Do Free Static Analysis Tools Actually Work?
There are many options to choose from when evaluating static analysis software: paid versions, free or community versions, and open-source software that anyone can view, use, and modify.
Free tools may sound like a bargain as you are exploring your options, but do free static analysis tools actually work for your programming needs?
Here, we discuss the benefits and limitations of free static analysis tools.
Read along or jump ahead to the section that interests you the most:
- What Is a Free Static Analysis Tool?
- What Are the Benefits of a Free Static Analysis Tool?
- What Are the Limitations of a Free Static Analysis Tool?
- Why Choose a Perforce Static Analysis Tool?
What Is a Free Static Analysis Tool?
Static Analysis is a method of debugging that automatically examines the source code without executing the program. In this way, developers can gain insights that help ensure their code base is compliant, safe, and secure. Static analysis is performed during the implementation (coding) stage, integration/build, and test phases of a Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC), shifting early detection and remediation early (left) in the lifecycle to keep your code safe and secure.
A free static analysis tool examines the source code for security vulnerabilities, quality and performance issues, and/or non-compliance with standards at little to no cost.
Static code analysis, static application security testing (SAST) and static application quality testing (SAQT) tools provide a way to analyze a project codebase against a set of coding rules to help enforce compliance to various coding standards.
Static analysis tools identify potential vulnerabilities, bugs, and poor coding practices by scanning your project codebase. Good static analysis tools do this accurately and exhaustively, while still analyzing fast enough to be run as part of your continuous integration loop.
There are several different static analysis tools available for developers, depending on their preferences, goals, and business requirements — but not all static analysis tools are developed the same. It’s important to understand how the tool works so you can determine which is right for you. If you are in a regulated industry that requires a coding standard, for example, the best static analysis tools also support those standards.
A free static analysis tool may or may not offer the programming language support, coding standards support, or best practice capabilities. They can range from simple lint-like tools to bug detection tools bundled with more advanced automated code inspection platforms.
When evaluating potential static analysis solutions, consider your requirements and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of an open-source or free static analysis tool versus a commercial one.
What Are the Benefits of a Free Static Analysis Tool?
Free static analysis tools are extremely useful for developers who want to explore how static analysis works and how they might implement in their development process and distribute it among team members.
📕 Related White Paper: Read Seize the Open Source Opportunity Through Comprehensive, Optimized Strategies, a Forrester Research Consulting Study
This one’s a no-brainer: free static analysis tools cost you nothing and open-source tools are much more cost-effective than a commercial solution (at least initially). This advantage frees you up to allocate funds elsewhere as you build a more robust development pipeline. Free tools also give you time to decide whether the extra support from a proprietary solution would benefit your company as you begin to scale up, while analyzing your code for security and quality fixes.
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Agility and Flexibility
Developers can get creative with open-source or free software and test any modifications they make to the code against their business requirements. Free software gives you the freedom to learn the ins and outs of the program and how you might distribute it across your organization, without having to commit to one company or software suite before you are ready. If you have access to the source code, as in open source, you can test the tool’s capabilities and even reverse engineer the product in your explorations — all in your own timeline.
Some free static analysis tools that are community-driven, as well as open-source static analysis tools, foster a social environment that encourages creative contributions and collaboration. You can easily interact with your peers and learn from them, as well as find top talent if you’re looking to grow your team. There is also a level of transparency in that everyone can see the new changes and implementations of the tool, and you can engage with other developers about how these changes might affect the future of the software. In some ways, having a community aspect to the tool also keeps the code secure due to multiple users looking at it all the time (however, in other ways free software comes with greater security risks, as anyone can update the code).
What Are the Limitations of a Free Static Analysis Tool?
Open-source and free static analysis tools are limited in that they tend to come with greater development risks and they are not always specific enough to your projects, depending on the static analysis techniques you require. Some techniques to static analysis provide different levels of analysis results.
A lint tool, for example, is a more basic static analyzer that checks your source code for programming and stylistic errors — and this may be all that you need to improve overall code quality. Whereas if you need more sophisticated analysis and metrics, such as cyclomatic complexity, you may need a more advanced static analysis solution.
Other limitations may include the following.
With free tools, a lot is up to you and the lack of a user-friendly interface makes some applications difficult to set up and use. Open-source tools may offer community support and can resolve issues quickly, but you don’t have the reassurance from a specific support team that a service-level agreement (SLA) brings. You are also responsible for doing manual upgrades whenever there is a new fix or version, instead of automatic or easy-to-download product upgrades and releases that have been thoroughly vetted and addressed by the proprietary software team.
With free static analysis tools, security may not be top of mind for the original developers as they are often more focused on their proprietary or commercial tools. Open-source static analysis tools have the double-edged sword of multiple developers monitoring the source code and keeping an eye on vulnerabilities, but at the same time bad actors can sneak in and modify the code for their own malicious purposes. Proprietary SAST tools — like Klocwork — follow secure coding practices and support security standards such as CWE, OWASP, CERT, and more to find and fix security issues early and prove compliance to these standards.
Code Quality, Reliability, and Compliance
Many free and open-source static analysis tools offer limited capabilities when it comes to coding standards.
For example, many open-source software tools for static analysis are limited to providing a structural analysis of the code. And without premium data-flow analysis (i.e., runtime simulation techniques like abstract interpretation, symbolic logic, and theorem proving), you won't be able to find the most interesting instances of rule violations for the important safety and security standards.
Choosing a static analysis tool that supports existing coding standards, as well as customization for your organization’s own internal standards, is key. Static analysis tools — such as Helix QAC — automatically monitor standards compliance, which reduces the amount of time you’d have to take to document it. An effective static analysis solution will quickly and thoroughly assess code complexity and check compliance to coding standards such as MISRA C/C++ before producing the supporting documentation that proves compliance and keeps your code quality high.
Free plans often place limits on how many licenses you can have distributed across your organization, or limits on lines of code. This is fine for when you are trying out the tools or need only a few developers or a limited volume of code, but as your business grows, your operations must scale to match new requirements. Static analysis solutions at the commercial level can provide you with licensing options that fit your situation. The company can work with you to easily add licenses and user-friendly features and functionalities that will accelerate steady growth.
📕 Related White Paper: What else should you consider when choosing the right Static Analysis tool for your team? Read our helpful guide.
Why Choose a Perforce Static Analysis Tool?
Free static analysis tools work, but they may not provide all the features, functionality, and level of analysis that meet your programming requirements.
Perforce static analysis solutions have been trusted for over 30 years to deliver the most accurate and precise results to mission-critical project teams across a variety of industries.
Helix QAC and Klocwork are certified for compliance with key functional safety standards such as ISO 26262, IEC 61508, EN 50128, IEC 62304 and provide coverage for important coding standards, and they deliver fewer false positives and negatives.
Experience the difference that a trusted Perforce static analysis tool can have on the quality of your software, diagnostics, workflows, and more. Sign up for a free static analyzer trial today.