Software Composition Analysis

Software composition analysis (SCA) tools index your software dependencies to give you visibility into the packages you're using and any vulnerabilities they contain.

Wiz Experts Team
7 minutes read

Software composition analysis (SCA) tools index your software dependencies to give you visibility into the packages you're using and any vulnerabilities they contain. SCA also reveals where you're sourcing dependencies from—such as package managers or a vendor's website—and the open-source licenses associated with each one.

SCA helps you solve the challenges of complex software dependency chains. Virtually all modern software depends on third-party packages, open-source libraries and components, each of which could be outdated or contain risks that affect your own apps. Without SCA, it's hard to know what you're using and whether it poses a threat.

Benefits of software composition analysis

SCA's main benefit is increased visibility into open-source dependencies. It catalogs your codebase's entire software supply chain, then lets you inspect the authors, licenses, and vulnerabilities within. That means you can reduce software risks, improve quality, and maintain compliance with any legal or regulatory standards that apply to your products.

SCA solutions typically output an SBOM (Software Bill of Materials). This is an inventory of all the software components that have been detected in your project. SBOMs provide the information necessary to support accurate conclusions about your app's composition, including the ability to prove whether a particular package is or isn't used. If a new zero-day vulnerability is reported in an open-source component, you can consult your SBOM to quickly determine whether you're affected or not.

Moreover, SBOMs also allow you to provide some transparency for your customers. They have a similar role to the ingredients labels found on food packages—by listing out everything in the product, customers can make an informed choice about whether it's safe to consume.

SCA is now viewed as an essential part of software development, particularly for organizations operating in regulated industries. The White House's 2021 Cybersecurity Executive Order specifically refers to the use of software composition tools and SBOMs as methods of improving security.

Ultimately, SCA restores control over your software supply chain. Third-party packages accelerate software development but deeply nested dependency trees are impossible for developers to inspect by hand. Practicing SCA techniques provides an efficient solution that lets you continually monitor your supply chain and address risks as they appear.

What to look for in a software composition analysis tool

SCA is still an emerging part of the software development lifecycle (SDLC). Multiple tools are available to help you perform SCA, but they can differ in the features they provide. Here's what you should be looking for in an SCA solution.

1. The ability to generate SBOMs

SBOMs are critical to SCA so you should ensure your solution supports them. Standalone tools such as vulnerability scanners are helpful, but don't allow you to track trends in your package inventory over time.

To be useful, SBOMs should be generated in a standard format—the two main examples are CycloneDX and SPDX. Following these standards will let you easily use your SBOMs with other ecosystem tools. It will also help ensure your clients and compliance teams will be able to easily consume the SBOM and all the information it contains.

2. Automated vulnerability scans

SCA solutions should automatically surface known vulnerabilities found in your package inventory. Being able to see a list of CVEs with their respective severities gives you an immediate understanding of the threat magnitude you face. Conversely, having to switch to a separate tool to obtain this information will add friction to your processes,making it harder to coordinate an efficient response.

3. Actionable resolutions

Reports of vulnerabilities and outdated packages need to be actionable in order to be useful. You should seek SCA solutions that are able to support your efforts to prioritize and remediate issues, such as by providing immediate alerts within your developer tools and collaboration platforms.

Having the ability to update to a patched version of a package from the click of a button makes remedial work quicker and more consistent. Not having to manually search for resolution options enables you to deal with more reports in less time, while ensuring that team members who are less familiar with a particular type of issue can still apply reliable fixes when required.

4. Ability to automate within CI/CD pipelines

SCA needs to be both automated and continuous to provide complete coverage of your software inventory. Tools that only work on developer workstations or that require you to manually review their output won't give you the big picture that you need to make informed decisions and track trends over time.

Instead, you should select solutions that are capable of fully integrating with your SDLC, such as by readily supporting CI/CD pipeline-based scans. This lets you scan code for new supply chain issues as it enters your project, making it easier to apply mitigations before threats become established.

5. License compliance support

Open-source software can be taken for granted as it's so easy for developers to install new packages. But doing so could mean you face legal challenges if a package's license isn't compatible with your product's.

SCA tools should include robust license compliance capabilities that let you detect and resolve any licensing issues. You can then prove to customers that all your components have been appropriately licensed, removing any doubts they may have about whether using your software exposes them to risks.

