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Vulnerability Scanning Explained

Vulnerability scanning is the process of detecting and evaluating security flaws in IT systems, networks, and software.

Wiz Experts Team
5 min read

Vulnerability scanning is the process of detecting and evaluating security flaws in IT systems, networks, and software. Vulnerability scanners are tools that continuously search systems for known vulnerabilities, including missing security updates, misconfigurations, and exposed secrets.

Vulnerability scanning cuts across all verticals of the organization’s IT ecosystem—including networks, endpoints, APIs, dependencies, in-house and third-party apps, and other areas—and is done to protect against potential cyberattacks. Scanners are also usually purpose-based: they can have network-based, host-suited, or database-suited specializations.

Vulnerability scanning helps organizations achieve data and software security, to better align with compliance frameworks such as SOC 2, ISO 27001, and NIST 800-53. Techniques used for vulnerability scanning can be active or passive: 

  • Active scanning, also called non-credentialed scanning, involves sending simulated attacks, queries, or requests to the target to identify potential vulnerabilities, such as buffer overflows, unencrypted data, and broken authentication processes. 

  • Passive scanning, also called credentialed scanning, involves unobtrusively analyzing (without actively probing) network traffic to detect vulnerabilities that attackers can leverage to spread malware or steal/manipulate data.

Depending on an organization’s specific security needs, vulnerability scanning can be limited to individual systems or expanded to include entire network infrastructures. It takes databases that are kept up to date with information on all the known vulnerabilities to give vulnerability scanners their effectiveness.

One such database is the National Vulnerability Database (NVD). These databases contain information such as vulnerability severity, potential impact, and recommended mitigation techniques. The scanner compares its discoveries in the target environment and matches them with those in the database, then flags, reports, and provides remediation options to any matches. 

How does vulnerability scanning work?

The vulnerability scanning process involves several steps, from vulnerability scoping to identification, assessment, and remediation. Here's a simple breakdown of each step:

Stage 1: Scoping

Before scanning, you must determine the target networks and applications, map out endpoints, and identify dependencies. Scoping also involves determining if internal devices, external-facing systems, or a combination of both are to be scanned.

Stage 2: Tool selection

You must choose a solution—from the pool of available commercial and open-source tools—that aligns with your organization's security requirements. The solution should also have a user-friendly console for easy vulnerability scanning and function optimally across distributed, hybrid networks to ease risk identification across all your environments. 

Pro tip

Agentless scanning solutions typically have quicker setup and deployment and require less maintenance. They can scan all workloads using cloud native APIs and connects to customer environments with a single org-level connector. If the approach is agent-based, this type of deployment will require ongoing agent installation, update, and maintenance effort.

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Stage 3: Configuration

The scanning tool should be configured to scan according to your desired parameters. Configuration details can include specifying target IP addresses or domain names, setting scanning intensity or speed, and defining scanning techniques.

Pro tip

No organization should resort to using default policy configurations. This is because default policy configurations rarely address an organization’s nuanced business-, region-, and industry-specific requirements.

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Stage 4: Scan initiation

Initiate the process via commands or using the options provided by the tool of choice, such as a GUI. Some resources will allow you to schedule your scans, which makes this step automatic once youyour select your preferences.

Pro tip

Scanning Virtual Machine images and Container images for vulnerabilities and secrets during the CI/CD pipeline can help increase efficiency in the software development process by detecting vulnerabilities and security risks before deployment to the runtime environment.

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Stage 5: Vulnerability detection

Example of vulnerability detections aligned with the CISA KEV catalog

Scanners probe for common vulnerability types or compare the system’s attack surface with parameters saved in the vulnerability database in use. The vulnerabilities being scanned for will usually align with the scanner’s speciality, whether that’s databases, networks, etc. 

Stage 6: Vulnerability analysis

Example vulnerability dashboard that prioritizes issues by contextual severity

After scanning, the tool will generate a comprehensive list of identified vulnerabilities, order them based on severity, filter away false positives, and provide options for remediation.  

Stage 7: Remediation and rescanning

Example vulnerability detection with easy-to-follow remediation instructions

Based on the scan results, your security team will resolve identified vulnerabilities by deploying security patches, updating software versions, or re-configuring security settings, depending on recommendations in the vulnerability report. 

After remediation, rescanning the target systems should take place to verify that the vulnerabilities have been successfully resolved. 

Stage 8: Continuous monitoring

New vulnerabilities can always surface. Vulnerability scanning needs to be scheduled at intervals to identify and address emerging threats promptly.

Common vulnerability scanning challenges 

The processes highlighted above may be ineffective if any (or all) of the following challenges surface. 

