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What is vulnerability scanning and why is it important?

Read our comprehensive guide on vulnerability scanning, including what it is, why it’s important, how it works & best practices for organizations.

vulnerability scanning

Most security threats occur days before detection. In fact, you may already be exposed and not even know it. The reality is that the digital world operates at lightning speed, and bad actors are constantly finding new ways to exploit your vulnerabilities.

While you may believe your security stance is up to par, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Vulnerability scanning helps you stay ahead of emerging threats and eliminate potential risks before they have a chance to materialize.

This blog will cover:

  • What is vulnerability scanning?
  • The difference between vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, and vulnerability testing
  • The vulnerability management lifecycle
  • How does vulnerability scans work?
  • Different types of vulnerability scans
  • What vulnerabilities can the scans uncover?
  • Why is vulnerability scanning important?
  • How to perform a vulnerability scan
  • What to look out for in a vulnerability scan
  • Vulnerability scanning tools
  • Who conducts vulnerability scans?
  • How often should you perform vulnerability scanning?
  • Vulnerability scanning best practices
  • Vulnerability remediation and mitigation
  • Challenges of vulnerability scanning and how organizations can overcome them
  • Future trends of vulnerability scanning

What is vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanning is a cybersecurity practice that involves the systematic identification and assessment of weaknesses, flaws, or vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, applications, and infrastructure. The primary objective of vulnerability scanning is to proactively discover and evaluate potential security issues before malicious actors can exploit them.

The difference between vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, and vulnerability testing

Vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, and vulnerability testing are terms that get thrown around interchangeably. However, they represent distinct approaches to assessing and enhancing cybersecurity.

Understanding these differences is essential for organizations to choose the right approach.

Difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

Vulnerability scanning is an automated process that identifies known security weaknesses in systems, networks, or applications, typically without exploiting them.

Penetration testing, on the other hand, is a controlled, simulated attack conducted by cybersecurity professionals and ethical hackers to actively exploit vulnerabilities, test defenses, and assess an organization’s security posture, often using ethical hacking techniques.

Difference between vulnerability scanning and vulnerability testing

Vulnerability testing serves as a broader term that encompasses both scanning and penetration testing. It refers to the evaluation of systems or applications for security weaknesses, with the distinction that scanning is automated, while penetration testing involves manual testing and exploitation of vulnerabilities.

The vulnerability management lifecycle

Vulnerability scanning plays a vital role in the vulnerability management lifecycle and here is how it fits into this process:


Vulnerability scanning is the initial step in the vulnerability management process. It involves using automated tools to scan an organization’s IT environment, including network devices, servers, applications, and databases, to identify potential vulnerabilities.


Once vulnerabilities are identified through scanning, the assessment phase begins. Vulnerability scanning tools assess the severity and potential impact of these vulnerabilities, often assigning them severity levels based on risk factors.


After assessing the vulnerabilities, organizations prioritize and address them based on factors like severity and potential impact. Remediation efforts may include applying and managing patches, reconfiguring systems, or implementing additional security controls to mitigate risks.


Following remediation, the validation phase ensures that the fixes were successful in mitigating the vulnerabilities. Vulnerability scanning may be used again to validate that the vulnerabilities have been effectively addressed, reducing the organization’s exposure to risk.


Throughout the vulnerability management process, detailed reports are generated, which provide insights into the state of security, vulnerability assessment results, and remediation progress. Reporting is crucial for decision-making and compliance.

How does vulnerability scans work?

Most vulnerability scans follow a standardized approach, using stages from the vulnerability management lifecycle and entails:

  1. Asset identification: identifies assets to be scanned, including servers, applications, and network devices.
  2. Scanning tool: sends queries and requests to collect information about the target assets.
  3. Database reference: compares collected data with a vulnerability database containing known security weaknesses.
  4. Vulnerability detection: when matches are found, potential vulnerabilities are identified, including software flaws, or misconfigurations.
  5. Severity assessment: vulnerabilities are rated by severity.
  6. Reporting: detailed reports are generated, listing identified vulnerabilities, their descriptions, and recommendations.
  7. Remediation: organizations prioritize and address vulnerabilities, applying patches or making configurations.
  8. Validation: follow-up scans confirm that vulnerabilities have been mitigated.

Different types of vulnerability scans

Different vulnerability scans target specific weaknesses and domains. Some of the most common types of vulnerability scans include:

  • Network: identifies vulnerabilities within network devices as well as potential weaknesses in network protocols and configurations.
  • Host-based: targets individual servers, workstations, or endpoints to identify vulnerabilities specific to the operating system, installed software, and configurations.
  • Web application: assesses the security of web applications, searching for common vulnerabilities like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and authentication issues.
  • Database: identifies security weaknesses within database systems, including misconfigurations, unpatched software, and sensitive data exposure.
  • Wireless: evaluates the security of wireless networks, including Wi-Fi access points and connected devices, to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by unauthorized users.
  • Container: focuses on vulnerabilities within containerized applications and their orchestration platforms, ensuring the security of cloud-native applications.
  • Cloud infrastructure: assesses the security of cloud environments, including cloud services, configurations, and permissions, to prevent cloud-related threats.
  • IoT device: targets internet of things (IoT) devices, assessing their security for potential vulnerabilities that could lead to device compromise or data breaches.
  • Configuration assessment: checks for improper system or application configurations that could create security gaps, even if no specific software vulnerabilities are present.
  • Compliance and policy: ensures that systems adhere to regulatory standards and internal security policies, helping organizations maintain compliance and data protection.
  • Continuous monitoring: involves ongoing scans to detect new vulnerabilities, changes in the IT environment, and emerging threats in real-time.

