SAST and SCA: Choosing the best tools to keep your data and apps safe

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Modern applications are getting bigger and more complex and therefore need to use more and more sophisticated tools to keep them safe.

Developers and security experts have relied on two major categories of tools to protect their applications and data from intruders. The first is Static Application Security Testing (SAST) and the second is Software Composition Analysis (SCA). These two types of tools serve different purposes: SAST for testing internally developed code and SCA for managing imported open source components. Ideally, application makers would use both to cover both of these areas for potential security flaws, but as we’ll see, that was much easier said than done until recently.

SAST is an established approach to security, with dozens of tools to choose from on the market. It scans the application’s source code or byte code for known software vulnerabilities – defects that could allow an attacker to gain access. These tools automatically cover all possible paths and events that an application could be in and can discover bugs that developers weren’t even aware of, in addition to the bugs they were looking for.

However, SAST tools have some drawbacks. They have a reputation for being slow, generating false positives and being impractical to use. Ultimately, their creators will have had to compromise between how long it takes to run a test, how complete the test is, and the number of false positives deemed acceptable. Of course, none of these trade-offs are desirable, but historically, application developers had to choose at least one.

Dependencies also need attention

Where SCA comes in handy is to help mitigate risks that lie outside the developer’s source code. The recent Log4Shell vulnerability brought to the fore the potential impact of attacks on third-party and open source software packages used as the underlying building blocks under proprietary applications.

Modern software applications can depend on hundreds of open source packages, which are described as dependencies. Therefore, these dependencies depend on other open source packages, which the developers may not even know about, called transitive dependencies. Open source packages are available for thousands of operations and tasks that developers would otherwise have to code for themselves: and there is no point in reinventing the wheel. So it should come as no surprise that 98% of applications will contain open source software, and more than 75% of the code in any given application will be open source.

Unfortunately, the accuracy and extent to which open source packages are tested for security flaws can be very variable, especially with many packages that are no longer actively maintained. Many packages have multiple variants and older versions remain active in circulation.

SCA testing specializes in this domain, scanning applications for their dependencies and transitive dependencies, and correlating this with vulnerability databases to understand where risks and security flaws have been inherited from code taken from outside the organization. Ideally, it identifies the type and severity of vulnerabilities found and advises on fixes and workarounds. SCA also helps organizations mitigate their legal risks by identifying the licenses included with packages and any responsibilities or liabilities they may entail.

Both SAST and SCA play a really important role in the software development lifecycle. By combining the two, developers can get a holistic view of their application’s security: SAST for testing your source code to find security vulnerabilities; and SCA as an application security method for managing open source components.

Unfortunately, many SCA tools, like SAST tools, have a reputation of being difficult to integrate and causing large numbers of false positives. As a result, adoption may remain low: only 38% of organizations report using open-source security controls. And combining both approaches has therefore found little favor in the development community. While their flaws may be annoying in their own right, doubling the time it takes for testing and sifting through twice as many results for false positives has whetted your appetite. But modern developments have led to the advent of new tools that remove these concerns and provide a way forward that improves both safety and speed.

What to look out for at SAST and SCA

In modern software development pipelines, which have embraced CI/CD and devops thoroughly, it is simply not an option to wait a day for the tests to be completed and then several more for the bugs to be fixed. Development teams can make hundreds of changes every day. To make this manageable, they need to be able to perform security checks on their own while coding, supported by tools that ensure they don’t suddenly have to learn to be experts in another, specialized domain.

What is needed is that SAST and SCA tools are primarily developer-friendly and adapt themselves to the workflow and tools used by the developers, rather than forcing them to consider what is needed for new tools. A DevSecOps workflow means developers do their best to ensure that code is secure as it is written, not as a separate, later step that causes delays and ensures that code is constantly passed back and forth between development and security teams.

Second, in today’s software environment, the two sets of tools, while fulfilling different purposes, share a common goal of enabling developers to take the lead in application security while creating and editing the code. Therefore, there is a significant advantage in the fact that the two tools are somehow consolidated, run concurrently, or facilitated within the same tool, in order to reduce the number of steps, reduce the learning curve and the complexity required.

Finally, the testing software must be cloud-based and the code must be optimized so that the developer is not delayed. The flexible, continuous nature of the modern world of software development requires tools that work at the same pace. The practices and tools that were common in the past, when software releases came at a much more gradual pace, are thankfully disappearing and both the quality and choice available now pay off. However, safety should not be compromised as a result, and it is therefore imperative to choose tools suitable for the purpose of the current conditions.

Daniel Berman is the product marketing director at Snyk.

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