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The Complete Guide to Software Composition Analysis

Software composition analysis (SCA) has emerged as an increasingly necessary tool to help organizations control risks that stem from the use of open source software. The sheer volume of OSS in modern applications — the average app uses 147 different open source components (which pull in even more dependencies) — makes it hard for organizations to stay on top of issues in areas like:
  • Security
  • License compliance
  • Code quality
  • Long-term project viability
Software composition analysis helps teams mitigate these risks by automating the discovery of vulnerabilities, licenses, and potential quality issues — then offering actionable insight to inform remediation. Finally, SCA tools also generally include capabilities that enable teams to apply security and license compliance policies at scale. (For example, an organization might use this functionality to flag anything with a GPL-licensed component across all builds.)
Many organizations pair software composition analysis (which can only be used with open source code) with tools for proprietary code (like SAST, DAST, IAST, and RASP) to form a complete suite of application security testing products.
In this guide, we’ll take a close look at the ins and outs of software composition analysis, including the specific ways SCA tools help organizations reduce open source risk. We’ll also discuss what organizations should consider when they evaluate SCA tools, what to expect in the next generation of SCA solutions, and the relationship between SCA and a software bill of materials.

How Software Composition Analysis Helps Reduce OSS Risk

Before diving into the specifics of how software composition analysis enables organizations to reduce risk associated with OSS, it’s helpful to understand just how widespread OSS is our modern world of application development.
  • More than 90% of modern applications use at least some open source software
  • The average application uses 147 different open source components
  • Open source vulnerabilities continue to rise year over year
This background brings into focus the importance of having an up-to-date, accurate understanding of the OSS components you use. Today’s applications simply have so much open source that it can be easy to, say, miss a license or vulnerability in a deep dependency.
SCA tools generally apply an “inventory, analyze, and control” framework to give teams a full view of their open source usage — and guidance on how to resolve any issues.
  • Inventory

    The road to managing OSS vulnerabilities starts with a comprehensive and accurate inventory of your dependencies. After all, an organization can’t address vulnerabilities or license compliance issues without understanding all of the components in its codebase.
  • Analyze

    If the SCA tool does detect a vulnerable library, it will disclose important contextual information like vulnerability description, affected version of the library, CVSS score and severity, CVE and CWE identifications, relationship paths (how the exploit was introduced into the code). It will also highlight any license compliance issues and show you where licenses were discovered in your code.
  • Control

    Finally, SCA solutions help organizations control open source risk by offering remediation guidance. This includes information on how best to upgrade the problematic OSS component. Additionally, users can easily implement deny/flag/approve policies for different components to ensure an optimal risk posture.

SCA and Software Bill of Materials

Organizations across every industry and geographic region use software applications to fuel product development. Generally, these applications are built with many individual software components, often from a variety of open source and proprietary source packages.

A software bill of materials (SBOM) gives individuals involved with the product (manufacturers, operators, buyers) full visibility into the software supply chain and any license compliance, security, and quality risks that may exist. SBOMs generally include a description of all proprietary and open source components that comprise the product (with data like supplier name, component name, version string, and author name) as well as a summary of the involved open source licenses.

This information can help organizations quickly identify and remediate potential security vulnerabilities, fulfill licensing requirements, and apply version control best practices. They can also play an important role in facilitating technical due diligence.

Software composition analysis tools were created to produce a comprehensive inventory of open source components in a given product, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they can help organizations generate a bill of materials, too. SCA solutions help do this by:
  • Providing comprehensive and accurate data
  • Offering customizable reporting formats
  • Automating key steps in the SBOM creation process, saving teams significant time

