SAST and SCA: choosing the best tools to keep your data and applications safe

SAST and SCA: choosing the best tools to keep your data and applications safe

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Modern applications are getting bigger and more complex, so they must look to ever more sophisticated tools to keep them secure.

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

SAST is a well-established security approach, with dozens of tools to choose from on the market. Scans the application’s source code or bytecode for known software vulnerabilities, flaws that could allow an attacker to gain access. These tools automatically cover all possible paths and events an app could be in and can uncover bugs developers didn’t even know about, along with the ones they were looking for.

However, SAST tools have some drawbacks. They have a reputation for being slow, generating false positives, and being difficult to use. Ultimately, its creators will have had to compromise between how long a test takes, how thorough the test is, and how many false positives are considered acceptable. Of course, neither of these trade-offs is desirable, but historically, app developers have had to choose at least one.

Dependencies also need attention

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

Modern software applications can be based on hundreds of open source packages, described as dependencies. These dependencies are also based on other open source packages, which developers may not even know about, called transitive dependencies. Open source packages are available to cover thousands of operations and tasks that developers would otherwise have to code themselves: and there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Therefore, it should not be surprising that 98% of applications contain open source software, and more than 75% of the code in a given application will be open source.

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

SCA testing specializes in this domain, analyzing applications for their dependencies and transitive dependencies, and correlating them with vulnerability databases to understand where risks and security flaws were inherited from code taken from outside the application. organization. Ideally, it will identify the type and severity of vulnerabilities found and recommend solutions and workarounds. SCA also helps organizations cover their legal risks by identifying the licenses included with the packages and any liabilities or obligations they may incur.

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

Unfortunately, however, many SCA tools, like SAST tools, have a reputation for being difficult to integrate and creating a high number of false positives. Perhaps as a result, adoption remains low, with only 38% of organizations reporting the use of open source security controls. And the combination of both approaches has therefore found very little favor in the development community. While its flaws may be annoying in themselves, doubling the time required for testing and filtering twice as many results for false positives has created little appetite. But modern developments have seen the advent of new tools that overcome these objections and offer a way forward that improves both security and speed.

What to look for in SAST and SCA

In modern software development pipelines, which have fully embraced CI/CD and mobile device development, waiting a day for testing to complete and then several more for bugs to be fixed is simply not an option. Development teams can make hundreds of changes every day. To make this manageable, they need to be able to perform security checks themselves as they code, with the power of tools that mean they don’t need to suddenly learn to also be experts in a different specialized domain.

What is required is that SAST and SCA tools be first and foremost developer-friendly, adapting to the workflow and tools used by developers, rather than forcing them to adapt to what the new tools require. A DevSecOps workflow means that developers go to great lengths to ensure code is secure as it is written, not as a separate later step that creates delays and has code continually passed back and forth between steps. development and security teams.

Second, in today’s software environment, the two toolsets, while serving different purposes, have a common goal of allowing developers to take the lead in application security as software is created and edited. code. Therefore, there is considerable benefit in the two tools being consolidated in some way, running simultaneously or facilitated within the same tool, to reduce the number of steps, lower the learning curve and complexity required.

Finally, the test software must be cloud-based and the code optimized so that it does not create delays for the developer. The agile and continuous nature of the modern world of software development requires tools that work at the same pace. Practices and tools that were historically common, when software releases came at a much more gradual pace, are thankfully disappearing and both the quality and the options available are now the payoff. However, safety cannot be jeopardized as a consequence, and therefore it is imperative to choose tools that are fit for purpose in today’s conditions.

Daniel Berman is the director of product marketing for snyk.

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