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Vulnerability Scanners: 4 Key Features, Types, and How to Choose

March 13, 2024
Nedim Maric

What Is a Vulnerability Scanner? 

A vulnerability scanner is a specialized software tool designed to assess the security of computers, networks, or applications by automatically detecting and analyzing weaknesses. These scanners proactively search for security vulnerabilities, such as unpatched software, misconfigurations, and other security gaps that could be exploited by attackers. Some scanners can simulate the actions of an attacker to help identify exploitable vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability scanners are essential in the cybersecurity toolkit, providing ongoing insight into the security health of IT environments. They leverage extensive databases of known vulnerabilities and use various techniques, including port scanning and version checks, to detect security risks. By deploying and regularly using these scanners, organizations can patch vulnerabilities, fortify their defenses, and comply with regulatory requirements, minimizing the risk of cyber threats.

This is part of a series of articles about application security testing

In this article:

Key Features of Vulnerability Scanners 

Here are some of the key capabilities of modern vulnerability scanners:

1. Automated Discovery

Vulnerability scanners can identify every device on your network – be it servers, workstations, printers, or routers – and create an inventory of all your assets. This is the first step in securing your network; knowing what needs protection.

Automated discovery can provide insights into the makeup of your network, which can be highly dynamic, with new devices connecting and disconnecting. By maintaining an up-to-date inventory, you’re laying the groundwork for thorough security management.

Continuous discovery also ensures that no rogue or unauthorized device goes unnoticed. In the event a new, unfamiliar device appears on your network, the vulnerability scanner can identify it and enable you to take action.

2. Vulnerability Detection

Once the automated discovery has mapped out your network, the scanner can start detecting vulnerabilities. It meticulously examines each asset for known vulnerabilities, comparing your systems against databases of known security issues, such as the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE). 

The detection process might look for misconfigurations, outdated software, missing patches, and other flaws that could be exploited. Different vulnerability scanners might address different types of vulnerabilities.

3. Risk Assessment

Next, vulnerability scanners prioritize the detected vulnerabilities based on the risk they pose to your organization. This assessment takes into account the severity of the vulnerability, the importance of the affected system, and the potential damage that could be caused if it were to be exploited. This prioritization allows you to focus your efforts on patching the most critical vulnerabilities first, ensuring the most effective use of your resources.

4. Reporting

Finally, vulnerability scanners generate detailed reports. These reports provide you with a clear view of your security posture, outlining the vulnerabilities detected, their risk levels, and recommendations for remediation.

These insights are invaluable for IT teams, executives, and even regulatory bodies that require proof of compliance with security standards. The analytics help track your progress over time, showing how your security posture has improved with each scan and remediation effort.

Types of Vulnerability Scanners 

Network Vulnerability Scanners

Network vulnerability scanners can inspect your entire network infrastructure – from servers and workstations to switches and firewalls – for vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers.

Network scanners can identify weak points in your network’s defenses, such as open ports, insecure network protocols, and services that should not be exposed to the public internet. These scanners are typically used as a first line of defense, providing a wide-angle view of your organization’s vulnerability landscape.

Web Application Vulnerability Scanners

Web application vulnerability scanners are crucial for identifying security weaknesses in websites and web applications. These scanners come in two main types: static application security testing (SAST) tools and dynamic application security testing (DAST) tools. 

SAST tools, or static scanners, analyze source code or compiled versions of code to identify vulnerabilities without executing the program. This approach allows developers to find and fix security issues early in the software development lifecycle. SAST tools are effective in detecting vulnerabilities related to code quality, such as cross-site scripting (XSS) and SQL injection, before the application is run.

DAST tools assess applications in their running state, mimicking an attacker’s approach to identify security flaws. This dynamic analysis is performed from the outside, scanning web applications for vulnerabilities without access to the source code. DAST tools are particularly useful for detecting runtime and environment-related vulnerabilities, such as authentication and session management issues, which are not visible until the application is running. 

Learn more about Bright Security’s Dev-Centric DAST

Container Vulnerability Scanners

With the rise of containerization technologies like Docker and Kubernetes, container vulnerability scanners have become increasingly important. These scanners specialize in finding vulnerabilities within container images and container management platforms.

Containers are a popular way to package and deploy applications, but they also introduce a new set of security challenges. If a container image has vulnerabilities, they can be propagated across numerous instances, leading to widespread security risks.

Container vulnerability scanners examine the layers within container images for known vulnerabilities and misconfigurations, ensuring that your containerized applications are not introducing risks into your environment.

Related content: Read the guide to container security

Cloud Vulnerability Scanners

Lastly, with the shift toward cloud computing, cloud vulnerability scanners have emerged to address the unique challenges of cloud environments. These scanners assess the security posture of your cloud infrastructure, including compute instances, storage, and network configurations.

Cloud environments are dynamic and scalable, which introduces complexities in maintaining a secure state. Cloud vulnerability scanners need to work hand-in-hand with cloud service provider APIs to provide visibility into the security of cloud resources.

How to Choose a Vulnerability Scanner Tool 

Assess the Complexity and Scale of your IT environment

The complexity and scale of your environment will significantly influence the type of vulnerability scanner you require. Start by cataloging the types of devices, systems, and applications within your ecosystem. Do you have a mix of operating systems? Are there any legacy systems or bespoke applications? How extensive is your web presence? Answering these questions will give you a blueprint of the necessary capabilities your vulnerability scanner must possess.

Furthermore, consider the pace at which your IT environment evolves. Fast-changing environments with frequent deployments may need scanners that can keep up with continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines and agile methodologies. In contrast, more stable environments might be well-served by scheduled scans.

Choose the Deployment Model

There are two common deployment models for vulnerability scanning solutions:

  • On-premises: An on-premises vulnerability scanner resides within your local infrastructure. This model offers you complete control over the scanning process and the data it generates.
  • Cloud-based: A cloud-based vulnerability scanner is operated by a service provider. This option can be more scalable and cost-effective, especially for businesses without the resources to manage and maintain on-premises software. Cloud scanners are also easier to update with the latest threat intelligence due to their centralized nature.

Your selection here will depend on factors such as regulatory compliance, data sensitivity, resource availability, and scalability requirements. In addition, if your infrastructure is primarily in the cloud, a cloud-based scanner might be a natural choice.

Consider the Scanner’s Accuracy

The precision with which a vulnerability scanner identifies and categorizes potential threats is a core consideration. False positives, where benign items are mistakenly flagged as threats, can waste valuable time and resources. Conversely, false negatives – actual vulnerabilities that go undetected – can leave your systems exposed to attacks.

Investigate the scanner’s track record for accuracy by seeking out reviews, case studies, and independent evaluations. These resources can provide insights into how well the scanner performs in real-world environments. You should also consider the scanner’s ability to adapt to new threats.

Ensure the Scanner Integrate with Existing Security and IT Tools

Integration is a crucial aspect of any vulnerability scanner. When a scanner integrates seamlessly with your tools, it can provide richer contextual insights, ease remediation, and even help automate responses to detected vulnerabilities.

Look for scanners that offer robust APIs or out-of-the-box integrations with widely used security information and event management (SIEM) systems, patch management tools, and other critical IT management solutions. This connectivity enables you to create a cohesive and responsive security infrastructure.

Learn more about Bright security’s dynamic vulnerability scanning

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