If you count an organization’s top assets, the first one would be employees, closely followed by a robust security infrastructure. But how do organizations ensure a sturdy security model, which is safe from outside and inside attacks? Vulnerability scanning emerges as the answer. Once businesses have identified vulnerabilities through scanning, they can pursue a higher and stronger remediation path to reconstruct their security infrastructure.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the Vulnerability Scanning meaning, its different types, and the Vulnerability Scanning process along with the examples of Vulnerability Scanning software. Such a comprehensive overview of Vulnerability Scanning will help you distinguish between this process and Penetration Testing. Here’s an outline of what’s covered in the article. 

  1. What does Vulnerability Scanning mean?
  2. What are the Types of Vulnerability Scanning?
  3. Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing: What is the difference?

Let’s explore each of these questions in detail.

1. What does Vulnerability Scanning mean?

Vulnerability scanning is a process that identifies and creates a catalog of all the systems connected to a network. Servers, virtual machines, desktops, laptops, containers, switches, firewalls, and printers are scanned for their users, operating systems, software versions, and open ports to search for security vulnerabilities

After running the Vulnerability Scanning process, the information in the catalog is then compared to one or more vulnerabilities stored in a database to see if any items are subject to these vulnerabilities. Subsequently, the results highlight the systems prone to such vulnerabilities and require extra attention from the security viewpoint.

In a quick note, Vulnerability Scanning is used to identify, detect, highlight, and mitigate the security loopholes that might be plaguing an enterprises’ systems and software. As such, there are different types of Vulnerability Scanning that help organizations keep their networks and software up-to-date without compromising their security.

2. What are the types of Vulnerability Scanning?

Now that you understand the meaning of Vulnerability Scanning, it is time to understand its different types. There are two types of Vulnerability Scanning: external and internal. They’re divided into two sections based on the compliance and specific regulations placed by nations around business security models. Here’s what these two Vulnerability Scanning processes mean:

A) External Vulnerability Scanning

As the name suggests, an External Vulnerability Scanning attacks the systems outside of an organization. The primary objective of External Vulnerability Scanning is to identify vulnerabilities in the defense perimeter, such as a network firewall’s open ports or specialized Web Application Firewall (WAF).

External Vulnerability Scanning helps the organizations detect and fix the security issues present outside its network, disabling hackers from accessing the system. Enterprises can employ Vulnerability Scanning software as per their requirement to accurately carry out the Vulnerability Scanning processes.

B) Internal Vulnerability Scanning

Unlike External Vulnerability Scanning that examines an organization’s outside networks, Internal Vulnerability Scanning carries out the scanning process inside an organization’s perimeter defenses. The purpose of Internal System Vulnerability Scanning is to spot the security loopholes that could be exploited by hackers once they enter the enterprise network. Internal Vulnerability Scanning also proves its mettle in identifying the ‘internal threats’ that attempt to steal business data for whatever purpose. Internal Vulnerability Scanning also uses Vulnerability Scanning software for running automated scans at regular intervals (weekly or monthly).

Besides Internal and External scanning for vulnerabilities, there are two other types of Vulnerability Scanning: Authorized and Unauthorized.

Unauthenticated scans work similarly to external scans; they carry out searches to detect weaknesses in a network. Authenticated scans function similarly to internal scans to run vulnerability scanners with various privileged credentials, allowing them to investigate internal networks for weak passwords, configuration issues, and misconfigured databases or applications.

Under Unauthenticated scans, any of the vulnerabilities detected will be solely based on a hacker who was not given privileged access to the resources. This approach helps enterprises singularly surround only those outside attackers who are maliciously attempting to exploit the database vulnerability.

For the Authorized scans, organizations execute the Vulnerability Scanning process, and the scan is presumed to have some form of access to the services, applications, and assets being used by the enterprise. This type of attack assumes that the attacker already cracked the network path and is inside the system. Often, common configuration issues or lack of network strengthening may result in privilege escalation or the success of exercising exploits as per the vulnerabilities that require some form of authentication to use an application.

3. Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing: What is the difference?

More often than not, Vulnerability Scanning meaning is confused to mean Penetration Testing. However, in reality, these two processes are different in many ways. Although Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing function to recognize security holes in an enterprise’s networks, they still vary in the way they execute. At its basis, Vulnerability Scanning aims to identify any systems vulnerabilities present in an organization’s network (external or internal). On the other hand, Penetration Testing aims to detect the weaknesses in specific system configurations and organizational processes/practices that can be exploited by the attackers, leading to a compromise in security.

In this Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing section, we’ll go through the overview of Penetration Testing and how it differs from the Vulnerability Scanning process discussed above.

What is Penetration Testing?

A penetration test is run to examine and identify the security level of a system installed with an organization’s premises. It is based on an authorized, simulated cyberattack on a system to attain a full risk assessment, including insights into its strengths and vulnerabilities. There are different Penetration Testing stages used by enterprises to execute distinct simulated attacks on the systems.

Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing

Besides one single difference mentioned above (about the intent behind carrying out these two processes), there are many other differences between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing.

  1. Vulnerability assessments search systems for known vulnerabilities. A penetration test attempts to actively exploit an environment’s weaknesses. While the Vulnerability Scanning process can be automated, Penetration Testing requires years of expertise and knowledge of the latest IT systems.
  2. System Vulnerability Scanning can be run anytime on any of the organizations’ IT networks and systems. These assessments are not mainly directed toward one asset. However, Penetration Testing is highly directional, as it exploits the systems for their specific functionalities.
  3. The scope of Vulnerability Scanning is business-wide, and it also requires automated tools to manage a high number of assets. Typically, Vulnerability Scanning has a broader range than Penetration Testing.
  4. The cost of running Vulnerability Scanning is low as compared to executing a highly targeted Penetration Testing process.
  5. Penetration testing not only thoroughly examines a system’s security potholes and openly exploits them, but it also aims to update and upgrade systems after identifying those security issues. Vulnerability scanning stops with just detecting IT assets’ vulnerabilities and could include false positives as sometimes the scan outlines a threat as not real.
  6. A Vulnerability Scanning process does not confirm that vulnerability is an exploit. In contrast, the penetration test is based on the real-life scenarios and data sets, making it reliable and highly accurate.

On multiple terms, both Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing are different from one another. However, being of the same foundation, they both identify the security issues of an enterprise’s IT systems and work toward fixing them for the future. Even the reports of these two different security analysis processes carry specific information, methods, and used data points to give a detailed view of the security analyst or IT administrator’s vulnerabilities.


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