The possibility of automated licensing mitigations is also important to consider when you’re evaluating an SCA solution. Options that can remove an affected package or suggest a replacement will let you deal with issues more efficiently, saving developer time for more productive tasks.

6. Support both code and binary scanning

SCA solutions can target multiple types of software. Code-oriented tools inspect your source code and the dependencies installed from package managers within your source repository. These are a good way of detecting issues early, before problematic packages are included in software that's shipped to customers.

However, it's important to scan your final outputs too. Analyzing binaries, for example, lets you detect which packages are actually being used—it could be that some dependencies aren't included in final builds or don't pose a threat because of the way in which they're used. Similarly, scanning container images allows you to identify every package that exists in your runtime environment, including those inherited from the container base image.

Choosing tools which can scan all your artifacts will provide the most comprehensive visibility across every threat type.

Pro tip

Agentless scanning solutions typically have quicker setup and deployment and require less maintenance. They can scan all workloads using cloud native APIs and connects to customer environments with a single org-level connector. If the approach is agent-based, this type of deployment will require ongoing agent installation, update, and maintenance effort.

Learn more

Implementing software composition analysis

SCA needs to be deeply integrated with your entire development process. This means using SCA from the earliest stages of your software lifecycle, as soon as code begins to enter your repositories. Otherwise, teams can end up dealing with a backlog of unresolvable problems when SCA is tacked on late in delivery sprints.

Embedding SCA into your build and test pipelines is the most effective way to detect package problems and vulnerabilities. Developers should then be alerted to new issues in real time, within the platforms where they're already working. Tightening the feedback loop is vital so developers will be notified of problems as soon as they enter the repository, which is when they're usually easiest to address.

SCA policies (such as license compliance and package minimum stability rules) should be enforced for all pull requests to stop potentially problematic changes from being merged into your main branch and delivered to customers. Blocking merges until all packages meet your requirements ensures your product remains continually compliant.

Finally, in order to prove that compliance, SBOMs should be generated for each build that you deploy. Storing SBOMs as artifacts alongside your releases provides auditable information that can be presented to customers during sales procurement discussions, or regulators in a potential investigation.

In summary, SCA should be instant, continual, and automated. SCA informs dependency-driven risk assessments for your software projects and provides actionable feedback to developers and security teams. This requires SCA to be adopted from day one, applied universally across your projects, and enforced so problematic supply chain changes can't be deployed until resolved.

SCA best practices

You can follow these best practices as a guide when implementing SCA within your software delivery processes:

  • Tighten SCA feedback loops: SCA must run quickly and deliver immediate feedback to developers. This improves efficiency and will increase developer satisfaction.

  • Consider developer requirements: Ensure developers are satisfied with your SCA solution and the level of detail it provides. Tools which can explain the context surrounding how a package is used could deliver more valuable insights to developers, for example.

  • Ensure reports are actionable: SCA provides a catalog of your inventory, but that catalog can still be hard to process when thousands of packages are involved. SCA reports should therefore be filtered down to meaningful data that can actually be actioned. This prevents your teams becoming overwhelmed by noise.

  • Regularly review SCA policies: Keep your SCA policies under regular review to identify improvement opportunities and respond to changes in your processes. For example, using new languages, tools, and deployment systems could require a different SCA approach.

  • Maintain complete SCA coverage: Obtaining the greatest amount of protection from SCA depends on complete, continual coverage. This could be compromised if developers create new projects without setting up SCA tooling, or start using programming languages that aren't supported by your current solution. Platforms which can automatically discover and scan your project inventory are one way to mitigate this risk.

Keeping these points in mind will equip you to successfully use SCA to minimize the number of third-party package issues you encounter.

Summary

In this article, we've explored software composition analysis (SCA) and how it can help secure your software supply chain. SCA gives you visibility into the dependencies your app relies on, including any version issues, vulnerabilities, and license compliance problems within.

But with the huge variety of SCA tools and techniques available, it's important to select a solution that will give you comprehensive coverage of all the software artifacts you produce. The best solutions will also support you in resolving problems by offering automated mitigation options, allowing developers to spend more time on meaningful work.

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