As the ecosystem of open source software continues to expand, it brings opportunities and threats that can pose significant challenges to corporate security infrastructure. One such threat that often gets overshadowed is the technical debt that accumulates from using outdated open source components in software development.

Outdated components are a common, invisible menace. They sometimes come loaded with known vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit. When components are not regularly updated, it becomes easy for cybercriminals to leverage these vulnerabilities, thus putting organizations at risk of data breaches, system damage, and service disruptions.

For security leaders, it’s crucial to understand and communicate with their teams the potential dangers of outdated components. The primary focus should not be merely on the awareness of these components but also on the substantial technical debt their presence introduces.

Technical debt, also known as design or code debt, is a term first coined by Ward Cunningham. It is the consequence of poor system design, software architecture, or software development within a codebase. In this context, technical debt accrues when developers postpone updating outdated components because of the immediate time and effort required. This delay creates a backlog of updates that need to be implemented, often growing into a complex problem that becomes more difficult and time-consuming to address.

However, the real challenge lies not in making developers aware of outdated components but in motivating them to update them promptly, thus preventing the build-up of technical debt. The key here is to create an environment where regular autonomous updates are part of the development process. This practice can reduce vulnerabilities, increase system stability, and improve software quality.

When it comes to open-source software, the use of outdated components is a significant contributor to technical debt. Here’s how it happens:

  • Known Vulnerabilities: Outdated components often have known vulnerabilities that have been fixed in newer versions. These vulnerabilities persist by not updating the components, creating a security risk that attackers could exploit. This situation means that the team will need to spend time addressing these vulnerabilities at some point – this is the ‘debt’ incurred.
  • Compatibility Issues: As technology evolves, outdated components can cause compatibility issues with newer technologies. These issues might not be a problem right now, but as other parts of the system evolve and rely on newer technologies, incompatibility can lead to system instability or breakdowns. Addressing these compatibility issues after they’ve caused a problem is usually more time-consuming (and thus costly) than preventing them in the first place by keeping components updated.
  • Decreased Efficiency and Productivity: Outdated components can limit the functionality and efficiency of a system, which might not fully support newer, more effective methods or standards. This limitation can lead to less efficient code, slower systems, and overall decreased productivity. Again, a ‘debt’ of time will have to be ‘paid’ to address these inefficiencies.
  • Maintenance and Support: As components become outdated, finding support for them becomes increasingly difficult. The open-source community often focuses on supporting and developing newer versions, and after a while, older versions may no longer be supported. This lack of support means that your team will have to spend more time debugging and fixing any issues that arise, a time debt that could have been avoided by updating the component.

This is why the use of outdated components is seen as contributing to technical debt. The longer the update is postponed, the more ‘interest’ accrues, leading to a larger effort required to ‘repay’ the debt.

Once an SCA (Software Composition Analysis) tool like Threatrix identifies an outdated open-source component in a codebase, the process of upgrading the component isn’t always as simple as one might expect. This task requires several steps, each of which consumes time and effort on the part of the developers. The more intricate the dependencies and the functionality, the more time is required to understand and adjust to the changes in the new version, ranging from a few hours to several days or even weeks in complex cases.

Typical steps to upgrade an outdated component:

  • Identify the Component Version: The first step is to understand which version of the component is currently being used and which version the SCA tool is recommending for the upgrade.
  • Understand the Changes: Before updating the component, developers need to familiarize themselves with the changes made in the new version. This process includes understanding new features, changes to existing features, and deprecated features or functionality.
  • Impact Analysis: Developers then need to analyze how these changes will impact the existing project. Will the new version of the component work with the other components being used? Will changes have to be made to the existing code to work with the new version?
  • Adjustment of the Codebase: Once the impact is understood, developers may need to adjust the codebase to accommodate the changes. This adjustment could include rewriting sections of code, changing how functions are called, or even redesigning parts of the software if the changes are significant.
  • Testing: The updated component and any associated changes then need to be thoroughly tested to ensure that they don’t break anything in the application. This process could involve unit testing, integration testing, performance testing, and more.
  • Deployment: Once testing is completed, the changes can be deployed. However, depending on the project’s deployment process, this could involve additional steps like code reviews, staging deployment, and more.
  • Monitoring: Even after deployment, developers need to monitor the application to ensure that the updated component is working as expected and isn’t causing any unforeseen issues.

