis Is Necessary

Enterprises are using open source software more than ever. A survey of 950 IT leaders by Red Hat illustrates the trend:

  • 95% of respondents said open source is strategically important
  • 77% said enterprise open source will continue to grow
  • 86% said the most innovative companies are using enterprise open source

Companies are using open source in ever-expanding applications. It has become the backbone of software and infrastructure alike.

Therefore, companies have to understand what ingredients are a part of the software their employees and customers are using every day.

Like the chef who needs to understand what may be harmful or distasteful to those eating their food, SCA allows your team to catalog what open source “ingredients” you use, whether any are vulnerable to attack, and whether you’re compliant with their licenses.

SCA tools scan your code and look for all the third-party libraries included within the project. They first take inventory of the open source software within your applications. They then identify known vulnerabilities, outdated libraries, and license gaps. It’s akin to having a robot “taste” your software and identify which ingredients could be harmful or distasteful.

For example, if tomorrow the maintainers of a popular open source component decide to adopt a more restrictive license, do you know how it will impact your products? Which dependency lock files might you have to modify to stay compliant?

SCA tools allow you to find the answers to those questions. Then, you’ll be able to take action to address any license compliance issues or security vulnerabilities.

Especially in the times of CI/CD and microservice architecture, this type of inventory and continuous monitoring would be impossible to maintain manually. Automated SCA tools are the only way to catalog and rate the risk of your open source software at scale.

In a nutshell, you need SCA because:

  • Security vulnerabilities could be hidden in the third-party libraries your developers are using (i.e. Equifax)
  • Outdated open source components could slow your engineering velocity
  • License compliance violations could lead to legal liability

Read More: How to Pick the Right Software Composition Analysis Tool


How SCA Tools Help You Manage Risk

Using an SCA tool gives you complete visibility into the risk profile of your application. SCA tools help you in three phases of risk management.

Phase 1: Inventorying Your Open Source Components

Gaining complete visibility into your application’s components is the first step to accurately assessing risk in your open source software supply chain. This means an inventory of all direct and transitive dependencies — across multiple levels — along with:

  • Embedded, hidden, and declared licenses
  • Detailed metadata information, including license text, copyright info, and licensing obligations

Phase 2: Analyzing Risks

Using third-party code to help build your software often accelerates development. But it also changes your risk profile. SCA gives you a comprehensive view of your risk profile, including security vulnerabilities and whether your licenses are permissive enough for your use case.

SCA gives you a top-down view of the composition of your software. Rather than viewing code piece by piece, you can see a holistic view of your entire code base.

Phase 3: Mitigating Risks

Finally, SCA tools help you mitigate risks.

When a specific third-party library announces a critical vulnerability (and an update to fix it), you need to find which of your applications use the library and update them as soon as possible. SCA allows you to “flip” the view over and find which projects are using the vulnerable library.

For example, FOSSA automatically creates pull requests, including required updates and patches, when older third-party libraries are found. Developers don’t have to hunt for the latest version and then manually update all of the necessary files.

SCA tools also offer remediation guidance if they can’t fix the problem for you. Clear explanations of issues and potential fixes make it easier to know what to do to mitigate the risk.

You’ll also want help to make sure your teams collaborate effectively. Great SCA tools integrate with project management and collaboration solutions such as Slack and Jira.

Mitigating risks is much easier when the SCA tool is a part of the developer’s daily routine. Look for solutions that integrate with development tools so updates can be made smoothly and safely.

Build Your Signature Application with Software Composition Analysis

Software composition analysis tools automate the mission-critical tasks of inventorying components, identifying risk, and mitigating risk in your use of open source software. They enable teams to save massive amounts of time and get an accurate view of the third-party components within their applications.

Of course, not all SCA tools have the same capabilities and functionality. Check out our blog “A Framework for Evaluating Software Composition Analysis Tools” for guidance on picking the right SCA solution for your organization.