Resource sharingVulnerability scanning requires significant network bandwidth and computing resources. Production (in the IT environment) is also resource intensive. When both processes share resources provided by the organization’s infrastructure, resource contention occurs, and can negatively impact the scan's efficiency.
False positivesThe vulnerability scanning tool could incorrectly identify a non-existent vulnerability, wasting time and effort. For instance, a developer could be patching a dependency in the source code, and the tool might alert that malicious activity is taking place. Misconfiguring the vulnerability scanner usually leads to these kinds of false positives.
Alert FatigueVulnerability scanning generates quintillions of alerts, making it overwhelming for the security team to painstakingly track and address each alert, and that can lead to neglecting critical vulnerabilities.
Siloed toolingUsing vulnerability scanning tools with other security solutions across different environments or departments can create data silos and distort vulnerability management. That can hinder collaboration and make it difficult to have an end-to-end view of the organization's security posture.
Inability to contextualize vulnerability impactVulnerability scanning tools may be ineffective for risk management as they’re often ignorant of asset criticality, business processes, and system dependencies. They also likely won’t understand the impact of vulnerabilities across individual organizations.
High ownership costsVulnerability scanning tools and the associated infrastructure can be expensive to procure, deploy, and maintain. Organizations may also need to invest in staff training and dedicated personnel employment. All of that translates to increased costs.
Ongoing maintenance effortsSome vulnerability scanning solutions require agents to be installed on target systems for continuous scanning. Managing the installation, updates, and maintenance of these agents across many systems can be challenging and time consuming.
Blind spotsThis occurs when vulnerabilities in certain assets are missed during scanning, and may be caused by a tool’s inability to detect vulnerabilities on specific asset types, such as cloud infrastructure, mobile devices, or IoT devices.
Software development delaysTraditional vulnerability scanning practices require extensive scans and manual verification, causing delays in the development of applications and the release of software updates. These kinds of delays ultimately hurt an organization’s bottom line.

Despite the challenges listed above, vulnerability scanning is invaluable when correctly implemented. In the next section we’ll see how to do so.

Key features to look for in a vulnerability scanning tool

To effectively address and mitigate the challenges described above, choose a vulnerability scanning tool with the following key features:

1. Continuous scanning capability

Continuous monitoring is the last but crucial stage of vulnerability scanning. Choose a tool that can continuously scan and detect vulnerabilities as they emerge so your organization can be consistently vulnerability free. 

2. Agentless approach

Your vulnerability scanning tool should be agentless, eliminating the need to install and manage scanning agents on target systems. Such tools utilize network-based scanning techniques, consume fewer resources, and erase the possibilities of incompatibility. 

Pro tip

It's important to be able to scan virtual machines or containers even if the workload is offline. Security teams can remediate the vulnerability before the workload is online and effectively at risk.

But with an agent-based scanner, since an agent is part of the runtime of the workload, the scanning can only happen while the workload is online. This also applies for authenticated scanning, which means you can test applications in their ready-to-run configuration both in staging and production environments.

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3. Risk-based prioritization

Example visualization of the risk-based context that a vulnerability scanner should provide

Choose a tool that provides risk-based prioritization of vulnerabilities, considering factors such as severity, exploitability, and asset criticality alongside elements such as external exposure, cloud entitlements, secrets, misconfigurations, and malware presence. A tool with this functionality can correlate your vulnerabilities that have numerous risk factors to mitigate the amount of alert fatigue you experience.

4. Cross-cloud/cross-technology support

A cloud vulnerability scanner must be able to run across your entire technology inventory

Environments are becoming more hybridized and distributed. Select a technology-agnostic tool that can scan different storage environments and cloud providers, including AWS, GCP, Azure, OCI, and Alibaba Cloud, regardless of underlying OS or programming language to ensure software compatibility.

Pro tip

The cloud poses unique challenges that traditional vulnerability management solutions may struggle to address. Cloud vulnerability management is a proactive security solution that can keep up with the speed and scale of the cloud.

Traditional scanning tools were able to identify and remediate vulnerabilities but often flagged vulnerabilities that were non-critical and irrelevant. Furthermore, traditional vulnerability management had a significant deficiency: context.

5. Scanning before deployment

Vulnerability scanning should be extended into the CI/CD pipeline to scan VM and container images and catch issues before they ever reach production

Opt for a tool that can scan virtual machines (VMs) and containers and detect potential vulnerabilities in them before their deployment. This will help avoid spreading vulnerabilities across the entire production environment. 

6. Comprehensive workload coverage

Your scanning tool needs to be able to simultaneously scan various systems and workloads—servers, endpoints, databases, and web applications—to allow for proactive and efficient vulnerability remediation.

7. Data-Based visualization reports

Visual representation of vulnerability data in various formats—such as tables, graphs, and charts—are key to decision making and remediation. The tool must provide that level of visualization in the scan results and make them easily shareable. 

8. Integration 

The tool must seamlessly integrate with tools for SIEM (Security Information and Event Management), log management, and SCM (Security Configuration Management) to enable better threat detection and incident response, and provide cohesive security management. 

A unified vulnerability management solution

Although critical to a strong security posture, vulnerability scanning is just one aspect of cloud security management. To establish a robust and comprehensive security strategy, adopt a unified vulnerability management solution that incorporates vulnerability scanning with other cloud security approaches, such as the Wiz vulnerability management solution

With our old platform, we were getting thousands of alerts for every one problem that we’d solve. Wiz allows us to understand vulnerabilities much more efficiently. Now, we can concentrate our efforts on problems rather than simply identifying them.

Alex Steinleitner, President & CEO, Artisan

To experience first-hand how a unified vulnerability management solution can boost your organization's security posture, request a live demo of Wiz. You’ll get the opportunity to understand why and how using Wiz’s unified vulnerability management solution can boost your organization’s security posture. 

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