Home > Articles > Security > Software Security

Software [In]security: Comparing Apples, Oranges, and Aardvarks (or, All Static Analysis Tools Are Not Created Equal)

The market for static analysis tools is taking off. Comparing different tools, however, can be a difficult task. Security expert Gary McGraw, author of Software Security: Building Security In, discusses the tools market, the pitfalls of product comparisons, and provides his recommendation for making the best choice.
Like this article? We recommend

Since the ealiest days of ITS4 in the year 2000, static analysis tools that scan source code looking for security bugs have seen great progress, both from a market perspective and from a technical perspective. Today, because two of the leading tools have been acquired by gigantic technical juggernaut companies (Fortify by HP and Ounce Labs by IBM), we are on the cusp of even broader adoption. This is great news for software security.

As the market for these highly technical tools grows, so to does the desire to compare and contrast their performance. At first blush, comparing tools that basically "do the same thing" should be easy, right? As we describe in this article — unfortunately not.

As the Market Grows

For the last several years we have tracked the growth of the software security space in a series of articles. The latest article, describing the software security market of 2009 (topping out at $554.4 million) had this to say about static analysis tools:

    The high end of the market continues to be ever more interested in solving software security issues and not simply diagnosing them. Mitigation is a central concern, and white box analysis is essential. But the low end of the market is beginning to expand rapidly and appears to be starting out with Web app firewalls and black box testing tools. Such basic products are easy to purchase with standard IT funding and they can be put in place without much process change.

You see, source code scanning tools get to the heart of the matter by identifying actual lines in a program that lead to security vulnerability (something that makes them more difficult to use and more difficult to compare). Mitigating a security problem in an application can be much easier when you know where in the code to look. By contrast, black box tools such as web application testing tools take an outside→in approach. Though they certainly find vulnerbilites in severely broken web apps, results can be sufficiently vague about exactly where the vulnerbility lies that fixing the app remains a major challenge best left to others.

Because many organizations treat black box testing tools in many ways like a "fire and forget" technology, they allow inexperienced non-programmers to wield them. As long as they are treated like badness-ometers and not security meters, that is OK — well, it's OK until the time comes to fix the problems that they find!

We expect the middle market to adopt black box web app testing tools before it moves on to static analysis tools (note that we described this in our 2009 article). But when static analysis tools begin come of age in the middle market (something we expect to see within the next 2-3 years), we expect rapid adoption to follow. That's because early adopters today feel they've reached the height of what they can accomplish weilding black box testing tools and are busy moving their bug-finding endeavors earlier in the development lifecycle. Static analysis tools promise to help them meet this goal.

Compared to What

So, the good news is that interest is rising in static analysis tools. Better yet, security managers are moving beyond piloting these tools on a handful of high-risk applications and are now deploying them organization-wide so that developers receive feedback on their code's security more quickly. The bad news is that comparing static analysis tools proves difficult at best. Further, lessons learned in comparing and deploying penetration testing tools don't necessarily translate well to static tools. Watch out: the process of selecting and deploying a static analysis tool faces entirely different challenges than selecting and deploying a black box testing tool.

Many firms among the early adopters of code-scanning tools wasted a ton of money selecting, piloting, and implementing static analysis tools. In certain circumstances as Cigital consultants, we have watched mouths agape as certain tool vendors underestimated the cost of deployment in a large enterprise by $2.5M during the first year (this real-world number is an average over six large-scale adoption efforts). This awe-inspiring waste (both absolutely and as a percentage of tool license cost) validates the potential benefit of a project to select and deploy a tool more carefully.

So what can we do to help firms that want to use static analysis select the right tool, adopt it in as painless a manner as possible, and scale its use effectively?

Pitfalls, Puddles, and Pentagrams

There are a number of pitfalls to any tool comparison approach that are worth bearing in mind as we think about this problem. If and when you set up an experiment to compare such tools (or even when you discuss your own informal comparisons) keep these five issues front and center.

