Software Composition Analysis Explained

Software Composition Analysis
Software Composition Analysis

Open source code is everywhere, and it needs to be managed to mitigate security risks. 

Developers are tasked with creating engaging and reliable applications faster than ever. To achieve this, they rely heavily on open source code to quickly add functionality to their proprietary software. With open source code making up an estimated 60-80% of proprietary applications’ code bases, managing it has become critical to reducing an organization’s security risk. 

Software Composition Analysis tools help manage open source use.

What is software composition analysis?

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is a segment of the application security testing (AST) tool market that deals with managing open source component use. SCA tools perform automated scans of an application’s code base, including related artifacts such as containers and registries, to identify all open source components, their license compliance data, and any security vulnerabilities. In addition to providing visibility into open source use, some SCA tools also help fix open source vulnerabilities through prioritization and auto remediation.


SCA tools typically start with a scan to generate an inventory report of all the open source components in your products, including all direct and transitive dependencies. Having a detailed inventory of all your open source components is the foundation of managing your open source use. After all, you can’t secure or ensure compliance of a component you don’t know you’re using.

License Compliance

Once all open source components have been identified, SCA tools provide information on each component. This includes details about a component’s open source license, attribution requirements, and whether that license is compatible with your organization’s policies.

Security Vulnerabilities

One of the main functions of Software Composition Analysis tools is to identify open source components with known vulnerabilities. Good SCA solutions will not only tell you what open source libraries have known vulnerabilities, they will also tell you whether your code calls the affected library and suggest a fix when applicable. The solution should also identify open source libraries in your code base that need to be updated or patched.

Advanced SCA Features

Advanced SCA features include automatic policy enforcement by cross referencing every open source component found in your code with organizational policies, triggering different responses from initiating an automated approval workflow to failing the build.

Leading SCA solutions automate the entire process of open source selection, approval, and tracking. Some are even able to alert developers about vulnerabilities in a component before a pull request is made and the component enters the system. This saves developers precious time and increases their accuracy. 

The evolution of software composition analysis

In the very early days, around 2002, the first open source manual scanner was released. Despite greater visibility into organizations’ code bases, this early technology resulted in a high rate of false positives, which required manual intervention to resolve and didn’t meet the needs of agile development environments. 

The Evolution of Software Composition Analysis

By 2011, the technology had improved and within a few years was capable of automatically detecting vulnerabilities and licensing issues in real time. This enabled software and security teams to shift left their open source management. At the same time, SCA solutions were also being integrated with software development tools like repositories, build tools, package managers, and CI servers, which put the power of open source management and security in developers’ hands. Despite these advancements, SCA was still heavily focused on detection. 

Detection Is Not Enough

As open source use continues to proliferate, the number of known open source vulnerabilities has also increased. When you take into account the volume of alerts developers and security professionals deal with daily, it all starts to become noise.

Focusing solely on detection is only the first step. It does not help organizations reduce their risk. Detection without remedy is an incomplete application security model. 

So how do you forge ahead? In 10 Things to Get Right for Successful DevSecOps, Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald, said “Perfect security is impossible. Zero risk is impossible. We must bring continuous risk and trust-based assessment and prioritization of application vulnerabilities to DevSecOps.” 

To address today’s threat landscape, you don’t need to strive for perfection, but you do need to keep moving forward. To do so, organizations must adopt a mature SCA security model that includes prioritization and remediation on top of detection so developers and security professionals can focus on what really matters.

Reducing Enterprise Application Security Risks: More Work Needs to Be Done

Prioritization and Remediation

SCA solutions are now bridging the gap between detection and remediation. 

Prioritization. A mature software composition analysis tool should include technologies that prioritize open source vulnerabilities. By automatically identifying the security vulnerabilities that present the biggest risk, organizations are able to address these priorities first. Developers and security professionals don’t waste their time and resources sifting through pages of alerts trying to determine what vulnerabilities are the most important, possibly leaving highly exploitable vulnerabilities running in a production system.

the mature Software Composition Analysis security model

Remediation. After prioritization comes remediation. Remediating vulnerabilities automatically goes beyond just showing developers where the vulnerability is located to actually suggesting a fix and providing data on how likely the fix will impact a build. Automated remediation workflows can be initiated based on security vulnerability policies triggered by vulnerability detection, vulnerability severity, CVSS score, or when a new version is released. One of the most reliable risk mitigation strategies is to keep your open source components continuously patched to avoid being exposed to known vulnerabilities. A good SCA solution helps you achieve this.