Each of these time-consuming steps can distract developers from working on new features or other important tasks. That’s why, when faced with the prospect of upgrading an open-source component, some teams decide to postpone the upgrade, especially if the outdated component isn’t currently causing any issues. The longer the upgrade is delayed, the more time and effort it will likely take in the future, as more and more changes accumulate in the newer versions of the component.

The Solution to Open Source Technical Debt

Threatrix’s first to market policy controlled, autonomous mode allows organizations to automate open source management with minimal human intervention. Autonomous mode discovers open source components, measures applicable risk based on vulnerability profiles, determines the best fix to remediate the vulnerabilities, determines compatibility with current project code, and creates reports of all compatible components with the option to upgrade into a feature branch for further testing, before merging to remediate vulnerabilities. Autonomous mode significantly reduces the developer resources required to remediate. No tickets need to be created. Threatrix manages the entire process for your team, all while ensuring compatibility without breaking builds.

Why not just use a SAST Tool?

SCA does not tell you the likelihood that the outdated component is vulnerable to an attack. Therefore, you may be asking, why not just use a SAST tool?

A Static Application Security Testing (SAST) tool, also known as a static code analyzer, is a program that analyzes source code to detect potential security vulnerabilities. It does this by examining the code in its static state, i.e., without actually running the program or script. The primary objective of SAST tools is to identify problems early in the development cycle when they are generally cheaper and easier to fix. This early detection helps improve the overall quality of the code and can save time and resources in the later stages of development.

SAST tools examine source code, byte code, or binary code to identify coding patterns that could lead to vulnerabilities. They look for issues such as buffer overflows, injection flaws, cross-site scripting (XSS), insecure server configurations, weak encryption, and more.

However, they also come with many challenges yet to be fixed. One of the most significant issues with SAST tools is their potential to generate false positives and false negatives. False positives are when the tool flags an issue that isn’t actually a problem, while false negatives are when it fails to detect a genuine vulnerability. Both scenarios can lead to wasted time and resources. Developers might waste valuable time investigating false positives or miss crucial vulnerabilities due to false negatives.

Because they examine source code in a static state, outside the context of its runtime environment, this lack of context can limit their ability to identify vulnerabilities that only become apparent when the code is running or interacting with other systems.

They can require expertise to interpret their output correctly. They can report potential vulnerabilities that are intricate, difficult to understand, and even more challenging to resolve. This complexity may require additional training for developers and can slow down the development process.

Integrating SAST tools into the existing development pipeline can be challenging, especially for organizations following Agile or DevOps methodologies where speed and continuous delivery are crucial. DUE TO THEIR INTENSIVE ANALYSIS, some SAST tools can slow down the development process. Additionally, these tools need to be able to scale with the project as it grows, which can present further challenges.

Threatrix excels at discovering, evaluating, and remediating vulnerabilities associated with open-source components. It automates this process, reducing the need for developer resources and streamlining vulnerability management. Its ability to assess compatibility and automatically upgrade to a feature branch for further testing is a significant advantage, especially in terms of efficiency and reducing potential disruptions to the development process. The system verifies compatibility with your project code, ensuring it won’t disrupt your builds.

Our autonomous mode eliminates significant manual labor in vulnerability remediation. It even prepares reports on compatible components and provides the option to upgrade to a feature branch for further assessment before merging.

Threatrix offers a hands-off, efficient approach to managing your open-source security, reducing the demand on your developer resources while maintaining system integrity.