What to Look for in a Software Composition Analysis Tool

As you might expect given the popularity of open source software, there are a number of different software composition analysis tools on the market today. And while different organizations may have different feature preferences, there are three key capabilities common to most of today’s best-in-class SCA solutions.
  • High Signal-to-Noise Ratio
    Developer adoption is key for any software composition analysis tool to have a material impact on an organization’s security and compliance posture. SCA solutions can help facilitate in two key ways:
    • Delivering minimal false-positives: SCA tools should proactively and contextually differentiate vulnerability or license issues that will actually impact security and compliance in production. The goal is to minimize the amount of time spent by developers triaging or fixing licensing and security issues — especially those that don’t impact your risk profile.
    • Integrating with the developer ecosystem: SCA should not interrupt the development process or force developers to leave the friendly confines of their familiar systems. Integrations with tools like GitHub and Jira help make this possible.
  • CI/CD Integration
    Effective SCA tools don’t just flag security, license, and code quality issues. They enable teams to address them as early as possible in the software development lifecycle. SCA tools that completely integrate into your existing CI/CD pipelines allow users to continuously monitor code and prevent vulnerabilities from shipping to production in the first place.

    Additionally, SCA should not interrupt the development process or force developers to leave the friendly confines of their familiar systems. Integrations with tools like GitHub and Jira help make this possible.

    These capabilities not only reduce OSS risk, but save development teams significant time and keeps engineers in their preferred workflows.
  • Automated Policy Governance
    Different teams abide by different policies when it comes to managing OSS security and compliance risks. Some might prefer to apply a default-deny posture to certain package versions and licenses, while others might want to simply flag them for further review. Of course, manually sifting through a listing of dependencies and vulnerabilities to inform go/no-go decisions takes hours upon hours.

    Policy engines are the core of what enables SCA solutions to automate the process. They allow stakeholders to filter, approve/deny, and flag specific vulnerabilities and packages so they can enforce an optimal risk posture at scale. Automated, robust, and flexible policy management is key to making sure developer velocity isn’t disrupted by the introduction of new tools and processes.

The Future of Software Composition Analysis

Just like the world of open source software looks quite different today than it did a decade ago, software composition analysis tools have evolved considerably since their early days. While SCA was initially used to perform manual and periodic scans (often in advance of specific events like an IPO), today’s tools play an integral role in ensuring OSS compliance and security throughout the software development lifecycle.
Along those lines, we expect the next generation of SCA tools to deliver an even richer set of capabilities across several frontiers.
  • Policy Engine
    Next-generation policy engines are what will enable different stakeholders to have approvals and automation built in as part of their day-to-day workflows.
  • Developer-Friendly
    Some of today’s SCA tools do integrate into CI/CD pipelines and developer’s native workflows. But the more we build SCA into a developers’ workflow, the easier it’s going to be for them to build risk management into their daily lives. The next generation of SCA solutions won’t require developers to use a new tool or go outside their previous experience, which will help with overall acceptance and efficiency within the organization.
  • Code Quality and Provenance
    Today’s SCA tools do a better job inventorying dependencies and licenses (and flagging security issues) than providing guidance on code provenance and quality. We expect that to change in the years ahead. The next generation of SCA solutions will offer more actual guidance on code provenance (is it from safe and trusted sources?) and quality (can enterprises depend on the libraries long term?)
  • Next-Gen Reporting
    Today’s SCA tools do offer a range of reporting options, but the next decade will see even richer features. We expect reports to include more comprehensive insights in formats that are easily digestible for both technical and non-technical stakeholders. For example, an SCA platform that makes compliance data available to the sales and customer support teams in near real time can help them address questions from customers and prospects in a timely manner.

Common Questions About Software Composition Analysis

Finally, we’ll conclude this guide by exploring several frequently asked questions to related to software composition analysis and its use cases, benefits, cost, and more.
What is software composition analysis?
What’s the difference between SCA and other testing tools like DAST, SAST, and IAST?
Why do we need software composition analysis?
Where are SCA tools used in the software development lifecycle?
What are the benefits of using FOSSA’s software composition analysis tool?
How much does software composition analysis cost?
Should DevSecOps teams use software composition analysis?