Glossary: What is Software Composition Analysis (SCA)?

What is Software Composition Analysis (SCA)?

SCA (Software Composition Analysis) is a technology that protects applications against risks that originate from open source software. SCA solutions identify and manage vulnerabilities within open source libraries and components, to meet security and compliance requirements.

Why is SCA Security Important?

Open source components are ubiquitously used in enterprises. Integrating open source code into the enterprise codebase allows for rapid development cycles, which are vital for maintaining a competitive advantage and dealing with development talent shortage.

However, open source components can also introduce vulnerabilities into the codebase. SCA tools help identify these vulnerabilities early, allowing for remediation before deployment. This proactive approach is in line with modern cybersecurity principles, which emphasize the need for continuous monitoring and early detection of potential threats.

By integrating SCA, organizations can preemptively address security risks and license compliance issues, rather than reacting to them post-deployment—a measure that is both costly and risky. In addition, this automation allows developers to focus on what they do best—coding—while still ensuring that their products are secure and compliant.

Software Composition Analysis as Part of the Development Lifecycle

Integrating SCA tools into the development lifecycle typically involves several key steps:

  • Early Integration - Incorporating SCA tools as early as possible, ideally during the coding phase, ensures that developers receive immediate feedback on the security and compliance status of their code. Tools can be integrated directly into IDEs or through CI/CD pipelines.
  • Continuous Monitoring - Continuous monitoring of the codebase for new vulnerabilities or license issues as new components are added or updated. This requires SCA tools to be part of the CI/CD pipeline, ensuring that every build is scanned.
  • Automated Alerts and Reports - Setting up automated alerts for security vulnerabilities and license issues helps teams to promptly address problems. Detailed reports can aid in prioritization, helping teams to focus on the most critical issues first.
  • Remediation - SCA tools suggest updates or patches for vulnerable components, thus enabling developers to address potential threats proactively. 

How Does SCA Work?

Software composition analysis security tools can help identify, assess and mitigate vulnerabilities that originate from open source components. Here’s how:

1. Identification of all open source components within an application's codebase by inspecting package managers, source code, container images, binary files, the SBOM and more.. This includes direct dependencies (libraries explicitly included by developers) and transitive dependencies (libraries that are included as dependencies of other libraries). 

2. Assessing open source components for known vulnerabilities. This is typically achieved by cross-referencing the identified components against vulnerability databases like NVD (National Vulnerability Database) or other proprietary or community-driven vulnerability feeds. The tool evaluates the versions of the components used against the versions mentioned in vulnerability reports to determine exposure to known security issues.

3. Evaluating the licenses of the open source components to ensure compliance with legal and corporate policies. This involves analyzing the licenses attached to each component to identify any obligations, restrictions, or compatibility issues that could pose legal risks to the organization.

4. Suggesting updates, patches, or alternatives for the affected components, while offering guidance on mitigating risks.

5. Integrations with environments, CI/CD pipelines and version control systems. This integration allows for real-time monitoring and assessment of open source components throughout the development process, enabling immediate action when vulnerabilities or compliance issues are identified.


Both SCA tools and the SBOM are software security components. However, they serve different purposes.

SCA primarily focuses on identifying and managing open source and other third-party components used within a software application. It involves scanning the software dependencies to detect any known vulnerabilities or licensing issues associated with these components. In other words, SCA helps organizations understand the security risks posed by the software supply chain and enables them to mitigate these risks by keeping track of dependencies and applying patches or updates as necessary.

On the other hand, SBOM provides a detailed inventory of all the components and their dependencies within a software application. It offers transparency into the software supply chain by documenting the origins, versions and relationships of all the components used in building the software. SBOMs enable effective vulnerability management and incident response.

Bottom line: SCA focuses on identifying vulnerabilities and ensuring the security of third-party components and SBOM provides a comprehensive inventory of all software components, aiding in supply chain transparency and security. SCA tools can scrutinize the SBOM to pinpoint known security vulnerabilities, licensing issues and potential operational risks that might compromise the application.

