Nessus Vulnerability Scanner: An Introduction


Introducing the Nessus Vulnerability Scanner

Modern computer networks have multiple potential areas of insecurity. How do you protect all these avenues of attack? You might feel that protecting your network is an impossible situation. You could spend all day, every day, just checking for these security holes manually. Even if you tried to automate it with scripts, would would seem to take dozens of programs. Fortunately, there are packages out there called vulnerability scanners that will automatically check all these areas and more.

Nessus is an excellent program. It is a great example of how well open source projects can work, although the project has been since been changed to a proprietary (closed source) license. [The Nessus 3 engine is still free of charge, though Tenable Network Security, the company founded by Nessus creator Renaud Deraison, charges $100/month per scanner for the ability to perform configuration audits for PCI, CIS, FDCC and other configuration standards, technical support, SCADA vulnerability audits, the latest network checks and patch audits, the ability to audit anti-virus configurations and the ability for Nessus to perform sensitive data searches to look for credit card, social security number and many other types of corporate data.] It is robust, well documented, well maintained, and the premiere vulnerability scanner. Nessus has consistently rated at the top of all vulnerability scanners, commercial or noncommercial. This is amazing when you consider its competitors cost thousands of dollars and are created by large companies. It continues to impress and improve, and most importantly, to protect thousands of companies’ networks. There are some design features that make Nessus unique and superior to other vulnerability scanners.

Even as Nessus 3 and subsequent versions went closed source, the Nessus 2 engine and a minority of the plugins are still GPL, leading to forked open source projects based on Nessus. Tenable Network Security has still maintained the Nessus 2 engine and has updated it several times since the release of Nessus 3. The current stable version of Nessus is 5.2.1 (released May 7, 2013).

Nessus currently offers over 2000 individual vulnerability tests that cover practically every area of potential weakness in systems. Very few scanners out there can compete with this level of testing, and new tests are being added daily by a worldwide network of developers. The speed of release of new tests for emerging vulnerabilities is usually measured in days if not hours. Its plug-in based architecture allows new tests to be added easily.

You can turn off whole categories of tests if they do not apply or if you are worried they could be dangerous to your systems, or you can deactivate individual tests if you have it concern about a specific one. For example, you may prefer to disable the untested category, which contains tests that haven’t been fully tested yet.

Nessus uses a client-server architecture to run its security checks. The server runs the tests and the client configures and controls the sessions. The fact that the client and server can be separated offers some unique advantages. This means that you can have your scanning server outside your network, yet access it from inside your network via the client. this also allows other operating systems to be supported via different clients. There are currently UNIX and Window clients available, with projects to create additional ones ongoing. These is also now a web client interface available, which makes Nessus truly platform independent (at least on the client end).

In the next article, we will continue our discussion of Nessus and its features.

External Links:

Nessus home page on

Nessus on Wikipedia

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