What vulnerabilities can the scans uncover?

Vulnerability scans can uncover various types of vulnerabilities, including:

  • Software vulnerabilities
  • Missing security patches
  • Weak passwords
  • Misconfigurations
  • Open ports and services
  • Outdated software
  • Cross-site scripting XSS
  • SQL injection

To help illustrate the impact these vulnerabilities can have, here are a few examples of high profile cases:


Heartbleed was a critical vulnerability in the OpenSSL cryptographic software library, allowing attackers to read sensitive data from the memory of web servers. This vulnerability exposed millions of websites to potential data breaches, including login credentials and private keys.


The WannaCry ransomware exploited a Microsoft Windows vulnerability to spread rapidly across networks. It encrypted users’ files and demanded a ransom for decryption keys. WannaCry affected over 200,000 computers across 150 countries in a matter of days, causing significant disruption and financial losses.

Why is vulnerability scanning important?

Aside from improving an organization’s cybersecurity posture, vulnerability scanning is important for:

Remote working environments

In today’s landscape of remote and distributed workforces, vulnerability scanning helps organizations assess the security of remote devices, ensuring that off-site employees and their equipment do not introduce new vulnerabilities into the corporate network.

Identifying security weaknesses proactively

Vulnerability scans proactively identify security weaknesses, such as misconfigurations or weak passwords, before malicious actors can exploit them. This early detection is essential for preventing security incidents and breaches.

Reducing the attack surface

By pinpointing vulnerabilities, organizations can take steps to mitigate or eliminate them, reducing the attack surface available to cybercriminals. This proactive approach enhances overall security and minimizes the potential for successful attacks.

Prioritizing patch management efforts

Vulnerability scanning assists organizations in prioritizing patch management efforts. It helps identify which vulnerabilities pose the greatest risk based on severity, potential impact, and exploitability, allowing IT teams to focus on critical patches first.

Meeting compliance requirements

Many industry regulations and compliance standards, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), require regular vulnerability assessments. Compliance scans help organizations meet these requirements and avoid penalties.

Data protection

Vulnerability scanning is crucial for safeguarding sensitive data. Identifying and rectifying vulnerabilities ensures that data remains protected, reducing the risk of data breaches and associated legal and financial consequences.

How to perform a vulnerability scan

To perform a vulnerability scan, you’ll need to follow these steps:

  1. Define scope: clearly specify the target assets for the scan.
  2. Select a scanning tool: choose a suitable vulnerability scanning tool.
  3. Configure the scanner: customize scan settings based on your scope.
  4. Schedule scans: plan and schedule regular scans for ongoing monitoring.
  5. Run the scan: initiate the scan with the configured settings.
  6. Assess scan results: review identified vulnerabilities and their severity.
  7. Prioritize vulnerabilities: focus on high-severity vulnerabilities first.
  8. Remediate vulnerabilities: address identified issues through patches or controls.
  9. Verify remediation: confirm fixes and avoid introducing new issues.
  10. Documentation and reporting: maintain records and generate reports.

What to look out for in a vulnerability scan

In a vulnerability scan, several key aspects should be carefully considered. Firstly, interpreting reports requires a discerning eye to distinguish between critical vulnerabilities and less severe issues.

Prioritizing vulnerabilities is crucial – especially focusing on those with the highest severity and potential impact on your organization’s security. Understanding vulnerability scoring systems, such as the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), can also provide a standardized way to assess and compare vulnerabilities.

Overall, the ability to effectively interpret, prioritize, and understand the significance of scan results is essential for making informed decisions about which vulnerabilities to address promptly, ensuring a robust cybersecurity posture.

Vulnerability scanning tools

Each vulnerability scanning tool offers unique features and capabilities. Here are just a few popular vulnerability scanning tools:

  • Nessus
  • OpenVAS
  • Qualys
  • Rapid7 Nexpose
  • Burp Suite
  • Acunetix
  • Nikto
  • Retina Network Security Scanner

Who conducts vulnerability scans?

Vulnerability scans are typically conducted by cybersecurity professionals or IT teams within an organization. This may include:

  • Security analysts
  • Penetration testers
  • IT administrators
  • DevOps teams
  • Managed Security Service Providers (MSSPs)
  • Internal audit teams
  • Compliance and risk management teams

How often should you perform vulnerability scanning?

The frequency of vulnerability scans depends on several factors, including the organization’s size, industry regulations, and the rate of change in its IT environment. In general, it’s advisable to perform vulnerability scans on a regular basis, such as weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly.

