Vulnerability Assessment: The Complete Guide

We know the importance of regular health check-ups, even if there are no outward signs of illness in the body. The same principle applies to vulnerability assessment for an IT network. Hackers will definitely find and exploit your security vulnerabilities even if you are unaware of the security gaps in your IT infrastructure.  


Rapid evolutions and development mark today’s technological climate. New technology becomes redundant in no time, and cyber attackers are always primed to find innovative ways of breaching organizational networks. Regular vulnerability assessments keep your network risk-free and optimized against threats in such a landscape.  

Let’s take a deep dive into everything you need to know about vulnerability assessments for a more robust security posture.  

What is a Vulnerability Assessment? 

A vulnerability assessment is a critical cybersecurity procedure. It is a systematic review of an IT system to find security weaknesses and loopholes. Vulnerability assessments comprise a multi-step testing process that identifies as many security defects as possible within a specific timeframe.  

Experienced security analysts advise a risk-based approach to cybersecurity in the current threat landscape. Understanding the most significant risks to your organization and industry and correlating those with the existing security processes and solutions within your network will give you a clear understanding of the severity of the risk your organization faces.  

A security vulnerability can be a misconfigured firewall that can let hackers enter your private network, or it can be outdated software that is easy to hack.  

What Does a Standard Vulnerability Assessment Process Look Like? 

Vulnerability assessments generally follow a standard process with multiple steps, which are: 

1. Identify

The first step in a vulnerability assessment process is identification and testing. System auditors use a large variety of automated tools and manual techniques to scan the network, applications, servers, assets, system health, and endpoint security procedures. Analysts also employ global threat intelligence feeds, asset management tools, vendor announcements of vulnerabilities, and open-source vulnerability databases.  

The main goal of the identification stage is to create a comprehensive list of all possible system vulnerabilities.  

2. Analyze 

An in-depth analysis highlights the root cause and source of the identified vulnerabilities. The analysis includes identifying other systems and assets potentially impacted by the vulnerability, the components responsible for the vulnerability, and if any other system risks stem from those sources.  

Additionally, the analysis stage is used to strategize a comprehensive list of potential remedies for the identified vulnerabilities.  

3. Prioritize 

A thorough risk assessment helps analysts to prioritize vulnerabilities based on severity. They assign ranks or severity scores to each vulnerability based on the following criteria: 

  • Which systems are at risk 
  • The criticality and sensitivity of the data that is potentially at risk 
  • The centrality of impacted business operations or functions 
  • The ease with which an attack can occur 
  • How easily exploitable is the vulnerability 
  • The severity of potential attacks  
  • The extent of potential damage caused due to the vulnerability 

4. Remediate 

The final step in the vulnerability assessment process is remediation. Developing an actionable remediation plan that effectively closes security gaps without hampering ongoing business processes. Remediations plans are created and executed with security professionals working in collaboration with operations and development teams.  

Remediation is not a one-step process either. Effectively mitigating a security vulnerability involves steps like: 

  • Introducing new security processes, tools, and procedures 
  • Patching and updating the existing software  
  • Re-configuring policies and settings of security solutions 

Why Do Companies Need Vulnerability Assessments? 

Getting hit by a cyberattack is an unfortunate eventuality for most businesses. It’s not a question of “if” but “when.” The best thing you can do to ensure your business’s longevity is to keep it as free from security vulnerabilities as possible. 

Below listed are the benefits of vulnerability assessments for businesses: 

1. Proactively detect vulnerabilities before attackers find them 

The main benefit of regular vulnerability assessments is enhanced network protection. You find security vulnerabilities like SQL injections, dormant malware, misconfigurations, and weak passwords that advanced attackers can easily exploit. In the age of advanced, cutting-edge attack vectors, vulnerability assessments give businesses the first-mover advantage.  

2. Ensure secure implementation of operational changes  

Given that sudden transformations are typical, only dynamic and quickly adaptable businesses can succeed and operate efficiently. Your IT team and third-party vendors are constantly adding new devices and tools, opening ports, changing business logic, onboarding and offboarding new services, and changing system configurations.  

It is essential to ensure that security is not overlooked while these changes take place. Vulnerability assessments address newly arisen system vulnerabilities caused by major or minor changes. Security needs to be a central component of change management systems.  

