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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
  • Code quality
  • License compliance
  • 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.

Table of Contents

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

  1. What is Software Composition Analysis?
    Software composition analysis (SCA) tools analyze applications to identify open source and third-party components with vulnerabilities and/or license compliance conflicts. Additionally, SCA solutions provide suggested fixes for issues they detect, which goes a long way toward ensuring applications don’t contain major security, licensing, or quality issues.
  2. What’s the difference between SCA and other testing tools like DAST, SAST, and IAST?
    There are several differences, but perhaps the biggest is that SCA solutions are designed to analyze and identify potential issues in open source software components. In contrast, tools like DAST (Dynamic Application Security Testing), SAST (Static Application Security Testing), and IAST (Interactive Application Security Testing) analyze proprietary code (and also tend to be used a little bit later in the software development lifecycle). It is common, however, for organizations to implement both SCA and one or more proprietary code testing solutions.
  3. Why do we need software composition analysis?
    Open source software is everywhere in modern application development — it’s estimated that OSS comprises north of 90% of the average codebase. But for all the benefits of OSS (it’s cost-effective, saves time, and more), it also carries some measure of risk. Software composition analysis solutions inventory the open source components in your codebase and flag potential license compliance, security, and quality issues. This helps organizations make sure they distribute high-quality applications that are free of major vulnerabilities and potentially problematic open source licenses.
  4. Where are SCA tools used in the software development lifecycle?
    In earlier years of software development, security testing was often conducted toward the end of the SDLC. However, the later in the SDLC compliance or vulnerability issues are detected, the more costly and time-consuming it is to resolve them. As such, most FOSSA customers choose to integrate our software composition analysis solution with their CI/CD pipeline, as part of the build process. Any time a new change is committed and a build is triggered, a new scan happens. This provides immediate feedback to developers very early in the dev cycle and reduces the cost of resolving the issue.
  5. What are the benefits of using FOSSA’s software composition analysis tool?
    There are several reasons why numerous organizations, including leading enterprises like Uber, F5, UiPath, and Coursera use FOSSA’s software composition analysis solution.

    For one, FOSSA SCA users get access to our market-leading software bill of materials feature. When you generate an SBOM with FOSSA, you can choose to include a wide variety of component data, including direct dependencies, deep dependencies, license summary, project declared license, and any commercial or first-party licenses. Also, depending on the different open source licenses in your project, you may have different obligations. FOSSA automatically computes these obligations based on the license inventory.

    Legal teams often recommend FOSSA because of our policy engine and out-of-box policy options (which we designed in collaboration with leading OSS attorney Heather Meeker). We equip organizations with granular policy options and workflow automation to ensure enterprise-grade performance.

    Finally, you don’t have to take our word for it. Leading analyst firm Forrester gave FOSSA rave reviews in The Forrester Wave for SCA, awarding us the highest possible score for SBOM support and license risk management.
  6. How much does software composition analysis cost?
    Different software composition analysis vendors have different pricing structures. You can view FOSSA’s pricing on our website.
  7. Should DevSecOps teams use software composition analysis?
    Yes! A key devsecops principle is that testing should be conducted as early as possible in the software development lifecycle. This idea is also known as “shifting left.” Software composition analysis helps devsecops teams implement the shift-left philosophy by flagging problematic open source components any time a new change is committed and a build triggered.