Introduction to Software Composition Analysis and How to Select an SCA Tool

April 17, 2024  |  Alex Vakulov

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Software code is constantly growing and becoming more complex, and there is a worrying trend: an increasing number of open-source components are vulnerable to attacks. A notable instance was the Apache Log4j library vulnerability, which posed serious security risks. And this is not an isolated incident.

Using open-source software necessitates thorough Software Composition Analysis (SCA) to identify these security threats. Organizations must integrate SCA tools into their development workflows while also being mindful of their limitations.

Why SCA Is Important

Open-source components have become crucial to software development across various industries. They are fundamental to the construction of modern applications, with estimates suggesting that up to 96% of the total code bases contain open-source elements. Assembling applications from diverse open-source blocks presents a challenge, necessitating robust protection strategies to manage and mitigate risks effectively.

Software Composition Analysis is the process of identifying and verifying the security of components within software, especially open-source ones. It enables development teams to efficiently track, analyze, and manage any open-source element integrated into their projects. SCA tools identify all related components, including libraries and their direct and indirect dependencies. They also detect software licenses, outdated dependencies, vulnerabilities, and potential exploits. Through scanning, SCA creates a comprehensive inventory of a project's software assets, offering a full view of the software composition for better security and compliance management.

Although SCA tools have been available for quite some time, the recent open-source usage surge has cemented their importance in application security. Modern software development methodologies, such as DevSecOps, emphasize the need for SCA solutions for developers. The role of security officers is to guide and assist developers in maintaining security across the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC), ensuring that SCA becomes an integral part of creating secure software.

Objectives and Tasks of SCA Tools

Software Composition Analysis broadly refers to security methodologies and tools designed to scan applications, typically during development, to identify vulnerabilities and software license issues. For effective management of open-source components and associated risks, SCA solutions help navigate several tasks:

1) Increasing Transparency

A developer might incorporate various open-source packages into their code, which in turn may depend on additional open-source packages unknown to the developer. These indirect dependencies can extend several levels deep, complicating the understanding of exactly which open-source code the application uses.

Reports indicate that 86% of vulnerabilities in node.js projects stem from transitive (indirect) dependencies, with similar statistics in the Java and Python ecosystems. This suggests that most security vulnerabilities in applications often originate from open-source code that developers might not even be aware of.

For cloud applications, open-source components in container images can also pose transparency challenges, requiring identification and vulnerability scanning. While the abstraction containers offer to programmers is beneficial for development, it simultaneously poses a security risk, as it can obscure the details of the underlying components.

2) Grasping the Logic of Dependencies

Accurately identifying dependencies - and the vulnerabilities they introduce - demands a comprehensive understanding of each ecosystem's unique handling of them. It is crucial for an SCA solution to recognize these nuances and avoid generating false positives.

3) Prioritizing Vulnerabilities

Due to the limited resources at the disposal of developers and security professionals, prioritizing vulnerabilities becomes a significant challenge without the required data and knowledge. While the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) offers a method for assessing vulnerabilities, its shortcomings make it somewhat challenging to apply effectively. The main issues with CVSS stem from the variance in environments, including how they are operated, designed, and put together. Additionally, CVSS scores do not consider the age of a vulnerability or its involvement in exploit chains, further complicating their usage.

4) Building an Updated, Unified Vulnerability Database

A vast array of analytical data on vulnerabilities is spread out over numerous sources, including national databases, online forums, and specialized security publications. However, there is often a delay in updating these sources with the latest vulnerability information. This delay in reporting can be critically detrimental. SCA tools help address this issue by aggregating and centralizing vulnerability data from a wide range of sources.

5) Speeding Up Secure Software Development

Before the code progresses in the release process, it must undergo a security review. If the services tasked with checking for vulnerabilities do not do so swiftly, this can slow down the entire process. The use of AI test automation tools offers a solution to this issue. They enable the synchronization of development and vulnerability scanning processes, preventing unforeseen delays.

The challenges mentioned above have spurred the development of the DevSecOps concept and the "Shift Left" approach, which places the responsibility for security directly on development teams. Guided by this principle, SCA solutions enable the verification of the security of open-source components early in the development process, ensuring that security considerations are integrated from the outset.

Important Aspects of Choosing and Using SCA Tools

Software Composition Analysis systems have been in existence for over a decade. However, the increasing reliance on open-source code and the evolving nature of application assembly, which now involves numerous components, have led to the introduction of various types of solutions. SCA solutions range from open-source scanners to specialized commercial tools, as well as comprehensive application security platforms. Additionally, some software development and maintenance solutions now include basic SCA features.

