What is Software Composition Analysis (SCA)? Benefits, Best Practices, and Required Tools

Today, the creation of modern software integrates custom code, open-source software, and third-party components. This tendency has skyrocketed due to its flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and abundance of resources and tools. According to Market Splash, 80% of companies are using open-source software. However, the reliance on external code poses challenges for organizations in terms of visibility of all software components, their vulnerabilities, and legal issues.

The understanding of what goes into your software is essential for keeping it secure. Because of this, software composition analysis (SCA) has emerged as an indispensable process for enterprises. This article answers the “what is SCA” question, explains how it works, and discusses its common benefits and best practices to ensure its effectiveness.

What is Software Composition Analysis (SCA)? Benefits, Best Practices, and Required Tools

What is software composition analysis (SCA)?

Software composition analysis (SCA) is an automated process that tracks and analyses open-source software (OSS) components within a codebase. Its primary goal is to assess the status of OSS components, determining whether they are up-to-date, contain security vulnerabilities, or have specific licensing requirements. To achieve this, this process relies on inventory, analysis, and control procedures and is used throughout the entire software development lifecycle (SDLC).

The SCA process detects various issues, including:

  • Known security vulnerabilities;
  • License compliance issues;
  • Security misconfigurations;
  • Dependency risks;
  • Outdated or end-of-life OSS components;
  • Data exposure components (e.g., hard-coded credentials);
  • Cryptographic vulnerabilities (e.g., weak algorithms).

Besides ensuring external code security, SCA also emphasizes adherence to open-source license limitations and obligations. Manual tracking of these obligations can be cumbersome and may lead to overlooked vulnerabilities within the code. So the use of an SCA solution enables companies to secure the software supply chain by ensuring transparency, identifying risks, and licence compliance with open-source components.

Furthermore, early and continuous SCA testing empowers developers and security teams to enhance the quality of their applications, boosting productivity without compromising on security standards.

How does software composition analysis work?

As we said, software composition analysis (SCA) is a crucial application security process for managing risks associated with open-source software components. But how does it work? SCA operates through specialized tools, which are implemented in SDLC to ensure code security, quality, and compliance from the outset.

Let’s delve into the process of the SCA operation step-by-step:

  • Scanning: SCA tools run scans on the codebase to identify all third-party components, libraries, and every direct and indirect dependency. This also includes libraries, frameworks, modules, and other components used within a project;
  • Building an inventory: following the scanning process, the SCA tool generates an inventory or Software Bill of Materials (SBOM), listing all open-source software components, such as component versions, licensing agreements, and patch statuses;
  • Vulnerability scanning: the components listed in SBOM compare against various public and private databases, such as the National Vulnerability Database (NVD), checking for common and known vulnerabilities, licensing data, and other potential risks;
  • Risk assessment: SCA tools generate a risk assessment report based on vulnerability scanning and license analysis. This report highlights any detected security flaws, licensing issues, or other risks and prioritizes them per their threat level. Next, SCA tools offer recommendations on how to fix the uncovered issues and critical defects.

For example, an organization that needs to establish a comprehensive security and compliance plan can use SCA to achieve baseline license compliance and to identify security vulnerabilities. As the code is further developed, teams can use SCA to maintain this license compliance and ensure consistent security.

Why is SCA crucial for organizations? 

Since almost every application uses open-source components to a certain extent, SCA testing is necessary to ensure a final product is reliable, secure, and compliant. When OSS usage issues are not discovered, they can result in security threats, financial losses, legal issues, and reputational damage. Moreover, with the rising popularity of cloud-native and complex apps, SCA tools have become indispensable for meeting security and speed development. 

Lastly, the most heartbreaking problem companies face year to year is cyberattacks on OOS components. According to a report by the Synopsys Cybersecurity Research Center (CyRC) from 2024, many industries are exposed to a growing number of high-risk open-source vulnerabilities. Take a look at some of them: 

  • Computer hardware had 88% of high-risk vulnerabilities;
  • Manufacturing and robotics had 87%;
  • Big Data, AI, BI, and Machine Learning had 66%;
  • Automotive, transportation, and logistics had 33%.

Moreover, codebases with high-risk open-source security flaws increased from 48% to 74% between 2022 and 2023. These numbers show the growth of cybercrime and the need for organizations to implement effective cybersecurity measures to overcome possible OSS attacks. The SCA process refers to such a solution. 

