Managing Dependencies in Your Codebase: Top Tools and Best Practices

As software projects get more complex, managing dependencies becomes an increasingly critical task for developers. Dependencies, the external packages or libraries that your project relies on, can significantly impact your application's security, maintainability and compatibility. This is particularly true in the .NET ecosystem, where projects often rely on a vast array of NuGet packages.

In this article, we'll explore effective strategies for managing these dependencies, with a focus on identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities, leveraging tools such as GitHub Dependabot, and discussing other open source alternatives that can bolster your security posture.


Want more .NET? Get in-depth training at this two-day virtual seminar on June 4-5 tailored for backend developers and solution architects and taught by developer advocate and Microsoft MVP Layla Porter. Register today!

Understanding Dependency Management
Before diving into the tools and practices, it's essential to grasp what dependency management entails. Dependency management involves:

  • Identifying dependencies: Knowing what libraries or frameworks your project relies on.
  • Vulnerability tracking: Monitoring dependencies for any security vulnerabilities and addressing them promptly.

The Importance of Keeping Dependencies Updated
Regularly updating dependencies is crucial for several reasons. Primarily, it ensures your application is secure from known vulnerabilities often patched in later versions of the dependencies. Moreover, updates can bring performance improvements, new features and compatibility with newer technologies, enhancing your project's overall quality and lifespan.

One of the biggest areas where I see developers mess up is not checking to see if the dependencies in their code have security vulnerabilities open against them. This is especially true with code that hasn't been updated in several years, but is still being used in production. Security vulnerabilities in code like this could lead to intellectual property losses, data breaches and worse.

Tools for Managing Dependencies
If you use GitHub, then GitHub Dependabot is an invaluable tool that automates the monitoring and updating of dependencies -- and it's free.

Integrated directly into GitHub, Dependabot scans your project's dependency files (such as `.csproj` or `packages.config` for .NET projects) and compares the package versions you are using against the GitHub Advisory Database.  If it finds you are using a vulnerable package, it will open an alert in the repository, as shown in Figure 1. This alert gives you details of the vulnerability, as well as information on what version of the package to upgrade to in order to resolve the vulnerability.

Dependabot Alert
[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1. Dependabot Alert

Dependabot can also automatically generate pull requests to update the code to the non-vulnerable new version, and can even let you know when new versions of the package become available.

As mentioned, Dependabot is free for GitHub users. There is also a paid version available for Azure DevOps users as part of GitHub Advanced Security for Azure DevOps.

Other Open Source Tools
While Dependabot is a powerful tool for managing dependencies, several other open source tools can complement its capabilities:

  • NuGet Package Explorer: A Windows application that allows you to view the contents of NuGet packages, explore their dependencies and determine the package's compatibility with different versions of .NET. This tool is essential for manually reviewing dependencies before incorporating them into your project.
  • OWASP Dependency-Check: An open source tool that identifies project dependencies and checks if there are any known, publicly disclosed vulnerabilities. Although it requires manual setup and integration into your build process, its comprehensive database of vulnerabilities makes it a valuable tool for .NET developers.
  • Snyk: Though not entirely open source, Snyk offers a free tier and integrates well with .NET projects. It scans dependencies for vulnerabilities and provides detailed remediation guidance. Snyk can run within your CI/CD pipeline, ensuring vulnerabilities are caught early in the development cycle.

Best Practices for Dependency Management
To effectively manage your .NET project dependencies, consider the following best practices:

  • Regularly Review and Update Dependencies: Leverage tools like Dependabot to automate this process, but also allocate time for manual review, especially for major version updates that might introduce breaking changes.
  • Adopt a Security-First Mindset: Prioritize security updates and apply them as soon as possible. Use tools like OWASP Dependency-Check and Snyk to identify potential vulnerabilities and address them promptly.
  • Understand Your Dependencies: Before adding a new dependency, evaluate its necessity, license compatibility and its own dependency tree. This can prevent introducing unnecessary risks into your project.
  • Educate Your Team: Ensure that all team members understand the importance of dependency management and are familiar with the tools and practices you've adopted. This collective awareness can help maintain a secure and stable codebase.

Effective dependency management is a cornerstone of modern software development, particularly in complex ecosystems like .NET. By leveraging tools such as GitHub Dependabot and incorporating other open source solutions into your workflow, you can significantly enhance the security and maintainability of your projects.

Remember, the goal is not just to react to vulnerabilities but to proactively manage your dependencies to prevent issues from arising. With the right tools and practices, you can.

Posted by Mickey Gousset on 03/26/2024

Keep Up-to-Date with Visual Studio Live!

Email address*Country*