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Vulnerability Scanning in Cybersecurity

The vast majority of cyber attacks can be prevented by ensuring that an organization’s IT infrastructure is up-to-date. In fact, over 60% of cyber attacks arise due to vulnerabilities for which a patch was available but not applied. 

Many organizations install antivirus software and apply patches to known issues, but fail to scan for the presence of other existing vulnerabilities in their networks and systems. Failing to identify, diagnose, and address these vulnerabilities could wind up costing millions of dollars in damages from entirely preventable attacks.

This practice, known as vulnerability scanning, is a vital component of any cybersecurity strategy. In the most recent CIS Controls, vulnerability scanning was identified as a key priority for IT professionals and Managed Security Service Providers

Vulnerability scanning focuses on uncovering weaknesses in IT systems that may be exploited by bad actors. Organizations, and their IT consulting partners, use these insights to address vulnerabilities and better protect IT infrastructure against attackers. 

In this guide, we’ll explore the different types of vulnerability scanners. We’ll also explore the following questions:

  • What is vulnerability scanning?
  • How do vulnerability scanners work?
  • Who should use vulnerability scanning tools?
  • Vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing: what’s the difference?

Let’s dive in. 

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is the process of using cybersecurity software to pinpoint security issues within an organization’s IT infrastructure. The process will uncover issues and provide organizations with a prioritized road map that helps them address the most pressing security issues.

Vulnerability scans are conducted with vulnerability scanner software, which automates the majority of the process and provides systematic reports on the organization’s security issues.

There are two major types of vulnerability scanning: external and internal. External vulnerability scans are run from outside an organization’s networks to determine the exposure of systems that can be accessed directly from the internet. On the other hand, internal vulnerability scans examine weaknesses attackers could exploit to move laterally from system to system after gaining access to the organization’s private network. 

How do vulnerability scanners work? 

Vulnerability scanners are automated software tools. They are typically administered by cybersecurity professionals, and run thousands of tests across various aspects of an organization’s IT infrastructure. 

Vulnerability scanners are SaaS tools which probe a huge variety of surface areas on an organization’s devices, networks, and applications. They uncover security issues which could be exploited by nefarious actors to gain access to the organization’s network and cause harm. 

There are many different types of vulnerability scanners: some specialize in specific areas, such as website or application scans, whereas others are holistic and cover every area of an organization’s IT infrastructure. It’s best practice for an organization to work with multiple vulnerability scanners to ensure comprehensive coverage of their entire infrastructure. 

Who should use vulnerability scanning tools?

Almost every business relies heavily on technology, and organizations of all sizes are at risk of cyberattacks. While all the major cyberattacks you read about in the news seem to happen to large organizations, the reality is that cybersecurity risks are a huge issue for small and midsize businesses (SMBs) across the world. 

SMB’s often have less sophisticated cybersecurity programs, rendering them susceptible to attacks from bad actors. Attackers who successfully expose vulnerabilities could leave an SMB liable to fines, damage their relationship with customers, or may even hold the business to ransom. The stakes are high, and it’s crucial for organizations of all sizes to embrace vulnerability scanning on a regular basis. 

Vulnerability scanners are complex IT tools and should be applied by experienced cybersecurity professionals. While larger organizations may have the personnel to run this process in-house, most SMB’s will benefit greatly from partnering with an IT consulting service to lead this process. 

Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing: What’s the Difference?

There’s more than one solution to identifying vulnerabilities within an organization’s system. In addition to vulnerability scanning, organizations may consider penetration testing. While this can be used as an alternative to vulnerability scanning, the best approach to cybersecurity adopts both methods. 

Penetration testing is a simulated cyberattack conducted by an ethical hacker, for the purposes of identifying security issues within an organization’s systems. Penetration testing mimics the approaches taken by hackers, making use of similar tools, techniques, and behaviors. 

