Vulnerability Scanning Tips

vulnerability scanning tipsBefore you start vulnerability scanning, you should take into consideration some issues. Port scanning is a fairly innocuous activity, althouh it is annoying when you see the activity showing up in your logs. Vulnerability testing, however, can be quite a bit more disruptive, crashing servers, taking down Internet connections, or even deleting data. Many of the Nessus tests, for example, are specifically designed to cause a denial-of-service attack. Even with the safe checks option turned on, the tests can cause problems with some systems. With this in mind, here are some guidelines.

Scan Only with Permission

You should never scan a network that is not under your direct control or if you do not have explicit permission from the owner. Some of the activity initiated by Nessus could be legally considered hacking (especially with the DoS checks turned on). Unless you want to take the chance of being criminally and civilly charged, or having a complaint lodged against you by your ISP, you should always scan with permission. Non-company outsiders such as consultants should make sure to obtain written permission with all the legal disclaimers necessary. Internal personnel should make sure they have authority to scan all the machines in the range they are scanning. Coordinate with other departmental personnel as necessary, such as firewall administrators and security staff.


Modern vulnerability scanners are easy to install and use, but they are generally installed with generic settings. Using such settings may not be a good idea if you have legacy hardware. Approaching legacy hardware with a scan calls for caution, as a scan may cause problems with the legacy machine’s approaches to port management and binding. In such cases, port scanning can cause connection hang-ups and even system crashes. As a result, if your network includes such hardware, you want to be aware of the potential issues of running an untested scan and plan accordingly. Segmenting your risk by testing only a few servers at a time may be the way to go.

You should always make sure your backups are current anyway, but it is doubly important when vulnerability scanning, just in case the scan causes a problem with a server. Doing a Nessus scan right after you run backups will ensure that you can restore the most current version. But also make sure you aren’t running your scan during a backup. Not only could you cause a corruption of your backup data, but both processes will slow to a crawl.

Scheduling Your Scans

Along the lines of the last comment, make sure you coordinate your scan to get the results you want with minimal impact on other employees. Scanning the mail server at 8:00 AM when everyone is getting their e-mail will probably not make you very popular with the staff. Schedule scans on always-up servers for off-hours, and be sure to avoid overlapping with other system administration and general activity levels. If you are scanning internal machines, you will probably want to do it during the day unless you can arrange for everyone to leave their machines on at the end of the day. The best time to do it during business hours is generally around the lunch hour, as a minimal number of people will be using the network.

Schedule your scans as often as you feel is necessary, but don’t automatically assume that nightly scans are going to make your network more secure. If you cannot interpret and respond to scan reports on a daily basis, then don’t do the scan; all it will do is put additional traffic on your network. Base your frequency on the capability of your staff to deal with the results. You should do it at least once a month, but if you have a particularly busy network, you may want to do it weekly. Similarly, if you have a very small external network, you may feel comfortable with quarterly scans. Daily scans are probably excessive unless you have dedicated staff to handle the remediation work. If you have that much need for up-to-the minute protection, then use an intrusion detection system to supplement your vulnerability testing.

If you want a true of your external vulnerability (for the Internet), you should make sure your Nessus server is located outside your firewall. This can be on a home Internet connection, at a data center that is outside your company network, or at another company (perhaps you can negotiate a trade to use another company’s facilities for scanning and let them user yours for the same). Remember, because of the Nessus client-server architecture, you can still control your scans from inside your firewall. Just make sure you enable the SSL support so communications between your client and the server are encrypted.

If you are scanning your internal network, your internal network, your server will have to be located inside your firewall. Loading Nessus on a laptop can facilitate doing scans from both inside and outside your network without requiring multiple machines.

External Links:

Vulnerability Scanning Do’s And Don’ts at www.darkreading.com

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