Advanced SCA tools – including repo, browser, and IDE integrations – seamlessly integrate into the software development life cycle (SDLC) to resolve vulnerabilities early when they are easier and cheaper to fix.

Software Composition Analysis requirements

The Forrester Software Composition Analysis Wave gives organizations looking for an SCA tool tips on how to choose the right vendor. We’d like to add to this list.

Comprehensive Database

The database is the heart of any SCA solution. The more comprehensive the database, aggregating data from multiple sources, the better it is at identifying open source components and security vulnerabilities. Without a comprehensive, continuously updated database, you would be unable to detect the right versions of open source components to update licenses, remediate security vulnerabilities, and apply updates and patches. The open source community is highly decentralized. Because there is no one centralized source of information on updates or patches, you rely on the database for everything.

Broad Language Support

An SCA solution should support not only the languages you are currently using but any language you might be considering using within the next year or two. You wouldn’t want to implement an SCA solution only to find it doesn’t support the language of your newest project a year from now. Plan ahead, and choose a solution with broad language support.

Extensive Reporting

From inventory, licensing, attribution, and due diligence reports to vulnerabilities and high severity bug reports, you need a solution that offers a wide range of reporting tools tailored to every use case, including management, legal, security, DevOps and DevSecOps.

Robust Policies

Choose a solution with automated policies that are robust yet highly flexible and customizable so you can define your organization’s own unique needs. Policies that automate the process of open source selection, approval, tracking, and remediation save developers time and greatly increase their accuracy. 

Vulnerability Prioritization and Remediation

As discussed earlier, you need a solution that prioritizes security vulnerabilities and offers remediation advice. The more you automate, the easier it will be to resolve the most critical issues first without slowing down development. 

Dual Governance and Developer Focus

SCA solutions fall into two broad categories:

  • Governance solutions, used by management, security, DevOps, and legal teams, provide full visibility and control across an organization’s software portfolio. 
  • Developer tools help developers avoid vulnerable open source components before a pull is made and fix any vulnerabilities detected in their code via tools integrated with native development environments.

The best SCA solutions offer both governance and developer tools. This guarantees that everyone gets the tools they need, when and where they need them.

Integration with DevOps Pipeline

Choose an SCA solution that integrates seamlessly with a wide range of developer environments at every stage of the SDLC – repositories, build tools, package managers, and CI servers – so developers can decide whether they can or should use an open source component before a pull request is made.


Container and Kubernetes use is widespread, yet security remains a challenge. Select an SCA solution that scans open source components from inside your containerized environments, identifying vulnerabilities or compliance issues and automatically enforcing policies. Also make sure the solution has native support for your specific container registry.

Why SCA should be part of your application security portfolio

Open source components have become the main building block in software applications across all verticals. Yet despite the heavy reliance on open source, too many organizations are lax about ensuring that their open source components meet basic security standards and are compliant with licensing requirements.

Securing your application in today’s complex digital world is a challenge. With the right Software Composition Analysis solution, you’re one step closer to mitigating your open source risk.

See our additional guides on key open source topics

Together with our content partners, we have authored in-depth guides on several other topics that can also be useful as you explore the world of open source.

Package Managers

Open Source Licenses

Software Bill of Materials

Open Source Security

Open Source Vulnerabilities

Vulnerability Remediation

Vulnerability Scanner

Meet The Author

Adam Murray

Adam Murray is a content writer at Mend. He began his career in corporate communications and PR, in London and New York, before moving to Tel Aviv. He’s spent the last ten years working with tech companies like Amdocs, Gilat Satellite Systems, Allot Communications, and Sisense. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature. When he’s not spending time with his wife and son, he’s preoccupied with his beloved football team, Tottenham Hotspur.

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