SCA Benefits

Security and engineering leaders and AppSec teams can benefit from adding an SCA to their security stack. Here’s the ROI of an SCA for an enterprise:

  • Enhanced Developer Productivity - By integrating SCA tools into the development process, organizations can automate the detection of vulnerabilities and compliance issues. This allows developers to focus on their core tasks, enhancing productivity.
  • Building Trust with Customers - Demonstrating a commitment to security through practices like SCA can build trust with customers, who are increasingly concerned about the privacy and security of their data. This is particularly important in industries where security is a major buying factor.
  • Risk Management and Due Diligence - SCA provides insights into the security and maintenance practices of open source projects included in a product. This information can be used for risk assessment, helping organizations avoid dependencies on projects that are no longer actively maintained or have a history of security issues.
  • Vulnerability Management - SCA tools enable teams to address potential security issues proactively before they can be exploited by attackers.
  • License Compliance - SCA helps organizations maintain compliance with the licenses of the open source components they use. Non-compliance can lead to legal issues, including litigation and financial penalties, which can harm an organization's reputation and bottom line.
  • Supply Chain Security - As part of a broader approach to securing the software supply chain, SCA ensures that the external code an organization relies on does not become a weak link in its security posture. This helps prevent supply chain attacks that can compromise not only the organization but also its customers.

Risks and Challenges Associated with Software Composition Analysis

When implementing SCA tools, take into account the following pitfalls to avoid:

  • Look for a solution that does not overflow you with false positives.
  • Ensure your developers fix identified issues, no matter how complex or annoying.
  • Go beyond SCA and train your development team on the risks of open source. For example, the recent XZ Utils backdoor is a dangerous example that shows the risk.
  • Work with developers to integrate SCA into their workflows, so the tool can run without impacting their speed, experience and productivity.

Best Practices for SCA

Is your AppSec team ready to start securing the codebase from open source risks? Here are best practices for enhancing enterprise security through SCA:

1. Use an automated tool to scan codebases to identify open source components and their dependencies, check for known vulnerabilities and suggest patches or updates. This continuous monitoring ensures that new risks are identified promptly as they emerge.

2. Integrate SCA into the SDLC, from development, so security issues are identified before they become embedded in the final product. This early detection reduces the cost and complexity of remediation. A developer-friendly tool is key.

3. Generate an SBOM to govern your software and allow for effective SCA scanning.

4. Develop clear policies for the use of open source components within your software projects. These policies should define acceptable licenses, versions, and security standards for open source usage. Enforcing these policies through SCA tools helps maintain compliance and security standards, preventing the introduction of vulnerable components into your codebase.

5. Prioritize vulnerabilities based on their severity, exploitability and impact on your specific environment. Focus on remediation efforts for the most exploitable vulnerabilities first, leveraging SCA tools to apply patches, update components, or find safer alternatives.

6. Keep your development team informed about the latest security practices and vulnerabilities in open source components. Continuous education on secure coding practices, along with training on how to use SCA tools effectively, can significantly reduce the introduction of vulnerabilities.

7. Monitor open source licenses to avoid potential legal issues. Ensure that the use of open source components complies with their licenses, and understand the obligations these licenses may impose on your software.

8. Engage with the open source community. Reporting vulnerabilities, contributing to the development of open source projects, and staying up-to-date with community discussions can provide insights into potential security issues and their resolutions.

Checkmarx Software Composition Analysis Solution

Checkmarx mitigates open source risks for enterprises. AppSec teams that use Checkmarx benefit from:

  • Comprehensive coverage of their software
  • Highly accurate SCA results
  • Visibility into vulnerabilities and license risks in open source libraries. Checkmarx analyzes 1 million packages monthly.
  • Actionable guidance for remediation
  • Prioritized remediation based on exploitable vulnerabilities
  • 70% reduction in irrelevant findings
  • Prevention of malicious code from open source repositories incorporated into their repositories. To date, 200,000 malicious packages were identified.
  • An SBOM that catalogs all software components in applications, enhancing understanding of open source risks.
  • Scanning and analysis of private packages in artifact repositories and internal registries for comprehensive insights into dependencies and associated risks.
  • Protection against threats posed by malicious open source packages and dependencies within popular AI code generation tools, including ChatGPT.

Learn more about SCA security with Checkmarx by requesting a demo.

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