3. Build customer trust and brand value 

Customers, partners, and vendors are reassured when they find out a business is serious about vulnerability and risk management. It conveys to stakeholders that you care about their privacy and data security. Regular vulnerability assessments reduce the chances of data breaches and hacks, ultimately leading to long-term customer satisfaction and enduring trust.  

4. Establish an environment of cybersecurity 

Getting regular vulnerability assessments and communicating the report with the entire team creates a culture of cybersecurity within your organization. It inspires and motivates your employees to take cybersecurity practices just as seriously. Cybersecurity awareness is crucial in the current threat landscape, which targets human behavior and psychology.  

5. Keep up with the dynamic threat landscape 

In today’s dynamic threat landscape, attack vectors evolve at an unprecedentedly rapid pace. By the time you’ve secured your IT infrastructure against one threat, a deadlier threat crops up. Vulnerabilities are exploited in a speedier fashion than before. Regular vulnerability assessments secure businesses against dynamic risks. 

6. Validate processes set up by third-party vendors 

Third-party vendors and outsourced IT providers have considerable access to an organization’s network. You need to be sure they’re maintaining your system as per the agreement and not creating or opening vulnerabilities. Independent vulnerability assessments ensure your systems are protected from abuse of privileged access.   

7. Check system configurations and patch maintenance

Vulnerability scanning is the best method to identify system misconfigurations and outdated operating systems that create exploitable vulnerabilities. While IT teams work hard to implement updates and patches as soon as they become available, oversight is possible. Vulnerability assessments offer a fresh perspective on system health and catch any mistakes that might have occurred while deploying new hardware or software.  

Types of Vulnerability Assessments 

A wide range of vulnerability and risk assessments are used to locate and highlight potential vulnerabilities. The scans can be focused on internal, external, or environmental entities. Also, they can be manual, automated, or a combination of both types.  

The most common types of vulnerability assessments are as follows: 

1. Network-based scans 

Network assessments are done to spot existing vulnerabilities in network security and related policies and discover unauthorized devices, systems, or entities that might have access to the network. It can find unknown perimeter points on a network, like connections to unsafe networks or unauthorized remote access.  

2. Application scans 

Application scans are used to identify vulnerabilities in web applications and their source code. Analysts use static and dynamic means to scan the front-end source code for loopholes automatically.

Suggested Reading: 6 Cloud Security Challenges You Should Know About In 2022

3. Database scans 

This assessment scans databases and extensive data systems to identify configuration vulnerabilities and weaknesses. With database vulnerability scanning, you can defend against attacks like SQL injections, packet sniffing, and privilege escalation.  

4. Host-based scans

Vulnerabilities exist in servers, workstations, other system hosts, and even legacy systems. Host-based scans check open ports and services while offering excellent visibility into configuration settings and patch history.  

Common Security Vulnerabilities Discovered in Assessments

Do you know how many vulnerabilities could exist within your network right now? Only a comprehensive vulnerability assessment will give you a clear answer.  

While considering the advantages of a vulnerability scan, look at the potential security risks commonly found and fixed during scanning.  

1. System misconfigurations

Hacking is made simpler by improperly configured websites and security tools. Poorly implemented changes, inaccurate configurations, or insecure default settings can put your data and systems at risk. Misconfigurations are the easiest vulnerability to exploit. Unfortunately, they are unavoidable in modern networks. They can occur in servers, operation systems, applications, endpoints, or browsers.

Suggested Reading: EDR vs SIEM: Which Threat Detection Tools You Need?

2. Unpatched or out-of-date software

Almost one in three data breaches occurs due to an unpatched software vulnerability. Unpatched software, or computer code with known security weaknesses, allows attackers to leverage existing security bugs. Unpatched software is known to be the most-exploited vector in Ransomware attacks. Out-of-bound write, out-of-bound read, and cross-site scripting are commonly found software vulnerabilities.  

3. Weak passwords or missing authorization

Weak passwords can be short, commonly used words or numbers, contain personally identifiable information, or a system default password. A password that can be easily guessed by hackers launching a brute force puts your entire system at considerable risk.  

