What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

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Do you know what your IT weaknesses are?

Do you know what your company’s IT weaknesses are? If you answered no, then you need to conduct a vulnerability assessment. Vulnerability assessments help you evaluate systems and networks for potential vulnerabilities cybercriminals can use as an attack surface. 

Discovering your vulnerabilities will enable you to better defend your IT infrastructure. You can perform these assessments using a variety of software solutions to ensure your network is protected against cyber threats.

In this article, I’ll show you what vulnerability assessments are and provide you with a review of the top vulnerability assessment solutions on the market. First, let’s take a look at what vulnerability assessments are! 

What Are Vulnerability Assessments?

A vulnerability assessment requires you to run scans that look for vulnerabilities. You can find out what kinds of vulnerabilities your applications, systems, servers, and devices have using vulnerability software. Once a scan is complete, you can determine the best mitigation method. To understand what vulnerability assessment is, you must first understand why they’re important!

Why Are Vulnerability Assessments Important?

Vulnerability assessments are important because they allow you and your security teams to assess the weaknesses in your systems. For example, maybe some admin passwords are shared in a team of people, and the password is easy to figure out. A vulnerability assessment will flag the problem and enable you to fix the issue. The assessment will also check your apps for vulnerabilities like SQL injection and cross-site scripting attacks. 

Let’s now take a look at how vulnerability assessment works.

Vulnerability Assessment Steps 

You need to conduct 4 steps to complete a vulnerability assessment. Generally, the identification step will be the output reports provided by the vulnerability assessment scanning software. For the rest of the steps, it’s up to you to analyze and mitigate. 

1. Identification 

In this phase, you run the vulnerability assessment software. Once the scan is complete, the software lists the vulnerabilities in a system or application. Most solutions work from lists updated by a feed or the software vendor. This means you need to update the list regularly to make sure the software can find new known vulnerabilities. The identification process involves the mapping and detecting of network infrastructure, including the status of ports and hardware configuration. It also includes the application utilization and traffic.  

2. Analysis

In this phase, analysts or a software solution will determine which components are responsible for each vulnerability. For example, an analyst or software solution may identify a dependency that hasn’t been updated and will provide a possible solution. The result of the analysis step is either a recommendation that can be provided to the administrator or acted upon in automated vulnerability assessment solutions. 

3. Assessment

Before you take any action, often a vulnerability must first be ranked. A vulnerability is ranked with others in relation to the threat it poses to a business. Some vulnerabilities may require extensive resources or finances to remediate. To this end, a business may decide to tackle the biggest threats first before dealing with other risks. Analysts rank each dependency based on its severity. 

You can calculate this quantitatively by assigning a weighting taking into account which systems are affected, the data or business process at risk, and the severity of an attack’s impact. Once your prioritized list is complete and you now have resources allocated, you can start the remediation process.

4. Remediation 

In the final phase, your analysts fix the issue. In some cases, this requires resources to be provisioned. This is when quantitative severity scores and risk assessment become useful. 

You’ll also likely need help from key stakeholders and interdisciplinary support to remediate larger challenges. During this step, remember that you’ll likely need to work together on multiple projects, so ensure you’re working constructively to achieve business requirements

Next, let’s take a look at what kinds of vulnerability assessment scans exist and what they do. 

Vulnerability Assessment Scan Types

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You must choose the correct vulnerability assessment for your business needs.

The following is a short list of vulnerability assessments your company and security analysts can perform. Each scan will focus on a particular component of the network. 

1. Network-Based

You can use network-based scans to assess your network’s security. This scan will reduce a production environment’s performance when it runs. But it can’t run penetration style vulnerability methods to identify harder to determine vulnerability. Injection attacks, for instance, bypass your standard security measures by injecting code into flash memory which can’t be effectively scanned as it’s always in flux. 

2. Host-Based

A host-based scan will find vulnerabilities on servers, computers, and other devices attached to the network. This scan will check ports and other connections and gives you greater visibility into configurations, and update history of the systems. Host-based solutions can be useful for isolated devices not in contact with the network.

