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Static Analysis Tools: All You Need to Know

Application security is finally beginning to hit the mainstream, and organizations are beginning to see the benefit and need of securing their applications, both internal and external. With so many facets to AppSec, it can be hard to know where to start, especially when trying to build a program from scratch.


So many tools, best and common practices, policies to adhere to – there’s a lot to do when it comes to securing your applications and organization. So you can imagine why automation has been a godsend when it comes to staying up to speed with today’s fast lifecycles. Newbies to AppSec – meet security static analysis tools. You guys may become best friends. Here’s all you need to know about static analysis when it comes to helping secure your apps.



What Is Static Analysis?

Static analysis, or static code analysis, is a technique for analyzing code that doesn’t execute the program, and is used to detect quality and security issues before the software is released.


Looking at code line by line, static analysis tools search for weaknesses or bugs that could lead to vulnerabilities, when discussing static analysis from an application security perspective. When it’s used for finding security vulnerabilities only, static code analysis is also referred to as Static Application Security Testing, or SAST.


The fact that static analysis in testing, sometimes referred to as “linting,” doesn’t actually execute the code is what differentiates it from dynamic methods, where the code needs to be executed to be analyzed. Because they’re not actually executing the program, static analysis tools can be used early on in the SDLC, as opposed to dynamic tools, which can only be used in a runtime environment. With that level of flexibility, static analysis tools can be used at any point while code is being developed and again before an application is released.



Why Use Static Analysis Tools?

The importance of static analysis is in the fact that we’re human, and humans make mistakes. Automated machines with fine-tuned rules? They’re known to make fewer mistakes.


When it comes to software to be sold and used by the masses, “good enough” security just doesn’t cut it. Especially with 90% of the attacks aimed at the application layer, as Gartner states. Ensuring you’ve weeded out the riskiest vulnerabilities requires a tool that can find issues in the source code, the blueprint of your application or software. While manual inspection is still an important part of application security, it’s best to start with the automated tool and use manpower to more thoroughly review risky code and sensitive areas of the application to ensure they’re secure.


In addition to the automation, the major benefit of static analysis is that it can be implemented as early in the SDLC as you have code to scan, giving teams more time to fix the issues discovered by the tool. The beauty of static analysis is that it will point out the exact line of code that’s been found to be problematic, whereas dynamic tools don’t offer nearly the same detail.


The ultimate goal of application security is to ensure your organization is delivering secure and reliable software. Static analysis is an important part of that process, as it validates the security of the code within the application, reporting back to developers and the security team on issues that may need to be fixed before deployment.


Learn more about the advantages of using Source Code Analysis in our 5 Key Benefits of a Source Code Analysis Tool.


Different Types of Static Analysis Tools

In terms of static analysis used for detecting security issues, there are two main categories:

  1. Source Code Analysis tools analyze source code and reports on possible vulnerabilities, detailing where issues are directly in the code. Because of their ability to scan uncompiled code and code fragments, source code analysis is best used throughout the SDLC. (Read more about the benefits of Source Code Analysis here.)
  2. Binary Code Analysis, which analyzes binaries, requires the code to be compiled before analysis can be completed. While this removes compilation issues such as resolving code symbols, it pushes testing to the late stages of the SDLC. Because the code has to be compiled before being scanned, binary code analysis is best saved for third-party code when the source code is unavailable.



Considerations for Choosing a Static Analysis Tool:


  • Understand what pain points and needs your tool will address

Selecting your static analysis tool requires a strong understanding of your own needs, such as what kinds of software you’re creating, what languages they’re being written in, how your developers work and what your SDLC looks like currently.


Why, exactly, are you in the market for a static analysis tool? What’s your development process like? Is it able to adopt another tool into the lifecycle? Being able to answer these tough questions will give you great insight into the type of static analysis tool will best fit your environment.


Once you’ve come up with your needs, the next step is to determine which of the tools will work best for your environment and pain points.



  • Choose a tool or tools that can be easily adopted by developers

One of the most important factors when looking at static analysis tools is to determine which of the tools will be likely to be adopted by developers, and in the shortest amount of time. Implementing static analysis is an undertaking, and it’s crucial that those using it the most, which in the majority or organizations will be the development team – will indeed use it. Make sure it’s compatible with your existing processes and tools, including your build repositories, IDE, bug trackers, etc. Developers will better respond to a tool that’s tightly integrated to their existing workflow.



  • Remember to choose a tool that fits your environment and speed

With agile and DevOps methodologies speeding up the SDLC, another important consideration is picking a tool that fits your speed. A static analysis tool that takes days, even hours to produce findings is not going to work out in a DevOps organization. Likewise for tools with hard to understand reports – they’re not going to be read if they’re not easy to read. Pick a tool that’s going to be able to grow with your environment and its needs.


Once you’ve decided on a static analysis tool, what other considerations should you be taking into account? Read more in our Guide to Choosing a SAST Tool


Five Best Practices for Using your Static Analysis Tool:

  • Take the time to fine-tune your tool and workflows

Static analysis tools are powerful machines – if properly tuned to your environment and processes. It’s essential to invest the time when first implementing the tool to customize and tweak rules to fit your codebase and workflow. Do thorough training for developers to learn not only how to use the tool, but the workflow around fixing the vulnerabilities bug. A strong initial setup and buy-in from the tools’ stakeholders (from management to the development team) is the best indication of long-term success.



  • Prioritize your vulnerabilities according to risk analysis

You’re not always going to be able to fix all the issues found immediately – but they will need to be fixed eventually. Triage the riskiest and most exploitable issues and have a system in place for scoring issues based on exploitability and sensitivity.



  • Use the tool as a way of learning from and teaching about mistakes in your code

The new generation of static analysis tools offer high-level and in-depth reporting, allowing organizations to deep-dive into the tool’s findings. It’s recommended to use that information to education your developers based on the most common and severe security issues in your own applications. Not only will developers learn about relevant security lessons they can take back to their desk, they’ll also be improving the overall security posture by reducing the number of the security issues you’ve indicated.



  • Recruit your AppSec champion to gather feedback on the tool, how it’s used, and what improvements can be made

If you’re not a newbie to introducing application security into your organization, you’ve probably recruited a developer with an interest in security to be your AppSec champion. If not – it’s time to find one (or two)! It’s a great way to start to break up some of the tension that may exist between developers and security professionals and get feedback on how security processes – and tools – are being adopted, how well they’re liked, and how they can be improved. Invite your AppSec champion to coffee or a local OWASP meetup and listen to their insights.


Remember: the developers are essentially the key to the success of your static analysis tool. If they’re not using the tool, it’s become shelfware, and you’re not likely to bring it back to life within your organization. You can even recruit your AppSec champion to help evaluate the tool, seeing how it fits into their workflow and how user-friendly it is.



  • Use the tool as a way of enforcing secure code practices

Another plus of static analysis tools is the ability to enforce your own secure coding practices by configuring your tool to check for any rules you’d like. Doing so will allow a more uniform codebase among all your developers, while helping teach them secure coding practices at the same time.

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