4. Presence of insider threats

Human vulnerabilities are not as easy to detect as technical ones, making them an even greater risk. Vulnerability assessments provide enhanced visibility and can detect compromised users, unauthorized access, use of unauthorized storage devices, and cases of privilege abuse.  

5. Zero-day vulnerabilities

Zero-day vulnerabilities are newly discovered vulnerabilities that are not yet patched or publicly disclosed. As their patch does not yet exist, hackers are always looking for zero-day to exploit. They are primarily found in applications, popular operating systems, and hardware devices. Continuous vulnerability testing helps security teams discover zero-day before attackers can identify and exploit them.   

6. Poor data encryption practices

Data is the most valuable and targeted asset in any business. Encryption issues can arise at various stages. Where you store your data can lead to security issues. Using third-party services or cloud storage can pose data access risks.  

Suggested Reading: What is SIEM?

How Frequently Should Companies Conduct Vulnerability Assessments?

The best practice is to conduct an organization-wide vulnerability assessment at least once a quarter. Any frequency less than that puts your environment at risk of undiscovered and exploitable vulnerabilities. Having said that, it is challenging to find a uniform time frame that applies to all types of companies.  

Security analysts consider various frameworks when deciding the framework for vulnerability assessments: 

1. Change-based frequency

Fast-moving companies are deploying code or infrastructure changes on a regular basis. Each complex change can lead to various configuration mistakes or known vulnerabilities. This is why running a vulnerability scan after even minor changes are deployed is a preferred practice among IT-based companies. Many companies even integrate vulnerability testing tools into their deployment strategy.  

While automated tools are adequate in case of minor changes, significant changes require a more in-depth approach. Structural changes, like sweeping authentication and authorization changes or migrating to the cloud, are best paired with comprehensive scanning and penetration testing.  

2. Compliance-based frequency

Compliance regulations often specify how frequently vulnerability scans should take place. PCI DSS requires quarterly external system scans within its scope. On the other hand, HIPAA does not state a specific timeline for scanning but does state that a detailed assessment plan needs to be established. CMMC requires a weekly to quarterly assessment, depending on auditor requirements, and NIST calls for a quarterly to monthly assessment.

3. Based on emerging threats

Your industry’s sensitivity to emerging cyber threats also plays a significant role in determining the required frequency of vulnerability scans. Vulnerabilities can come up even within the short span of thirty days. Therefore, regular vulnerability scanning in correlation with emerging threat vectors is critical for cyber hygiene. 

Suggested Reading: What is Endpoint Detection and Response(EDR)?

Advanced Vulnerability Assessment By ACE

Third-party vulnerability assessments are an excellent option for companies that feel regular vulnerability assessments are too time and resource intensive. The security service provider undertakes a complete evaluation of the IT network, processes, endpoints, encryption practices, and password health.   

If your team lacks the internal capability to identify vulnerabilities and effectively mitigate them, you need the services of a managed security provider like Ace Cloud Hosting.  

ACE MSS provides a comprehensive vulnerability assessment of ever-evolving systems and threats. ACE Vulnerability Assessment follows a 3-step process for vulnerability management: 

1. Define – A thorough system assessment to understand the existing vulnerabilities and define the scope of security actions.  

2. Identify – A risk prioritization system ranks the vulnerabilities on the basis of severity, urgency, and threat context.  

3. Resolve – ACE experts provide automated analysis and risk mitigation as soon as exploitable vulnerabilities are detected.  

Our Vulnerability Assessment tool also provides compliance support. The VA process ensures that your IT assets are compatible with HIPAA, NIST 800, PCI DSS, ISO27001, and other major policies and regulations. Visit our Vulnerability Assessment Service to find out all the out-of-the-box features of ACE Vulnerability Management.  

Not yet sure if you need a vulnerability assessment? A single zero-cost security consultation with ACE experts will highlight the gaps in your current security posture and show you the way forward toward a highly secure IT environment.  

Book a free consultation now!

About Nolan Foster

With 20+ years of expertise in building cloud-native services and security solutions, Nolan Foster spearheads Public Cloud and Managed Security Services at Ace Cloud Hosting. He is well versed in the dynamic trends of cloud computing and cybersecurity.
Foster offers expert consultations for empowering cloud infrastructure with customized solutions and comprehensive managed security.

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