Appsec Knowledge Center

6 Types Of SCA Tools To Help Improve Security

5 min.

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A modern software composition analysis (SCA) tool set should include solutions that provide third-party library resolution, SBOM generation and the detection of vulnerabilities and malware. The ability to identify licensing compliance issues and to support multiple languages is important, too, as are guided risk remediation features.

While all software Composition Analysis (SCA) tools can help discover vulnerable open source components in a codebase, some SCA software delivers a broader set of capabilities than others. As this article explains, maximizing software security with help from SCA tools requires features that go beyond basic open source vulnerability detection.

Software Composition Analysis Definition

Software Composition Analysis is a type of security assessment that detects vulnerable dependencies and licensing risks within an application’s codebase, particularly those associated with open source projects.

SCA is important because developers frequently leverage open source code to build apps – which makes sense, because borrowing or depending on open source code is more efficient than writing new code from scratch in the event that open source code is already available to implement logic that an application requires. However, open source code can contain vulnerabilities, and any vulnerabilities in an app’s open source components will impact that app as well.

SCA helps to address this risk by automatically detecting vulnerable open source components inside an application’s codebase.

SCA Software As A Key Part Of The SDLC

Importantly, SCA is only one of many security processes that should take place during the Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) to secure apps. Other key practices include Static Application Security Testing (SAST), which scans original source code and binaries for vulnerabilities, and Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), which tests applications for risks when they are deployed in a runtime environment.

However, because SCA can detect particular types of vulnerabilities – those that originate from open source components – it addresses a critical facet of software security. Any project that leverages open source code in any way should integrate SCA scans into its SDLC to ensure that developers can take advantage of open source without undercutting application security in the process.

SCA Best Practices

SCA delivers the greatest benefits when organizations adopt best practices like the following:

  • Scan source code and dependencies: Vulnerable open source code can end up inside an application or its runtime environment in two ways: Direct integration into the application’s source code or inclusion as a dependency that runs at the same time as the application. SCA scans should cover both types of risks.
  • Automate scans: SCA scans should be fully automated so that teams can detect all types of risks in an efficient way, without slowing down software delivery operations.
  • Scan every application version: Since even small changes to an application or its dependencies could introduce new vulnerabilities, it’s critical to run SCA scans whenever an application version changes.
  • Scan all packages: If developers package an application for multiple environments – for example, if they create both Windows and Linux packages of the same app – it’s possible that one package will have vulnerabilities that don’t exist in the other, due to different dependencies in each package. This makes it important to scan all packages, even if they are part of the same application version release.

6 Essential Software Composition Analysis Tool Features

Now that we’ve covered the essentials of what SCA does and how to use it, let’s discuss the crucial capabilities that a modern SCA solution should deliver.

#1. Third-party library resolution and accurate SBOM generation

To detect vulnerabilities and provide essential insight for mitigating them, SCA tools must be able to identify the dependency call tree of third-party libraries that an application’s source code references, and then generate a detailed inventory of application components based on it.

A dependency call tree represents all dependencies that are introduced when an application runs. Since some libraries may have their own dependencies, configuring an application to depend on a given library could result in the incorporation of additional dependencies beyond those that are directly referenced in an application’s dependency inventory. To cover all potential risks, SCA tools must be able to discover these indirect dependencies and include them in the Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) that they generate for the app.

#2. Known vulnerability detection

SCA tools should provide accurate detection of publicly known vulnerabilities that impact third-party libraries or other dependencies used by an application. Since attackers can easily identify these vulnerabilities by searching public databases, it’s critical to catch them before threat actors attempt to exploit them.

#3. Malware detection

In addition to reporting legitimate components of an application that are impacted by a known vulnerability, SCA software should identify suspicious packages and actual malicious packages.

For example, imagine that attackers fork an open source library and inject malicious code into it, and that developers unwittingly create a dependency based on the forked version of the library instead of the standard one. A good SCA tool would be able to detect that the application is using an unusual version of the library, alerting developers to the security risk.

#4. Licensing compliance

Software Composition Analysis tools should also be capable of detecting instances where an application uses open source code in a way that violates open source licenses.

This is important because most open source code is governed by licenses that restrict how it can be used or reused. For example, if developers modify code licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and use it within an application, they must make their modified version of the code publicly available in most cases.

However, if developers include open source code in an application without tracking which licenses govern it, they may inadvertently release or deploy the application in a way that violates the code’s licenses – leaving the organization liable for copyright infringement.

SCA tools can address this risk by identifying which open source licenses govern the code included in an application, allowing developers to understand the licensing terms they need to abide by.

#5. Multiple language support and integrations

There are hundreds of programming languages in existence, and developers can opt to write applications in any of them. For that reason, SCA software should be able to detect open source vulnerabilities across a wide variety of languages in order to maximize the versatility of the tools and the breadth of the risks they cover.

In addition, SCA tools should integrate seamlessly with a variety of development tools and environments. This also optimizes versatility and ensures that teams can address security risks no matter where or how they build their applications.

#6. Guided risk management

The best SCA tools don’t just report vulnerabilities. They also guide security engineers and developers on triaging and remediating risks.

For example, SCA tools that identify exploitable paths can help developers home in on the specific methods within their codebase that are vulnerable to exploits associated with open source code. This allows security teams to narrow down the list of risks found in their projects and focus on the ones that have the highest potential of actually being exploited. This also allows developers to fix the issue as quickly as possible. Similarly, SCA software that prioritizes vulnerabilities based on risk level can help teams determine which issues to address first.

Protecting Your Applications With Checkmarx SCA

If you’re looking for an SCA tool that checks all of the boxes above and more, consider Checkmarx SCA. Checkmarx SCA automatically scans codebases and packages of all types to uncover risks and vulnerabilities, then provides actionable alerting and remediation guidance. In addition to detecting insecure open source components that developers manually include in a codebase, Checkmarx SCA can also help identify open source vulnerabilities and malicious packages generated by AI-assisted coding tools, like ChatGPT and GitHub Copilot.

Request a demo to see Checkmarx SCA in action.


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