What Is Vulnerability Assessment, and Why Is It Important?

Network security requirements are continually evolving, with cybersecurity issues becoming a day-to-day hassle for organizations. Undertaking regular vulnerability assessments (VAs) can help you understand structural weaknesses within your IT infrastructure and protect assets.

A comprehensive VA provides extensive knowledge about your digital assets, general risks and safety flaws, potentially decreasing the probability of cyberattacks. Discover why VA is essential and the steps you can take to secure your organization’s assets in this post.

What Is Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability assessmentVulnerability assessment—also called vulnerability analysis—is a process that identifies, quantifies and analyzes security weaknesses in IT infrastructure. The VA’s primary goal is to unearth any vulnerabilities that can compromise the organization’s overall security and operations. As such, the VA can help you minimize the probability of threats.

Many security professionals use the terms “vulnerability assessment” and “penetration testing” interchangeably, even though they don’t mean the same thing. While VA finds and measures the severity of a system’s weaknesses, penetration testing is a goal-oriented exercise. In other words, penetration testing focuses more on simulating real-life attacks by mapping out paths that a real attacker can take to breach defenses.

Vulnerability assessment is no longer just a nice-to-have resource in an organization. Depending on the organization’s type, you can be obliged to undertake regular VAs to remain compliant. Over the years, various compliance regulations have emerged to address ever-evolving security challenges.

Compliance with General Data Protection Regulations (GDPRs), the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) are such examples. These standards require organizations to undertake VAs regularly to ensure they are safeguarding customers’ sensitive data. A vulnerability assessment is a holistic security process that includes different tasks, such as:

A vulnerability assessment outcome is a VA report, which serves as an organization’s security policy and other security products. To undertake a VA, you need to use a combination of tools such as vulnerability scanning tools and technical judgment. Once completed, the VA recommends actions that can help mitigate the identified risks.

The Types of Vulnerability Scans

You can classify vulnerability scans based on the:

Let’s look at these classifications in detail.

Type of assets they can scan

The five categories of vulnerability scans are based on the kind of digital assets they can scan. They are network-based scanners, host-based scanners, application scanners, wireless network scanners, and database scanners.

  1. Network-based scanners. You can use network-based scanners to discover unauthorized devices or unknown users on the network. These scanners allow network administrators to determine whether obscure perimeter loopholes such as unauthorized remote access exist on the network. Network-based scanners do not have direct access to the file system. As such, they cannot undertake low-level security checks.
  1. Host-based scanners. As the name suggests, a host-based scanner resides on every host on the monitored network. It locates and identifies vulnerabilities on workstations, servers or other network hosts, providing greater visibility in your assets’ configuration settings.
  1. Application scanners. Application scanners find vulnerabilities in websites. Their operation mode is similar to those of search engines—they “crawl” through websites by sending a range of probes to each web page on a website to look out for weaknesses.
  1. Wireless network scanners. Wireless network scanners—also called wireless protocol analyzers—are tools that you can use to discover open wireless networks in your environment. Organizations that prohibit wireless networks can use these wireless network scanners to detect any unauthorized Wi-Fi networks.
  1. Database scanners. You can use database scanners to identify the vulnerabilities in your database. Database scanners can help you thwart malicious hacks like SQL injection attacks.

The Origin of the scan

There are two types of vulnerability scans under this category: external and internal scanners.

  1. External vulnerability scanners. With external scanners, you conduct vulnerability scanning from outside of the company’s network. External scanners usually target the IT infrastructure exposed to the internet, including open ports in the network firewall and web application firewalls.
  1. Internal vulnerability scanners. Unlike external scanners, internal scanners conduct vulnerability scanning from inside of the enterprise network. These scans allow you to protect and harden critical applications by detecting internal threats, such as malware, that have penetrated the network.

The security posture of the network

Authenticated and non-authenticated vulnerability scanning are the main types of vulnerability scans under this category.

  1. Authenticated vulnerability scanning. Authenticated scanning—also called credentialed scanning—allows the network administrator to log in as a user and identify the network’s weaknesses from a trusted user viewpoint. Since you have logged in the system, you can dig deeper into the network to unearth numerous threats.
  1. Unauthenticated vulnerability scanning. With unauthenticated scanning, you don’t need to log in to a network to perform scanning. While you can gain an outsider’s view of the network, you will likely miss out on most vulnerabilities when you use unauthenticated scanning.

The Process of Vulnerability Assessment

Conducting a vulnerability assessment is a five-step process. It is important to think about what each of these steps entails.

Step 1: Planning

First, you should consider which assets you want to scan and the specific objectives of the VA. Think about questions such as:

Step 2: Scanning

Next, you can either use manual or automated tools to scan the network actively. The process generates a list of vulnerabilities and their severity levels, which you use to filter out false positives.

Step 3: Analysis

A comprehensive analysis then follows, detailing the causes of the vulnerabilities and their potential impacts. Depending on the workload at risk and the severity of the flaw, you can rank each vulnerability. The idea is to help you quantify the threat by providing a clear sense of urgency regarding its impact on the network.

Step 4: Remediation

Depending on the outcome of the analysis stage, you should start by patching the most critical flaws. You can use various tools, such as updating the software or installing new security tools to remediate your network’s defects. However, if the vulnerabilities don’t pose a major threat to the organization, it might not be worth your efforts to fix them.

Step 5: Repetition

A single VA is merely a snapshot of your network at a particular moment in time. To ensure you have a big-picture view of your entire IT infrastructure, you need to perform regular VAs, at least weekly or monthly.

Why Should I Perform a Vulnerability Assessment?

Conducting a vulnerability assessment has numerous benefits, including:

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References

Wikipedia

Balbix

TechBrain

ScienceSoft

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