In addition to identifying system vulnerabilities, penetration testing can uncover vulnerabilities among employees, indicating the need for security awareness training. The output of penetration testing often forms part of a cybersecurity scorecard

The key differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing include:

  • Approach: vulnerability scanners are software tools which function automatically on an scheduled cadence. In comparison, penetration testing is entirely manual, and tends to be a one-time exercise.
  • Speed: vulnerability testing provides quicker answers as the process is completed by software. Penetration testing takes longer as organizations typically need to form a partnership with a cybersecurity firm or white hat hacker. 
  • Depth: vulnerability tests can identify issues quickly, but often lack the nuance to explore the reasons driving vulnerabilities. Penetration testing offers this added layer of detail, and helps organizations to understand their weaknesses, and the second order effects of these, in greater detail.
  • Cost: vulnerability scanning can be completed at a lower cost because the process is primarily driven by software. Penetration testing is more expensive, and requires skilled professionals with significant cybersecurity expertise.

While there are clear differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, it’s important to note that in many cases, they are complementary, and should be used together. Vulnerability scanning is best for ongoing monitoring, whereas penetration testing should be conducted on a periodic basis to subject the organization’s systems to more rigorous testing that mimics the behavior of potential attackers. 

Types of Vulnerability Scanners

There are many different types of vulnerability scanners, all of which serve to establish security levels in various areas of an organization’s IT infrastructure. Needless to say, it’s important that organizations embrace all of these different types of scanner. The alternative is to work with a holistic scanner that comprehensively incorporates all of the major types of vulnerability scan.

There are five main types of vulnerability scanner. These include:

  • Network based scanners
  • Host based scanners
  • Wireless scanners
  • Application scanners
  • Database scanners

Let’s explore the characteristics and applications of each of these types of vulnerability scanners in more detail. 

Network Based Scanners

Network based vulnerability scanners probe an organization’s network for open ports and services, aiming to uncover unauthorized devices and systems which may be accessing the network. This helps define the perimeter of an organization’s network and establishes any insecure network connections, such as those to networks of customers or business partners. 

Network scans can be conducted on an internal or external basis. An internal scan will reveal weaknesses on systems not connected to the internet, whereas an external network scan simulates the actions of a potential attacker, evaluating weaknesses from outside the organization’s private networks that could represent entry points for potential attackers. 

Host Based Scanners

Host based scanners are vulnerability scanners that are installed on servers, workstations, and other hosts within a system. They are most useful in providing insights into the damage that could be done by an attacker once they bypass initial access control systems and gain access to internal systems. 

Additionally, host based scanners provide IT teams with visibility into configuration settings, and help them to understand whether the latest patches have been applied to address any existing vulnerabilities.

Wireless Scanners

Wireless scans help organizations to better understand the security of their wireless networks, exploring the network architecture, configuration, and access points. 

Conducting wireless vulnerability scans is helpful in identifying possible rogue access points that could be exploited by an attacker to gain access to an organization’s network. 

Application Scanners

Many cyberattacks occur as a result of vulnerabilities in third party applications and software. Oftentimes, these are known vulnerabilities, with patches available. For example, there might be vulnerabilities in common off the shelf software programs, or in a particular web application used by one department of the wider organization. 

Application scanners also identify vulnerabilities resulting from suboptimal configuration of applications. However, application scanners are best for diagnosing more basic vulnerabilities, such as cross-site scripting flaws. They lack the rigor of a human expert and may miss more sophisticated vulnerabilities.

Database Scanners

Database scanners are a specialized vulnerability scanning tool used to identify vulnerabilities in database applications, an often-overlooked aspect of cybersecurity. Access to databases is typically controlled by a database administrator, but it’s common for databases to be accessible from less privileged accounts.

Database scanners perform a combination of external vulnerability scanning, like password cracking, and internal scanning, which examines the internal configuration of the database. 

Start Your Vulnerability Assessment Today

Vulnerability scanning plays an important role in cybersecurity, and firms of all sizes should actively be performing vulnerability scans on their networks and systems. 

The team at TechHeads is ready to help. Our Vulnerability Assessment provides an automated scan of your organization’s systems and outlines a series of prioritized recommendations to remediate any vulnerabilities.

Reach out to TechHeads to arrange a vulnerability assessment.