Benefits of software composition analysis

Other reasons why organizations need to carry out open-source software composition analysis are:

  • Identify security risks: by scanning the software composition, organizations can uncover flaws and weaknesses that may exist in third-party libraries or dependencies, thereby mitigating the risk of potential security breaches;
  • Early detection of vulnerabilities: SCA detects security risks before software deployment, enabling QA teams to fix issues before they go live and influence a product;
  • License compliance: by using SCA, organizations are able to identify the licenses of all the components in use, allowing them to meet legal requirements;
  • Improved software quality: SCA can help organizations identify and fix issues early on during development, resulting in improved overall quality and reliability of the ongoing software product;
  • Enhanced team productivity: SCA automates a range of processes and frees developers from manual tasks. As a result, developers worry less about potential OSS incidents and may focus on more core development tasks.

However, SCA also has some challenges and limitations that organizations need to consider.

Common challenges of the SCA process

There are several challenges associated with integrating SCA, such as:

  • Limited scope: SCA only identifies risks in open-source components, not in custom (original) code. To ensure comprehensive security testing, teams should complement SCA with tools designed for analyzing proprietary code, such as SAST, DAST, or RASP;
  • Dependency management: keeping track of dependencies, versions, licenses, and security flaws can be challenging, especially in dynamic software environments where updates and changes occur frequently;
  • Potential lack of visibility: SCA relies on software bills of material (which include all external components), but incomplete SBOMs and nested dependencies can obscure security holes, making them challenging to detect;
  • Vendor lock-in: organizations that depend on a specific vendor’s tools or services for SCA needs are limited in their ability to easily migrate to alternative solutions, which can result in increased costs, limited innovation, and reduced flexibility;
  • Maintain development speed: traditional security checks may slow development or be bypassed, setting the additional (resource-intensive) stage for a DevSecOps approach to embedding security seamlessly;
  • Lack of standardization: a lack of standardized practices and tools within an organization can hinder the consistency and effectiveness of SCA efforts, leading to security gaps;
  • False positives and negatives results: SCA tools may sometimes occasionally generate false positives (incorrectly flagging vulnerabilities) or false negatives (missed vulnerabilities). A false positive leads to unnecessary work, while a false negative leads to unaddressed security risks.

Addressing these challenges requires a combination of technological solutions, best practices, and tools to prioritize software security during development. To help companies cope with it, let’s look at the best practices of SCA leveraging for success.

Best practices of (SCA) software composition analysis

Even with a top-notch software composition analysis tool, achieving a high level of security may remain elusive without a solid understanding of how to leverage the SCA process effectively. Here are some of the best practices of SCA to pay attention to:

Create accurate SBOMs

As a software bill of material provides detailed information about the components and dependencies used in software applications, it is a cornerstone of the effective SCA process. By creating accurate SBOMs, organizations can more effectively assess potential security and license compliance issues.

To create accurate SBOMs, organizations must meticulously document all software components and their dependencies during software development. They should regularly update and maintain these inventories to reflect any changes to their software stack. Also, organizations should adopt automated tools and processes for creating and managing SBOMs to eliminate human error and ensure completeness and accuracy.

Integrate SCA into the CI/CD process

Companies need to integrate SCA tools into their CI/CD pipeline as early as possible to automate, identify, and fix vulnerabilities promptly during development. This minimizes security risks and ensures compliance with licensing requirements. It also helps development teams maintain an up-to-date SBOM to track changes and dependencies efficiently.

Automate scanning and identify actionable fixes

Regularly scan your codebase using automated SCA tools. These scans should go beyond mere detection of vulnerabilities and offer actionable recommendations for fixing identified vulnerabilities. The automation ensures consistent coverage as well as timely identification of any issues that arise.

Understand dependencies

There are two types of dependencies in open-source packages: direct and transitive. A direct dependency is a package you include in your own project, while a transitive (indirect) dependency refers to a package used by one of your direct dependencies – they are often overlooked. 

Usually, a large part of vulnerabilities in open-source packages exist in transitive dependencies that companies don’t even know about. If a direct dependency introduces a vulnerability, it can propagate to all its transitive dependencies. As a result, identifying the root cause of vulnerability becomes more difficult. To overcome this and guarantee an effective SCA process, companies should choose an SCA tool that accurately inspects all the dependencies in code and examines transitive dependencies as well.

Adopt continuous monitoring

Today, periodic and manual checks may not keep up with the dynamic nature of software dependencies. Besides own code, there are many third-party components in software that are frequently updated. So the adoption of continuous monitoring helps organizations benefit from real-time insights about software security. It will enable them to detect new security flaws or changes in existing ones immediately. 

