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Software composition analysis (SCA): A beginner's guide

Software composition analysis (SCA): A beginner's guide

In modern software development, applications are rarely built from scratch. Development teams extensively rely upon open source software components to accelerate development and foster innovation in software supply chains.

However, each software dependency introduces potential risks, including security vulnerabilities, licensing complications, and quality issues. Many dependencies even have their own transitive dependencies, which can obscure the original sources of risk.

Organizations leveraging these components take on responsibility for code their teams did not write. Managing the risks associated with open source software is crucial and can be effectively handled through software composition analysis (SCA).

What is software composition analysis (SCA)?

SCA is an ongoing and thorough review of the open source components, dependencies, and license requirements embedded in a particular piece of software or across a software supply chain. Essentially, SCA scrutinizes all the components within a project to assess and manage the potential risks they pose.

A variety of tools, designed to identify and mitigate risks in your applications, conduct this analysis. These tools, which can be automated, monitor components throughout the entire software development life cycle (SDLC), covering every phase from development to deployment.

This comprehensive approach allows for early detection of issues, facilitating more secure and compliant software development practices.

How do SCA tools work?

SCA tools are designed to automate and streamline the process of identifying and managing external libraries and dependencies.

They begin by taking an application and identifying all the dependencies and third-party components within it. This identification typically results in the production of a software bill of materials (SBOM), which is conducted through one of three primary methods:

  • Manifest scanning: This method utilizes the application's build manifest files, such as package-lock.json for JavaScript projects, ideal for applications yet to be built or for those managed through source control.

  • Binary scanning: Here, the tool examines the build artifacts using binary fingerprinting, identifying open source components that are included in the final build, thereby reducing false positives and capturing non-standard third-party additions.

  • Combined approach: Advanced tools, like those as part of the Sonatype platform, employ a combination of manifest and binary scanning to achieve more accurate and comprehensive results.

Once an SBOM is created, it is scrutinized against both public and private databases to check for security vulnerabilities, licensing issues, and other potential risks.

Core functionality and advanced capabilities of SCA tools

An SCA tool assembles a list of vulnerabilities, license details, and other relevant metadata. An organization can then align this information with governance policies to prioritize issues based on the threat they pose.

Ideally, an SCA tool also offers remediation guidance and continuously updated SBOMs.

In terms of core functionalities, an SCA tool offers the following:

  • Dependency tracking: SCA tools automatically detect all external libraries and dependencies a project uses, providing essential information such as version details and licensing statuses.

  • Security vulnerability identification: Leveraging the information from dependency tracking, SCA tools report on known security issues within each component, connecting these issues to public databases that track vulnerabilities.

  • License compliance: These tools scan dependencies to ensure compliance with software licenses, helping organizations avoid legal pitfalls and maintain intellectual property standards.

  • Quality assessment: SCA tools evaluate software quality, checking for API breakages and compliance with external standards, ensuring the components meet the required quality benchmarks.

Beyond basic analysis, some SCA tools offer the following advanced features:

  • Integration with development environments: Tools integrate directly into development environments, providing developers with real-time alerts and guidance, which facilitates immediate responses to potential risks.

  • Automation and policy management: SCA tools automate scans at various SDLC stages and enforce compliance with organizational policies, ensuring continuous adherence to security and legal standards.

  • Detailed reporting and analytics: Offering comprehensive insights, these tools generate detailed reports on security, compliance, and quality metrics, aiding in informed decision-making.

Benefits of SCA tools

The automated nature of SCA tools allows development teams to produce higher-quality code more rapidly while adopting a proactive stance towards risk management.

By identifying and addressing risks early in the SDLC, these tools help organizations Shift Left — moving security considerations earlier in the development process. This proactive approach not only secures the software but also enhances development efficiency by minimizing the need for later-stage corrections.

How does SCA fit into your software supply chain?

SCA is fundamentally about analyzing an application's components — whether binary, source, or both — to identify and assess their inherent risks.

Its effectiveness hinges on timely detection and response. Integrating SCA tools early in the SDLC, especially directly into an integrated development environment (IDE), allows immediate addressing of risks from new dependencies.

From coding to deployment, changes in the dependency structure may alter the relevance of identified problems. Quick decision-making is crucial when issues arise, requiring either upgrades or alternative solutions depending on the challenges presented by each option.

Choosing the right SCA tool

Selecting the right SCA tool is an important decision that requires a nuanced understanding of your application's needs.

SCA tools vary greatly in capability — from basic detection to advanced scanning and integration. Important considerations include:

  • Scope of analysis: Ensure the tool comprehensively covers all programming languages and platforms used in your projects.

  • Data quality and tool scope: The effectiveness of an SCA tool also depends on the quality of data it can access and its scanning capabilities.

  • Policy management: Effective integration of SCA tools requires mechanisms that consistently manage results and enforce organizational policies throughout the SDLC.

Choosing an SCA tool goes beyond feature comparison. It's about how well a tool fits with your SDLC processes, adapts to various development stages, and minimizes false positives and negatives — factors that greatly influence development efficiency and application security.

Sonatype: A better way to SCA

By identifying and managing risks, ensuring compliance, and upholding software quality, SCA is indispensable for safeguarding applications throughout their development and deployment.

Sonatype Lifecycle elevates SCA by providing comprehensive tools that integrate seamlessly into your SDLC. With Sonatype Lifecycle, development teams can effectively manage open-source risks through advanced detection, integration options, and sophisticated policy management.

With a proactive Shift Left approach, Sonatype Lifecycle offers detailed analytics and continuous updates to SBOMs, keeping teams informed about vulnerabilities and compliance issues. This allows for early vulnerability detection and resolution, enhancing software security and development efficiency.

By integrating Sonatype Lifecycle into your SDLC, you ensure safer, more efficient, and reliable software development, meeting today's technological challenges and securing user trust.

Picture of Aaron Linskens

Written by Aaron Linskens

Aaron is a technical writer on Sonatype's Marketing team. He works at a crossroads of technical writing, developer advocacy, software development, and open source. He aims to get developers and non-technical collaborators to work well together via experimentation, feedback, and iteration so they can build the right software.