3. Application

Application scans test websites, web applications, and applications to check for known vulnerabilities and improper configurations. This scan solution is useful if you host web-based material and already have a hardened server. For instance, you could have a website hosted on a trusted cloud provider where you know the infrastructure is secure. This method doesn’t check port blocking or network internal and perimeter security.   

4. Database

One of the most important scans is a database scan which will check for weaknesses in your database to prevent attacks. This includes the application running the database and how the database interfaces with external applications. It’ll check to assess if the user and password are present and secure enough to stop bad actors from gaining access to your data. Database vulnerabilities are important to check for because a database contains sensitive business data, including client details, and it can be accessed from websites. This means cybercriminals can try fuzzing web addresses to see what the database returns and potentially gain an exploit they can use to access your data.  

Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests

When comparing vulnerability assessments and penetration tests, you should know that an analyst at your company will perform a penetration test. They’ll test whether they can exploit the known vulnerabilities, known as clear box testing

Another kind of penetration test is when the penetration tester doesn’t know any of the known vulnerabilities. The tester tries to penetrate the system based on their own research and hacking attempts. This kind of test is known as glass box testing

For the best protection, it’s recommended that you conduct vulnerability assessments and combine the findings with penetration testing. This will give you a full picture of how exploitable your security vulnerabilities are.  

You might now be wondering what some good assessment tools are to use at your company. In the next section, I’ll cover the top 3

Top 3 Open-Source Vulnerability Assessment Tools

Here, we’ll look at some top-ranked, open-source vulnerability scanning tools. 

1. Nikto2

This open-source scanning software focuses on server security. It’ll scan servers for vulnerabilities in the quickest time possible. It has a library of 6,700+ fingerprints for malicious code. It also checks for 1,250+ outdated programs. Nikto2 is constantly updated, which enables it to cover a wide range of vulnerabilities

2. OpenVAS

OpenVAS is another open-source vulnerability scanning tool that supports large, enterprise-scale scanning. This program works well for finding vulnerabilities in applications, servers, databases, OSs, networks, and even virtual machines. OpenVAS gets daily updates, which provides the latest traces for newer vulnerabilities

3. w3af

Last but not least, w3af provides a scanning tool that checks on web apps and helps you build a security framework. It runs a framework of its own to check for vulnerabilities and tries to exploit them. It has a built-in penetration tester, which is a great addition and provides a more thorough scan and inspection. This is a great tool to handle the assessment and the penetration testing if you’re a smaller company.  

Final Words

Testing your own systems and trying to exploit your own vulnerabilities is vital to maintaining a strong, secure network. If you care about security, you need to do these things on an ongoing basis to protect your business. Many great open-source tools exist to get you started if you haven’t already started penetration testing and vulnerability assessments. All good security teams are doing these assessments; is yours? 

Want to learn more about vulnerability assessment and penetration testing? Check out our FAQ and Resources sections below for more information!


What is a vulnerability assessment?

Vulnerability assessments are when your security team checks out your applications and systems and looks for potential issues. They then list all the issues they find and rank them based on how negatively they could impact your company. Once the team determines issues, they begin mitigating the most severe threats to the least severe ones. 

What is penetration testing?

Two kinds of penetration testing exist. Glass box testing: the tester has not been informed of any known vulnerabilities in an application. Then, they do their own research into the application to find vulnerabilities and exploit them. Clear box testing is when those known vulnerabilities have been disclosed to the tester, and they try to exploit them. 

Is vulnerability assessment different from penetration testing?

Yes, the assessment is your team going out to look for issues in your applications and then listing them out and planning a mitigation plan of attack. Whereas penetration testing is a tester from your team trying to exploit known vulnerabilities.

Do vulnerability assessments have limitations? 

Yes. Like any type of protective software, it has drawbacks and limitations. Namely, scanning tools won’t find all vulnerabilities and could still leave your systems vulnerable. Another limitation is that you always need to update the scanner with the latest traces to ensure effectiveness. And your assessment may also create false positives from time to time. 

Where do penetration testing scans lack?

Often, automated penetration scanning software doesn’t do a good job of finding issues in business logic. When testing business logic, you’ll want to have professional security testers doing their part in manually reviewing the code for business logic. Your security is essential to your company. 


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