Pitfall 1: Tool A will perform dramatically differently than Tool B on the same code base, despite the fact that both A and B claim similar/identical language/rule support in a particular context. Most tools today tout the ability to detect buffer overflows in out-of-range char[] access in C++, for example. Though this is a very specific vulnerability type, different tools yield very different results. The reason for this behavior is that specifics of tool performance rely on esoteric detail such as:

  • Engine and rule implementation (often discernible through only proprietary knowledge of a particular tool).
  • Structure and style of code (only discernible through a wealth of code reviewing experience) including esoterica such as: calling convention; order of operations; depth of call chain and related block/scope issues; and, use of inheritance, polymorphism, pointers and other indirection.

Pitfall 2: Tool A will perform very differently than (the very same) Tool A over two test code bases because of the same technical criteria listed above.

Pitfall 3: The particular configuration of a tool may dramatically change performance. Configuration settings including settings for memory usage, scan parameters, and other tool-specific settings often directly impact findings.

Pitfall 4: Operator use of a given tool has overwhelming impact on that tool's performance. Sadly we have witnessed tool vendors' own staff misconfigure their tools for a scan (more than once). Because this is a slippery slope, different operators can (and do) produce result sets in which a majority of findings are added, removed, or changed by comparison to another operator's scan. This even happens to the veteran tool operators at Cigital.

Pitfall 5: Tool A's minor release N+1 may well perform dramatically differently than release N under a fixed set of criteria.

Fruit versus Aardvarks

Pitfall 1 means that high-quality comparison is extremely difficult to achieve. Pitfalls 2 and 3 mean that high-quality test set-up (even for a single tool) is extremely difficult to achieve. Pitfall 4 indicates (to us anyway) that finding qualified people to compare tools objectively and meaningfully is difficult at best. Pitfall 5 warns us that even published results may be very misleading. And, though certainly not as reliable, the always-seductive "oral tradition" among test maintainers misleads as well.

The five pitfalls collectively also imply that just about any public test criteria developed is likely both to produce very inconsistent results if implemented by different firms and to produce very inconsistent results sensitive to when in the release cycle particular static analysis tools are considered. The upshot? Use your own code instead of a pre-fab evaluation suite. You probably have the makings of a good set of tests within your own organization's application base, especially if you take into account recent historical penetration testing results.

We shouldn't really have to mention the problem of vendors "coding to the test," but we will. Vendors do, in fact, design their tools to pass particular tests with flying colors. If you did any tool bake-offs in the 2004-2006 time frame (we did a bunch), OWASP code and certain open-source packages provided particularly interesting/amusing test cases.

The Bottom Line

Seek out experience. We can toot our own Cigital horn a bit here. After all, we invented ITS4 and built the technology that became the Fortify tool once we licensed it to Kleiner-Perkins. Many of us have built static analysis in various capacities and collectively we have succeeded in helping a large number of clients select, implement, and scale their static tool initiatives. Heck, our consultants even include those who built direct tool comparisons for NIST.

Do not compare fruit and aardvarks. When selecting a tool, try to determine whether a given tool will help raise your code quality and how. Use test suites consisting of code representative of what you'll be scanning in business-as-usual implementation to answer that question.

Keep in mind that analysis capabilities that a given tool possesses represent less than half the battle. Think carefully about implementing the tools you are comparing in a production code assessment environment. "What steps must I take to find instances of Vulnerability X reliably using Tool A in my 3,000 applications?" is a much better question than "Does Tool A find problem 47?"

Take into account customization. In our experience, organizations obtain the bulk of the benefit in static analysis implementations when they mature towards customization. For instance, imagine using your static analysis tool to remind developers to use your secure-by-default web portal APIs and follow your secure coding standards as part of their nightly build feedback. (Unfortunately, the bulk of the industry's experience remains centered around implementing the base tool.) Though organizations that have reached maturity always indicate they spend more on customization and maintenance, these aspects of tool comparison almost never register in the initial selection process. Consider what expertise and effort a potential tool choice will require in years 3-5 most carefully.

We think that the notion of comparing static analysis tools is an important one. Indeed, it is something we do every day. However, proper care must be taken to get meaningful results.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020