Software Composition Analysis: What, Why and How

software composition analysis
Written by Gilad David Maayan

Here’s what you need to know about Software Composition Analysis now

In today’s development environment, visibility into open source components is critical. Open source components are an inseparable part of most software projects, so finding and remediating vulnerabilities is key.

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) solutions provide the needed visibility to keep track of all the open source components in your code. Advanced SCA solutions take on the Whack-a-Mole battle with an automated and continuous approach that enables quick vulnerability detection and remediation.


Here’s what you need to know about software composition analysis and some of this technology’s most useful benefits.

What Is Software Composition Analysis

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is the process of providing visibility into open source inventory. SCA solutions may vary in functionality, but retain the core goal of providing visibility.

Basic SCA tools offer open source management controls, while others can analyze every aspect of the code—proprietary, third-party commercial and open source—offer insights into security vulnerabilities and licensing, and allow organizations to apply security management policies.

Gaining Open Source Visibility

SCA tools can help you discover and track all open source components in your code. The tools allow you to create a Bill of Materials (BOM)—an open source inventory report containing a detailed list of the open source components in your code.

Advanced SCA tools offer enhanced BOM functionalities, such as:

  • Information of all dependencies and affiliated licenses
  • Automated open source management

Why Is Open Source Visibility Important?

During the late 1970s, software became a valuable commodity. Companies started to form around software and register source code as propriety. However, not everyone agreed with this development. Programmers like Richard M. Stallman had gotten used to having access to the source code, modifying it to suit the needs of the users.

Stallman became an activist in the free/open source software movement (FOSSM), working towards obtaining software usage freedoms. In 1983, Stallman announced the creation of the GNU—a free open source operating system and its collection of software. Soon thereafter, open source usage rose in availability and popularity.

Nowadays, open source components can be found in many proprietary software programs. Unfortunately, while open source provide certain freedoms and contributes towards faster deployment, it has a negative side. The accessible nature of open source also makes it vulnerable to attacks, and the number of vulnerabilities found in open source components continues to rise.

The first step towards securing your code is gaining visibility. You can use software composition analysis tools to scan the code, identify open source components, detect vulnerabilities, and initiate remediation responses. The SCA is especially important when you’re using third-party suppliers. Instead of relying on the supplier’s word, you can use SCA to keep an eye on the code.

Advanced Software Composition Analysis Capabilities and Functionalities

Not all SCA tools are made alike. While all offer some form of open source visibility, the capabilities of the tools can vary greatly from one SCA solution to another. The section above covered the basic level of visibility—the BOM. The following capabilities are offered by advanced models of SCA, and may not be found in all SCA solutions.

License Risk Management

SCA tools may offer the following functionalities for the purpose of lowering risks associated with licenses and compliance:

  • Integrate open source code scanning into your environments
  • Discover and track all open source licenses, manually or automatically
  • Set up automatic policies based on pre-approved white lists and blacklists

Why Is License Risk Management Important?

In 1989, the first version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) was released. The purpose of the GPL was to regulate and restrict how the open source code was used. The GPL ensures that open source code usage is clearly defined to all parties involved, locking contributors and users in a legally binding agreement.

As open source usage became popular, more open source components were made available by companies and individuals alike. Today, there are more than 200 different open source licenses, each stipulating different usage rights and restrictions.

Open Source License Non-compliance Risks

Noncompliance with open source licensing may result in one or all of the following consequences:

  • A cease distribution clause may force you to stop distributing your product until all parties involved resolve the compliance issue.
  • Loss of brand authority once users, customers, and colleagues learn of the noncompliance issues.
  • Wasted resources such as the manpower required to fix the issue and convey messages and explanations to a large number of customers.
  • Loss of rights over any proprietary source code that may contain the open source components in question.
  • Refactoring code to resolve license compliance issues.

Open Source Security—Vulnerability Detection and Remediation

The Forrester Wave™: Software Composition Analysis, Q2 2019 report offers insights derived from the evaluation of current SCA providers. The report advises SCA customers to choose SCA tools that provide proactive remediation in addition to Vulnerability Detection.

The following SCA capabilities cover vulnerability detection:

  • Continuous monitoring—advanced SCA solutions can continuously monitor for security and vulnerability issues and send alerts based on pre-configured triggers.
  • Prioritizing vulnerabilities—reduce false positives of open source vulnerability alerts by prioritizing alerts according to effective functionalities and real-time data.

The following SCA capabilities cover vulnerability remediation:

  • Full trace analysis that maps the path to the vulnerability
  • Remediation insights based on known fix solutions
  • Automatic remediation action tasks for new and known vulnerabilities

Why Is Open Source Security Important?

While the purpose of open source is to give developers more freedom of usage, essentially making their life easier, the negative side of open source is its exploitability.

According to The State of open source Security Report 2019, there has been an 88% increase in application library vulnerabilities over the past two years. Each vulnerability may cause a different sort of havoc—from data breaches and thefts, ransomware attacks, and compromised docker images that can grant attackers root access.

As evidenced by any major security breaches of the past decade, one vulnerability is more than enough to damage and possibly destroy affected parties. Private users may find their personal data held for ransom, their private and professional lives at risk if they can’t provide the ransom. Companies may find trade secrets aired publicly, damaging the reputation of the company and business continuity.

How Can Software Composition Analysis Work For You?

Advanced Software Composition Analysis solutions can take care of the bulk of open source analysis and security tasks for you. With automated continuous monitoring, analysis, and remediation actions and policies in place, you can rest assured that your open source components are under strict control.

For aNewDomain, I’m Giles David Maayan.