Vulnerability scans are the process of examining and scrutinizing a piece of digital infrastructure — software or hardware — in order to locate and identify security flaws and weaknesses. They are an essential part of running a vulnerability management strategy and improve your chances of securing your system from breaches, leaks, malware, and unauthorized access.
They are oftentimes performed using either automated or manual scanning tools. The vulnerability scanner would then proceed to test every segment of the system looking for potential vulnerabilities, usually by attempting to communicate with ports, devices, and applications to see which ones respond.
Continue reading to learn more about how you can conduct a vulnerability scan effectively.
Learn about 8 Types of Vulnerability Scanning Tools.
1. Determining the Scope of the Scan
Start by identifying which segment or segments of your system you want to perform a vulnerability scan on. This should include all the locations where your most sensitive data is stored and can be accessed through, for the best results.
Generally, the scope of a vulnerability scan and assessment should include all IT assets that connect to your system and can be, hypothetically, accessed remotely.
The larger the scope, the longer and more complex the scan would be. However, it would provide a comprehensive insight into your system’s state of security and how effective your security solutions have been so far.
2. Pick a Vulnerability Scanner
Vulnerability scans, whether manual or automated, need to be performed by a trustworthy and accurate scanning tool. Additionally, the scanner should be able to work and detect vulnerabilities within the desired scope of your scan.
Available scanners range in price from completely free open-source solutions to proprietary tools provided by high-end cyber and network security companies. Note that it should also be compatible with the technical skills of your IT department.
3. Setting the Parameters of the Scan
Depending on the scanner, you can configure the tool to scan for specific types and degrees of vulnerabilities.
This ensures the scanner includes in the report all vulnerabilities that fall under your security and privacy standards, instead of the industry average parameters some scanners usually follow.
4. Analyzing the Results
Vulnerability scanning tools come pre-built with reporting tools that can be adjusted and tweaked in order to highlight the most important results. It’s also important to note that the scan reports oftentimes differ depending on the tools in use, as well as the parameter set beforehand.
Still, it’s best to export the results into CVSS format and perform further analysis using a dedicated tool. The more thorough you are with analyzing the report, the more underlying vulnerabilities you’re likely to find.
If this is the first scan in a long time, consider prioritizing the results of the report by factors of risk and severity. That should reduce the risk of urgent vulnerabilities getting lost in a sea of less urgent vulnerabilities.
5. Treating the Vulnerabilities
Vulnerability scanners don’t simply announce the existence of a vulnerability in a specific port, device, or application. They also provide highly crucial and detailed information about the vulnerability and how the tool was able to detect it.
Using this information, the remediation process can be greatly simplified and performed more quickly than attempting to blindly fix individual vulnerabilities.
6. Rinse and Repeat
The only way to know for sure that you’ve repaired the vulnerabilities detected by the scanner is by conducting a second scan for the same assets until no vulnerabilities are returned in the report.
It’s important to schedule vulnerability scans and conduct them regularly so you don’t let vulnerabilities accumulate. Not only does it give hackers a bigger opportunity to try and exploit them, but the remediation process is time and resource-intensive, as well.
How Often Should You Do a Vulnerability Scan?
Vulnerability scans aren’t a one-time procedure that you can check off your to-do list for good. They require regular efforts as the results begin to diminish gradually after every performed scan.
There’s no one right answer as to when you should perform a vulnerability scan. The frequency differs greatly depending on the size of the infrastructure you’re looking to test, its vulnerability to attacks, and how often changes occur that may open up new vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit.
More isn’t always better. However, you should plan to conduct vulnerability scans at least quarterly for high-sensitivity systems and annually for less at-risk systems.
For instance, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) recommends a quarterly scan, while some cybersecurity certifications can require scans to be performed as often as every week, depending on the auditors and providers of the compliance certificates.
“Organizations must begin assessing their networks, identifying vulnerabilities and misconfigurations that put their data at risk and remediating them before they are spotted by attackers and exploited maliciously,” says Christian Espinosa, Founder of Alpine Security and member of the Forbes Technology Council.
“Today all enterprises are agile, so new vulnerabilities can be introduced into networks every day. To fully reap the benefits of vulnerability assessments, organizations should run them continuously to identify and mitigate new risks before they have the chance to cause harm,” adds Espinosa.
Top Vulnerability Scanning Tools
Unlike penetration tests, vulnerability scans don’t require the direct involvement of an ethical hacker to attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities of your system. There are countless tools on the market that offer a wide variety of features including advanced scans and reporting capabilities.
Some of the leading vulnerability scanning tools on the market include:
Nmap is a free-to-use and open-source network scanner created in 1997 by Gordon Lyon. It’s one of the leading tools used in checking for vulnerabilities in ports and network mapping.
Using the numerous libraries compatible with Nmap, it commences a vulnerability scan by attempting to communicate with the network’s hosts, services, and ports by sending out IP packets. It interprets the responses it gets and uses them to determine whether the access point is secured or open.
It’s one of the most highly-rated open-source network and vulnerability scanners. It has a 4.5 out of 5 rating on PeerSpot and a 4.6 out of 5 rating on G2.
Network Configuration Manager
Network Configuration Manager is SolarWinds’ non-conventional vulnerability scanner. It enables you to automate the process of detecting misconfigurations in your network that may be weakening your security.
It works across a multi-vendor network of devices and can be used to create your own scripts for remedying errors you uncover during your scan. It has a robust scan reporting feature and overall reduces the time and effort the network’s admins have to dedicate.
Similarly to other SolarWind products, the Network Configuration Manager is highly rated by users on multiple third-party review sites, such as Gartner with a 4.5 out of 5 rating and TrustRadius with an 8.8 out of 10 rating.
Nexpose Vulnerability Scanner
Nexpose Vulnerability Scanner is a completely-automated penetration testing system by the cybersecurity and network security solutions provider, Rapid7. It’s able to detect and identify system vulnerabilities in applications, services, machines, and ports.
Nexpose is able to calculate and provide a highly-accurate risk score for individual assets in your system depending on the responses it received during its scan. The scores can help you prioritize the most vulnerable areas before they’re exploited, as the impact is also included in the score calculation.
Rapid7’s Nexpose solution is highly rated on third-party review sites. It has an 8.2 out of 10 rating on TrustRadius and a 4.4 out of 5 rating on G2.
Bottom Line: How to Do a Vulnerability Scan
Vulnerability scans play a key role in maintaining the security and privacy of your system. The process is simplified thanks to a wide variety of both free and paid vulnerability scanners available online and on the cybersecurity market.
It’s important to conduct vulnerability scans regularly, depending on your system’s needs, as well as the types of official certifications and standards you’re hoping to achieve for your organization.
Learn more about top vulnerability scanning software and tools.