How to perform software composition analysis?

Eilon Elhadad
Nov 30 · 8 min read

Application security is paramount in the era of massive, distributed, cloud-native workloads. Attackers can exploit a minor vulnerability and leverage it to break into your systems and steal your data and resources. The most common way for attackers to do this is to use open source code and libraries. Attackers can plant password-stealers and crypto-miners inside open source code and exploit these vulnerabilities to cause lasting damage in the long term. To avoid these attacks, organizations need to be more vigilant.

The traditional methods to employ security go out the window when the workloads offer such massive attack surfaces to the attackers, especially when most of the code is made of open source components and code. Most of the open source libraries that developers use are never updated or revisited after their implementation.

Older libraries can be vulnerable and easy pickings for attackers. Specific versions of trusted libraries may be tampered with, leading an organization to a world of trouble. So, how do you ensure your open source code doesn’t become a gateway for attackers?

What is software composition analysis?

Software composition analysis is an umbrella term for different methodologies using which open source components involved in developing a product can be scanned for vulnerabilities and exploits. Most of the applications today use a significant amount of open source code to deliver new releases quickly. However, open source components aren’t the best in terms of security.

SCA tools help analyze your entire code-base to gather information about all the open source components and their dependencies. These tools help you manage your open source code efficiently and quickly by letting you take action on the most critical vulnerabilities and notifying you if you need to update or patch your open-source libraries. 

In the age of DevSecOps, where developers are required to focus on security and developing new releases at a lightning-fast speed, analyzing pages of open source code and the myriad of libraries and dependencies associated with that code can be too much work. SCA tools help alleviate the stress from your DevOps teams so they can focus on more critical tasks. 

SCA tools start by scanning your entire codebase and creating an elaborate and detailed Bill of materials (BOM). This BOM consists of all the information about every OS component involved in your build. This whole process, being automated and thorough, helps keep your DevOps teams focused on their tasks since they don’t have to do any manual work.

Once the BOM is created with all the information about open source components, legal compliance, version information, and other relevant information, SCA tools can look for vulnerabilities in the open-source binaries or libraries leveraging extensive vulnerability databases. 

SCA tools can also enforce legal compliance by comparing open source components with security policies set by an organization and ensuring there aren’t any exploits. SCA tools come with monitoring features that alert security teams about vulnerabilities in real-time so they can take appropriate action to avoid a breach.

Mature SCA tools can even help prioritize vulnerabilities in your open source code, so you don’t miss any serious ones. Some solutions can even remediate these vulnerabilities by updating the libraries or applying patches to open source components in projects under development or production. 

Why do you need an SCA tool?

Today, organizations are expected to deliver products and new releases at the speed of light. With DevSecOps, teams are not siloed anymore, and everyone is working together to provide an efficient product. However, security is more critical now than ever. And even though organizations try to eliminate risks by chalking out their own best practices and enforcing security via multiple methods, there is still an ever-looming fear of attacks. And, if we’ve learned anything from the recent Equifax data breach that shook up the tech world, it’s that attacks can come from anywhere, even your open source code.

With the advent of DevSecOps, development, and operations teams must constantly imbue security into their builds. But, in today’s competitive market, teams don’t have the time to develop new releases continuously and quickly and worry about security. 

Most of the application code today is open source. This is because developing everything from scratch is highly time-consuming and creates snowflake services that don’t work well with other services. Developers look for open source code because it is tried and tested by a vast community, and it’s easy to find support when they run into an issue. Implementing open source code and libraries is also extremely easy as plenty of documentation is available on forums online.

However, the most significant advantage of open source code is also its biggest detriment. The code that is available to everyone is also available to attackers. Attackers don’t have to spend time attacking your infrastructure from the outside if they can sneak in through the back door. By tampering with popular releases of open source code and libraries, they can enter your infrastructure without you knowing and can siphon off resources and data. 

This is pretty easy to pull off since open source components used in an application are rarely ever revisited or updated once the product is released. Most organization don’t update their open source libraries or binaries because it is usually tedious and manual work. Teams don’t have the time to sift through endless lines of code to identify malicious pieces of code. This is why you need an SCA tool. SCA tools take charge where your teams simply can’t.

