What is software composition analysis? (With benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 11 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Software composition analysis, sometimes abbreviated to SCA, is a way to automate visibility in open-source software to help with risk management, security improvements and licence compliance. Open-source software has grown in popularity across multiple industries, so the need to track open-source components has also grown to help protect organisations from potential vulnerabilities. Most newly created software now includes some form of open-source component, and automation makes scanning the source code much easier. In this article, we discuss what software composition analysis is, how it helps organisations, why it's important and what its benefits are.

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What is software composition analysis?

Software composition analysis is a process that promotes strong risk management for organisations that use open-source software. Using SCA allows security teams and application developers to do the following:

  • Create a precise bill of materials for applications: A bill of materials breaks down the various components found in an application, outlining things like the version of the components and their licences. It's useful for security teams and developers as it lets them understand what components exist in applications and highlights potential security or licensing risks.

  • Observe and monitor all open-source tools: Open-source software and licence management tools help organisations observe and monitor any open-source material in the source code, subcomponents and dependencies for an application. This is useful because organisations use lots of open-source software, such as third-party suppliers and open-source communities.

  • Establish policies: Open-source licence compliance is increasingly important for organisations, especially for those in development and senior leadership roles. SCA outlines the importance of policy setting to help with licence compliance and potential security risks while providing training and knowledge for the organisation.

  • Set up constant monitoring: To ensure increased productivity for an organisation, SCA helps monitor any security risks or vulnerabilities. This lets users set up alerts for any newly found vulnerabilities across all versions of the organisation's digital products.

  • Integrate source code scanning into build environments: SCA allows for open-source security integration and licensing scanning for DevOps environments. This allows for the scanning of all code to find dependencies at the build environment level.

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How does SCA help organisations?

SCA tools are becoming more popular for organisations that use software, as they ensure application security. It's a useful way of establishing an environment that focuses on discovering open-source software via code scanning, which helps detect vulnerabilities or licensing issues before they become too embedded in the infrastructure, which leads to hefty remediation costs. Moreover, automated scans help detect and fix issues without too much investment. There are a few key areas where SCA helps serve business plans, including:

  • Providing a faster, safer way to bring products to market: Around half of all coding found in applications is open source. When coupled with the idea that organisations benefit by getting their product to market first, open-source coding is pivotal for speeding up development.

  • Initiating faster, more effective innovation: Opting for open-source software saves money, makes projects more flexible and offers several freedoms that proprietary software can't offer. This means that organisations are more innovative and in control of their products and decisions, but it requires SCA to do all of this in a compliant and licenced way.

  • Mitigating unknown business risks: Most organisations are unaware of how much open-source code they use, so SCA helps to provide this information. By bringing in the right automation tools to find and remediate issues with open-source security or licensing, organisations are less exposed to these risks.

It's clear that open-source software helps organisations create new applications by offering cost savings, flexibility and overall ease of use, but this comes with certain legal obligations and security risks. By using SCA as part of a security plan, organisations are more likely to safely use open-source coding while ensuring the applications are safe for users.

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Why is SCA important?

The importance of SCA stems from its ability to provide additional levels of security, speed and reliability to applications. With so much open-source material found in applications, manual tracking is becoming much less viable. As applications grow in complexity, it takes automation and increasingly powerful SCA tools to parse through the code. This is coupled with the growing speed of application development due to various DevOps methodologies, ensuring that SCA is essential for most applications.

For example, the Agile methodology offers efficiency and flexibility while applying extra pressure to development teams. The need to create more complex applications in shorter time frames means that open-source coding is a mainstay for projects, as developers don't have the time to write new code, yet open-source code is transparent to the point where anyone may change it. This leads to risks in security vulnerabilities and licensing issues that SCA looks to solve.

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What are the benefits of SCA?

SCA provides many benefits for application developers and the organisations they work for. Below are some of the most important benefits this process provides:

Automatic open-source component tracking

Developers are responsible for effectively mitigating the risks associated with open-source coding, such as security vulnerabilities. Organisations that don't implement SCA are unaware of just how vulnerable their applications are. This leaves their software open to all types of cyber attacks, hacks and other nefarious activities.

Bringing in SCA tools helps developers automate the tracking of potential vulnerabilities in the code by adding visibility to the code itself. This includes the bill of materials function, which helps with automated inventory tracking. After a static scan analyses the code, it prints out a detailed summary that outlines key vulnerabilities or dependencies alongside affiliated licences.

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Constant vulnerability detection and monitoring

Static scanning is a good way to learn about an application from a specified period and helps to maintain a secure and safe codebase. Once an application is freely released for public consumption, though, static scanning isn't as useful because the application isn't in a safe, secure and static environment. Static applications or websites risk dormant exploitation, and active ones require consistent updates that may bring in new exploits or vulnerabilities without adequate scanning.

It isn't always suitable to roll out static checks on applications, which is why an SCA tool is so useful. It helps to provide continuous monitoring of code. Moreover, it sends out alerts when it finds a specific trigger, which helps visibility.

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Remediating vulnerabilities and prioritising them

In the past, manual vulnerability assessments were useful enough to keep applications and organisations safe from the risk of vulnerabilities, but as applications grow in complexity, there are more vulnerabilities to look out for. There's even an entirely new industry of vulnerability management to help developers regain control over these issues. Development teams are now expected to handle and remediate all vulnerabilities in various environments, including applications, websites and cloud-based platforms.

The latest SCA tools are powerful enough to perform automated vulnerability assessments across entire pipelines and applications. They help reduce false positives and even help prioritise vulnerabilities. They offer real-time alerts and ways of remediating different risks.

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Managing licence risks

A software licence is a legal document that outlines the fair usage and distribution rights for a piece of software. Almost all software enjoys protection through licensing and copyright laws. There are many different licences to take into account, and they all provide special rights. Loosely speaking, there are two categories for these licences, which are proprietary and free licences. These aim to protect all parties using the software so owners, creators and end users understand their rights.

Because today's codebase contains lots of open-source software, tracking these licences is difficult. With over 200 different licences for open-source software alone, it takes a lot of effort to use the right ones. Violating open-source software rights also comes with heavy fines, so organisations like to stay protected. SCA tools do just that by lowering the risk of not having the right licence. You may even integrate SCA across all environments to monitor source code constantly to further mitigate this risk.

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