Vulnerability Scanning: What is it, and How Does it Work?

By Corey Shields | September 28, 2020
Corey is the Digital Marketing Manager at Ntiva, and brings with him over a decade of working in the information technology and services industry.

With any well thought out cyber security plan, the key is to be proactive. But in many cases, the normal response is to simply react to threats and attacks as they happen. Taking this approach won’t get you very far, and it’s a sure-fire way for your network to become compromised.

The problem with merely reacting to security issues as they arise is that it gives hackers the chance to hone in on your vulnerabilities, study them closely, and then attack from all angles. But what if there was a way to remediate these vulnerabilities before hackers could ever take advantage of them?


There is, and it’s called vulnerability scanning. Staying on top of network weaknesses and responding to them as quickly as possible is an important step in any cybersecurity plan, and without it, your network will always remain vulnerable.


What is Vulnerability Scanning?


Do I need vulnerability scanning?


Vulnerability scanning is a simple concept, but it’s a security measure that can make a world of difference. It involves regularly scanning a network to check for vulnerabilities and weaknesses that might be appealing to attackers.


Things like insecure settings, configuration issues, and missing security patches would all be caught by a vulnerability scan. Many hackers actually utilize vulnerability scanning tools to figure out the areas of the network that are vulnerable and easiest to infiltrate. So why wouldn’t you?


The best “vuln scans” will not only tell you where there are holes in the network, but they’ll also be able to predict how effective your current security countermeasures will perform if an attack were to happen.


Why Utilize Vulnerability Scanning?

Aside from the general fact that vulnerability scanning is the most effective method of detecting network vulnerabilities, there are plenty more reasons to start utilizing this security measure.


First off, as the list of the top security threats in 2020 grows, hackers have more leeway on how they go about their attacks. Whether it’s through phishing, malware, or endpoint security issues, the fact of the matter is that you are more vulnerable than ever.


More specifically, vulnerability scanning services are important because closing off weak points essentially gives attackers nowhere to go. Even if they’ve managed to wriggle their way into your network, there’s not much they can do if there are no weaknesses to exploit from there on out.


What many people don’t realize is that attackers are extremely limited when they first gain access to a network. In the beginning, they’re only able to move laterally across low-level accounts. But by doing this, they might get the chance to elevate their level of access, scope out vulnerabilities, and eventually do what they do best: attack.


Once they’ve pinpointed and identified vulnerabilities, that’s often when they’re able to gain access to higher-level, administrative accounts and take advantage of insecure settings and missing patches.


The good news is that these actions are all preventable as long as you take a strategic approach to IT security and use vulnerability management as the first line of defense. It’s not enough to merely stay on top of patch management - systems aren’t entirely foolproof and there are some issues that patches can’t always fix.



How Does Vulnerability Scanning Work?

The main point of vulnerability scanning is to detect a security risk before it can be detected by an attacker. There are a variety of techniques and tactics that are used to do this, but the ones used ultimately depend on the type of scanning and whether it’s an internal or external scan.

Internal vs External Scanning

The differentiating feature of internal and external scans is that one is performed within the network and one happens outside of it. Each one has its own unique set of advantages.


With internal scanning, the main objective is to identify weak points that hackers could exploit in order to move laterally to different systems and servers after they’ve gained access to the local network. It’s all about identifying vulnerabilities that attackers could exploit once they’ve already broken into the network.


External scanning is performed outside of the network perimeter, targeting specific areas of the internet that come in contact with the network itself (like applications, ports, and websites). An external scan is specifically aimed at pinpointing external access points that attackers will exploit in order to break in.


As you can see, each type of vulnerability scan serves its own purpose, so one shouldn’t go without the other.


Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing

Although they share some similarities, vulnerability scanning and penetration testing serve very different purposes.


The main goal behind a penetration test is to actively exploit a known weakness within the IT environment. While a vuln scan is all about scanning for weaknesses, penetration testing is about testing those weaknesses and trying to determine exactly how an attacker could go about exploiting them.


Both play a critical role in developing a comprehensive security strategy, but vulnerability scanning is something that should be done more frequently; it’s only necessary to conduct a penetration test once or twice a year.


Who Can Benefit from Vulnerability Scanning?

In the past, it was only major enterprise networks that needed to undergo regular vulnerability scans. Nowadays, attackers aren’t just targeting big companies - they’re also going after small businesses. Recent studies even show that close to half of all attacks are specifically targeted at SMB networks.


Just about any business, no matter how big or small, can benefit from security vulnerability assessments. If you value your data in the slightest, taking this extra security precaution will not only provide additional protection but also give you peace of mind.


Getting Started with Vulnerability Scanning

When it comes to budgeting for IT, vulnerability scanning is a must-have item on the agenda. It’s possible to perform vuln scans with your in-house IT department, but an independent managed service provider will be more capable of developing a well-rounded security approach - one that includes (but isn’t limited to) vulnerability scanning.


This is exactly what Ntiva is able to provide. Our Vulnerability Scanning and Remediation plan is merely the first line of defense within our comprehensive suite of security services that can help to keep your business protected.


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Tags: Cybersecurity