These tools actively check your codebase to identify all the open source components used in your application. SCA tools provide ample information about these components, so you know where they come from and their license compliance status. In addition, they can identify vulnerabilities and their severity by cross-referencing the bill of materials (BOM) inventory with vulnerability databases. These vulnerabilities are prioritized based on their threat level and remediated appropriately with minimal to no manual intervention. 

5 considerations to evaluate an SCA tool

There are a bunch of tools available in the market that help you perform SCA. However, you should be clear about what you need and look for a solution that does just that without compromising anywhere. You can evaluate SCA tools on the following bases.

1. Ease of use

The tool you choose should be easy to use. Developers should not have to understand a complicated tool that will work against them and not for them. This is a significant factor when choosing the right tool for your organization. An ideal SCA solution will be efficient and flexible and help developers focus on their build rather than manually intervene at each step.

SCA software should also integrate easily with the existing workflows and tools like Git and Jira to not stay siloed. DevOps teams should be able to rely on the tool to provide actionable insights into their workloads’ open source packages and their license so that any vulnerabilities and licensing issues are resolved at the earliest.

2. Vulnerability analysis

The solution you choose should be able to perform efficient vulnerability analysis. Tools vary in how they achieve this analysis based on what vulnerability database they reference to identify vulnerabilities. Just relying on public databases like the National Vulnerability Database is not enough. Private vulnerability databases get updated with hundreds of vulnerabilities every year. An ideal tool should pool together data from various sources and keep updating this data frequently to ensure most vulnerabilities don’t go unnoticed

Another essential part of the vulnerability analysis is the analysis of dependencies. This is where you should be very cautious because not all tools will perform dependency analysis, and most won’t be very accurate. Dependencies can be tricky because you might not know what third-party, open source packages your libraries are referencing. The tool you go for should perform deep dependency analysis to ensure all the direct and transitive dependencies are uncovered. This approach will help ensure even tighter security since attackers won’t just leave the code where you can easily find it.

3. Prioritization

Once you start scanning your codebase to identify vulnerabilities, you will be burdened with an ocean of vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities will all be of different severity. So, how do you ensure which one to address first? Prioritization helps with that by collecting metrics related to the vulnerabilities from comprehensive vulnerability databases.

These metrics will help identify if a vulnerability poses an actual threat to the application or not. An ideal tool should inform you whether or not the vulnerability is reachable or if it’s part of mission-critical workloads. At scale, manually prioritizing issues can take up hours of work. An ideal tool would do so automatically and put the spotlight on the ones that need immediate attention. 

4. Remediation

Developers may not have enough time to deal with all the critical vulnerabilities and focus on their build tasks. Tools that automate remediation are beneficial for developers when they are short on time. These tools can identify what needs to be done, eliminate risk and provide actionable steps to the developers to carry it all out. You should make sure you go for a tool that offers comprehensive information about eliminating vulnerabilities and provides automated remediation workflows. 

5. Automated policy governance

Different teams have different policies on licenses and vulnerabilities. Some might want to allow specific vulnerabilities by flagging them, while others might want to deny a particular package version and license. However, going through all the vulnerabilities and deciding which ones to allow which ones to deny can take a lot of time and effort. You should opt for SCA tools that come with automated policy engines. These tools will allow teams to filter vulnerabilities based on their policies to ensure teams aren’t disrupted by additional manual work. 

Wrapping up

SCA tools are incredibly vital for modern applications due to their reliance on open source components. Organizations should ensure SCA is a part of their SDLC from the very beginning to avoid vulnerabilities at every step of the development process. One such tool you should be considering is Argon. Argon manages your open source components and eliminates vulnerabilities with minimal human intervention. Try it out.

Eilon Elhadad
Nov 30 · 8 min read

Related Articles

The Complete Guide to SBOM (Software Bill of Materials)

Developers using third-party and community-built products is routine practice with vulnerabilities stemming…

Eran Orzel
Jan 27 · 9 min read

The Complete API Security Checklist

Developing modern applications can be highly complex due to several disparate services…

Eyal Katz
Jan 10 · 6 min read

Log4j Targeted Cyberattacks: Reducing Open-Source Risks

On December 9th, the Log4Shell vulnerability (CVE-2021-44228) was published in a GitHub repository and made public….

Eran Orzel
Jan 03 · 3 min read

End-to-End CI/CD Security Platform

open source vulnerability scanner
Our next, exciting chapter. Argon is now an Aqua company
Our next, exciting chapter. Argon is now an Aqua company