When selecting an SCA system, it is helpful to evaluate the following capabilities and parameters:

● Developer-Centric Convenience

Gone are the days when security teams would simply pass a list of vulnerabilities to developers to address. DevSecOps mandates a greater level of security responsibility on developers, but this shift will not be effective if the tools at their disposal are counterproductive. An SCA tool that is challenging to use or integrate will hardly be beneficial. Therefore, when selecting an SCA tool, make sure it can:

- Be intuitive and straightforward to set up and use

- Easily integrate with existing workflows

- Automatically offer practical recommendations for addressing issues

● Harmonizing Integration in the Ecosystem

An SCA tool's effectiveness is diminished if it cannot accommodate the programming languages used to develop your applications or fit seamlessly into your development environment. While some SCA solutions might offer comprehensive language support, they might lack, for example, a plugin for Jenkins, which would allow for the straightforward inclusion of application security testing within the build process or modules for the Integrated Development Environment (IDE).

● Examining Dependencies

Since many vulnerabilities are tied to dependencies, whose exploitation can often only be speculated, it is important when assessing an SCA tool to verify that it can accurately understand all the application's dependencies. This ensures those in charge have a comprehensive view of the security landscape. It would be good if your SCA tool could also provide a visualization of dependencies to understand the structure and risks better.

● Identifying Vulnerabilities

An SCA tool's ability to identify vulnerabilities in open-source packages crucially depends on the quality of the security data it uses. This is the main area where SCA tools differ significantly. Some tools may rely exclusively on publicly available databases, while others aggregate data from multiple proprietary sources into a continuously updated and enriched database, employing advanced analytical processes. Even then, nuances in the database's quality and the accuracy and comprehensiveness of its intelligence can vary, impacting the tool's effectiveness.

● Prioritizing Vulnerabilities

SCA tools find hundreds or thousands of vulnerabilities, a volume that can swiftly become unmanageable for a team. Given that it is practically unfeasible to fix every single vulnerability, it is vital to strategize which fixes will yield the most significant benefit. A poor prioritization mechanism, particularly one that leads to an SCA tool frequently triggering false positives, can create unnecessary friction and diminish developers' trust in the process.

● Fixing Vulnerabilities

Some SCA tools not only detect vulnerabilities but also proceed to the logical next step of patching them. The range of these patching capabilities can differ significantly from one tool to another, and this variability extends to the recommendations provided. It is one matter to suggest upgrading to a version that resolves a specific vulnerability; it is quite another to determine the minimal update path to prevent disruptions. For example, some tools might automatically generate a patch request when a new vulnerability with a recommended fix is identified, showcasing the advanced and proactive features that differentiate these tools in their approach to securing applications.

● Executing Oversight and Direction

It is essential to choose an SCA tool that offers the controls necessary for managing the use of open-source code within your applications effectively. The ideal SCA tool should come equipped with policies that allow for detailed fine-tuning, enabling you to granularly define and automatically apply your organization's specific security and compliance standards.

● Reports  

Tracking various open-source packages over time, including their licenses, serves important purposes for different stakeholders. Security teams, for example, may want to evaluate the effectiveness of SCA processes by monitoring the number and remediation of identified vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, legal departments might focus on compiling an inventory of all dependencies and licenses to ensure the organization's adherence to compliance and regulatory requirements. Your selected SCA tool should be capable of providing flexible and detailed reporting to cater to the diverse needs of stakeholders.

● Automation and Scalability

Manual tasks associated with SCA processes often become increasingly challenging in larger development environments. Automating tasks like adding new projects and users for testing or scanning new builds within CI/CD pipelines not only enhances efficiency but also helps avoid conflicts with existing workflows. Modern SCA tools should use machine learning for improved accuracy and data quality.

Another critical factor to consider is the availability of a robust API, which enables deeper integration. Moreover, the potential for interaction with related systems, such as Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) and Security Information and Event Management (SIEM), in accessing information on security incidents, is also noteworthy.

● Application Component Management

Modern applications consist of numerous components, each requiring scanning and protection. A modern SCA tool should be able to scan container images for vulnerabilities and seamlessly integrate into the workflows, tools, and systems used for building, testing, and running these images. Advanced solutions may also offer remedies for identified flaws in containers.

Conclusion

Every organization has unique requirements influenced by factors like technology stack, use case, budget, and security priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for Software Composition Analysis. However, by carefully evaluating the features, capabilities, and integration options of various SCA tools, organizations can select a solution that best aligns with their specific needs and enhances their overall security posture. The chosen SCA tool should accurately identify all open-source components, along with their associated vulnerabilities and licenses.

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