A vulnerability assessment is the process of defining, identifying, classifying and prioritizing vulnerabilities in computer systems, applications and network infrastructures and providing the organization doing the assessment with the necessary knowledge, awareness and risk background to understand the threats to its environment and react appropriately.
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A vulnerability assessment process that is intended to identify threats and the risks they pose typically involves the use of automated testing tools, such as network security scanners, whose results are listed in a vulnerability assessment report.
Organizations of any size, or even individuals who face an increased risk of cyberattacks, can benefit from some form of vulnerability assessment, but large enterprises and other types of organizations that are subject to ongoing attacks will benefit most from vulnerability analysis.
Because security vulnerabilities can enable hackers to access IT systems and applications, it is essential for enterprises to identify and remediate weaknesses before they can be exploited. A comprehensive vulnerability assessment along with a management program can help companies improve the security of their systems.
Importance of vulnerability assessments
A vulnerability assessment provides an organization with information on the security weaknesses in its environment and provides direction on how to assess the risks associated with those weaknesses and evolving threats. This process offers the organization a better understanding of its assets, security flaws and overall risk, reducing the likelihood that a cybercriminal will breach its systems and catch the business off guard.
Types of vulnerability assessments
Vulnerability assessments depend on discovering different types of system or network vulnerabilities, which means the assessment process includes using a variety of tools, scanners and methodologies to identify vulnerabilities, threats and risks.
Some of the different types of vulnerability assessment scans include the following:
- Network-based scans are used to identify possible network security attacks. This type of scan can also detect vulnerable systems on wired or wireless networks.
- Host-based scans are used to locate and identify vulnerabilities in servers, workstations or other network hosts. This type of scan usually examines ports and services that may also be visible to network-based scans, but it offers greater visibility into the configuration settings and patch history of scanned systems.
- Wireless network scans of an organization's Wi-Fi networks usually focus on points of attack in the wireless network infrastructure. In addition to identifying rogue access points, a wireless network scan can also validate that a company's network is securely configured.
- Application scans can be used to test websites in order to detect known software vulnerabilities and erroneous configurations in network or web applications.
- Database scans can be used to identify the weak points in a database so as to prevent malicious attacks, such as SQL injection attacks.
Vulnerability assessments vs. penetration tests
A vulnerability assessment often includes a penetration testing component to identify vulnerabilities in an organization's personnel, procedures or processes that might not be detectable with network or system scans. The process is sometimes referred to as vulnerability assessment/penetration testing, or VAPT.
However, penetration testing is not sufficient as a complete vulnerability assessment and is, in fact, a separate process. A vulnerability assessment aims to uncover vulnerabilities in a network and recommend the appropriate mitigation or remediation to reduce or remove the risks.
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A vulnerability assessment uses automated network security scanning tools. The results are listed in the vulnerability assessment report, which focuses on providing enterprises with a list of vulnerabilities that need to be fixed, without evaluating specific attack goals or scenarios.
Organizations should employ vulnerability testing on a regular basis to ensure the security of their networks, particularly when changes are made, e.g., services are added, new equipment is installed or ports are opened.
In contrast, penetration testing involves identifying vulnerabilities in a network, and it attempts to exploit them to attack the system. Although sometimes carried out in concert with vulnerability assessments, the primary aim of penetration testing is to check whether a vulnerability really exists and to prove that exploiting it can damage the application or network.
While a vulnerability assessment is usually automated to cover a wide variety of unpatched vulnerabilities, penetration testing generally combines automated and manual techniques to help testers delve further into the vulnerabilities and exploit them to gain access to the network in a controlled environment.