Create a remediation plan for vulnerabilities

Identifying security concerns through SCA is only the beginning of the process; the real challenge is to take action to remediate the vulnerabilities found. This is where a vulnerability remediation plan becomes indispensable. This plan should outline the steps required to mitigate each vulnerability and prioritize them based on severity and impact. Also, it should include assigning responsibilities to the appropriate team members and setting deadlines for implementing fixes. 

With a well-defined remediation plan, organizations can systematically and quickly address security issues. Moreover, rapid vulnerability response minimizes opportunities for the growth of cyber threats.

Ensure license compliance

Tracking open-source code is important for application security, but tracking open-source licenses is crucial for compliance. Licenses define the legal terms of usage for open-source packages. Organizations can use SCA tools to adhere to the licenses associated with these components to avoid legal issues and potential violations.

To achieve license compliance, organizations should first establish a clear understanding of the licenses governing the open-source components. This includes identifying the types of licenses (e.g., permissive, copyleft) and their specific terms and obligations. Next, organizations should implement processes and tools for tracking and managing licenses and monitoring their updates during development. 

Select developer-friendly SCA tools

Developers need efficient tools that seamlessly integrate into their workflow to maintain productivity. An SCA tool should be easy to set up, use, and integrate with existing development tools like version control and IDEs. When developers are made aware of the benefits of SCA, they will adopt it more readily, saving time and preventing the need for code rewrites down the road.

Choose effective tools

Having the appropriate tools is crucial to effectively implementing SCA. Organizations should carefully evaluate many factors before making a choice. In a nutshell, effective tools should be able to accurately scan and analyze the entire codebase. They should provide comprehensive vulnerability and license compliance information, along with actionable insights for remediation. They must be capable of managing complex dependencies and seamlessly integrating into the existing security infrastructure. However, that’s not all.

How to choose the most appropriate SCA tools

As we said above, when choosing the right SCA tools, you must consider various factors to ensure they meet business needs and fit into your software development process. So, the most appropriate SCA tools should provide you with: 

  • License compliance management;
  • Deliver minimal false positives (incorrectly flagged vulnerabilities) and false negatives (missed vulnerabilities);
  • CI/CD integration;
  • Integration with the development ecosystem;
  • Automated policy governance;
  • Language and package manager support;
  • Transitive dependencies reporting;
  • Support both code and binary scanning;
  • Detailed reporting/remediation;
  • Access to regularly updated vulnerability databases.

Thus, well-chosen SCA tools can help organizations increase their security posture and reduce potential risks related to external code. Now, let’s look at some of the best options available in the market.

The best software composition analysis tools

Here are a few of the most prominent SCA tools to integrate into your workflows:

  • Mend.io (ex-WhiteSource): it offers a versatile application security testing suite that includes SCA, Static Application Security Testing (SAST), and extra features. This enterprise-grade platform easily handles many apps and developers;
  • Snyk: it offers advanced vulnerability detection and remediation capabilities for open-source components. It provides real-time alerts and actionable insights into vulnerabilities, security risks, and licensing issues;
  • Black Duck: it, now part of Synopsys, provides robust SCA solutions for managing open-source risks. It offers vulnerability detection, license compliance, and code snippet analysis capabilities;
  • Qwiet AI: it relies on AI, and it offers vulnerability scanning for open-source packages and libraries. It helps prioritize which vulnerabilities to address first;
  • CAST Highlight: it combines SCA with other code quality metrics, providing detailed reports and analytics and making it easy to track progress and identify areas for improvement;
  • Veracode: it helps organizations identify and mitigate security risks posed by open-source components. It offers automated SCA scanning, detailed dependency analysis, and vulnerability remediation capabilities;
  • SOOS SCA + DAST: it provides both SCA and Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) capabilities. It offers SCA scans for vulnerabilities and automated analysis.

Before you choose among them, keep in mind your specific needs, workflow, and development environment. This list does not cover all the beneficial SCA solutions available, so explore the market for the best options.

The future of software composition analysis: conclusion 

While SCA software composition analysis was initially used to perform manual and periodic scans, today, it is an essential process throughout the software development lifecycle. Some factors have contributed to this shift, including the widespread use of OSS components, the rise of cybersecurity threats, and evolving changes in privacy and security app regulations.

Given these reasons, SCA has become even more essential for application security related to external code. Moreover, newer and more advanced SCA tools have emerged with the evolution of software development. They eliminate security risks and legal issues associated with using open-source packages, giving developers the freedom to build software with external code. Ultimately answering “what is SCA?” and its future, it is and will be a cornerstone for secure and resilient software.

Want to stay updated on the latest tech news?

Sign up for our monthly blog newsletter in the form below.

Softteco Logo Footer