Additionally, consider conducting scans after significant system changes, updates, or deployments to ensure new vulnerabilities haven’t been introduced. Continuous monitoring and real-time scans are valuable for maintaining robust cybersecurity in rapidly evolving IT landscapes.

Vulnerability scanning best practices

By following vulnerability scanning best practices, organizations can maintain a strong cybersecurity posture. Here are some of our tips:

  • Ensure you have proper authorization and permissions to scan target assets to avoid legal and ethical issues.
  • Thoroughly document scan results, including identified vulnerabilities, their severity, and steps taken for remediation.
  • Establish a robust patch management process to address vulnerabilities promptly.
  • Investigate any identified vulnerabilities that might be false positives to avoid unnecessary remediation efforts.
  • Ensure your scanning tools and vulnerability databases are regularly updated to include the latest threats and patches.
  • Integrate vulnerability scans into your organization’s workflow, including incident response and change management processes.
  • Customize scan reports to provide actionable insights for both technical and non-technical stakeholders.
  • Align your scanning efforts with industry regulations and compliance standards applicable to your organization.
  • Train your IT and security teams to interpret scan results effectively and respond to vulnerabilities.
  • Establish a feedback loop to continuously improve your vulnerability scanning process based on lessons learned and evolving threats.

Vulnerability remediation and mitigation

Vulnerability remediation and mitigation are fundamental components of cybersecurity strategy. Remediation involves developing a comprehensive plan to address identified vulnerabilities, including applying patches, updates, and security configurations to eliminate or minimize the risk.

Meanwhile, vulnerability mitigation steps in when immediate remediation isn’t feasible, offering temporary workarounds to reduce the potential impact of vulnerabilities. These measures are essential for safeguarding systems and data until permanent solutions can be implemented, ensuring continuous security in the face of evolving threats.

Challenges of vulnerability scanning and how organizations can overcome them

Vulnerability scanning, while crucial for cybersecurity, can present several challenges, but there are also ways organizations can overcome them.

Large-scale environments

  • Challenge – scanning extensive IT infrastructures can be resource-intensive and time-consuming.
  • Solution – invest in scalable vulnerability scanning services or solutions that can handle large networks efficiently.

Cloud environment management

  • Challenge – adapting scanning practices to dynamic cloud environments and addressing cloud-specific vulnerabilities can be complex.
  • Solution – employ cloud-specific security tools and practices designed for dynamic cloud environments.

Coordination among teams

  • Challenge – ensuring prompt vulnerability remediation can be challenging due to competing priorities and the need for cross-team collaboration.
  • Solution – foster communication and collaboration between it, security, and development teams.

False positives

  • Challenge – vulnerability scans can produce false positives, leading to wasted time and resources on non-existent vulnerabilities.
  • Solution – fine-tune scanning tools to reduce false positives and regularly update scanning databases and configurations to improve accuracy.

Emerging threats

  • Challenge – keeping up with new vulnerabilities and evolving attack techniques requires continuous monitoring and adaptation of scanning strategies.
  • Solution – stay informed about the latest threats and vulnerabilities through threat intelligence sources.

Compliance alignment

  • Challenge – aligning vulnerability scans with industry regulations and compliance standards can be complex and requires ongoing maintenance.
  • Solution – develop a compliance-focused vulnerability management program that aligns with industry regulations and standards.

Resource constraints

  • Challenge – limited resources, including personnel and scanning tools, can hinder the effectiveness of vulnerability scanning efforts.
  • Solution – allocate adequate resources to vulnerability scanning initiatives, including skilled personnel and up-to-date scanning tools.

Future trends of vulnerability scanning

Trends in vulnerability scanning are shaped by the evolving cybersecurity landscape. Here’s a glimpse of what the future may hold for vulnerability scanning:

  • AI and machine learning: vulnerability scanners will increasingly leverage AI and machine learning to improve accuracy and reduce false positives.
  • Automated remediation: vulnerability scanning tools will offer more automated remediation options, allowing organizations to automatically apply patches or implement security controls.
  • DevSecOps integration: vulnerability scanning will be seamlessly integrated into DevSecOps pipelines, enabling automated testing during the development process and facilitating early vulnerability detection and remediation.
  • Cloud-native scanning: vulnerability scanners will become more cloud-native, adapting to the dynamic nature of cloud environments and providing comprehensive assessments of cloud-based assets.
  • Continuous monitoring: continuous vulnerability monitoring will become a standard practice, enabling real-time threat detection and immediate response capabilities to address emerging security risks.

Final thoughts

In today’s cybersecurity landscape, vulnerability scanning is crucial and organizations shouldn’t consider it a luxury, but rather a necessity.

Regular scanning and proactive vulnerability management are core components of any comprehensive defense strategy. Without it, you leave your organization vulnerable to potential weaknesses and the threat of bad actors.

It’s time to stop testing your security stance and start attacking instead. CovertSwarm’s vulnerability scanning services ensure potential risks are identified and prioritized as promptly as possible. Whether it’s unpatched software, misconfigured settings, or inadequate network segmentation, no vulnerability will remain hidden.

If you have any more questions about vulnerability scanning or need further advice, don’t hesitate to contact the Swarm.