In the digital age, assuring the security and integrity of IT infrastructure is paramount for businesses of all sizes. Vulnerability scanning plays a crucial role in identifying weaknesses in systems and networks, and forms the backbone of any robust cybersecurity strategy. 

What happens, however, when this critical step fails or encounters issues? This article delves into how you should understand external vulnerability scans, scan reports, and scan results; the importance of scanning; common reasons for failures; and steps to troubleshoot these issues.

What is a vulnerability scan?

A vulnerability scan is a critical component in the cybersecurity toolkit. It provides an automated evaluation of systems, networks, and applications to unearth security vulnerabilities. 

This process is facilitated by software designed to probe the attack surface of an organization’s IT environment. By leveraging databases filled with known vulnerabilities, these scans can pinpoint security gaps — that is, weaknesses or flaws that could potentially serve as entry points for cybercriminals.

The scope of a vulnerability scan can vary widely, ranging from surface-level checks that identify outdated software and missing patches to deep dives that assess configurations, encryption weaknesses, and more intricate software bugs. The ultimate objective is to create a comprehensive inventory of vulnerabilities that exist within the digital ecosystem of a business. This inventory then becomes the foundation for further analysis and remediation efforts, guiding cybersecurity teams in prioritizing their response to the most critical vulnerabilities that pose the highest risk to the organization.

How often should you run a vulnerability scan?

Figuring out the best frequency for vulnerability scans hinges on several factors, including the organization’s risk profile, the nature of the data it handles, and its regulatory landscape. Best practices in the industry advocate for conducting vulnerability scans on a quarterly basis as a baseline. This pace assures that organizations maintain a consistent overview of their security posture, allowing them to react to new vulnerabilities in a timely manner.

For certain environments, however, quarterly scans may not suffice. In sectors where organizations deal with highly sensitive information or in highly dynamic IT environments, monthly or even weekly scans might be more appropriate. Such frequency assures that any vulnerabilities introduced by new software deployments or system updates are quickly identified and addressed.

Vulnerability scans should also happen after any significant changes to the IT environment, such as the deployment of new applications, updates to existing software, or modifications to network infrastructure. These scans help to verify that the changes have not inadvertently introduced new vulnerabilities or exposed the organization to additional risks.

In essence, the cadence of vulnerability scanning should be a reflection of an organization’s commitment to cybersecurity hygiene, balanced against its operational realities and risk tolerance. Tailoring the frequency of these scans to the specific needs and circumstances of the organization assures that cybersecurity efforts are both efficient and effective, providing a crucial line of defense in an ever-evolving threat landscape.

4 Steps of the Vulnerability Management Process

  1. Identification. Discover vulnerabilities through automated scanning tools and manual testing techniques.
  2. Evaluation. Assess the criticality of identified vulnerabilities, considering the potential impact and exploitability.
  3. Remediation. Address vulnerabilities by applying patches, configuring changes, or implementing compensatory controls.
  4. Verification. Re-scan to confirm the effectiveness of remediation efforts and confirm that no new vulnerabilities have been introduced.

What could cause a vulnerability scan to fail or go down?

Vulnerability scan failures or downtimes can significantly impede an organization’s ability to address security threats effectively. These failures can be attributed to many factors, each affecting the scan’s ability to perform its intended function.

  • Network connectivity problems. A fundamental issue that can cause scans to fail is network connectivity issues. If the scanning tool cannot reach the target systems or networks due to network outages or misconfigurations, it will not be able to perform the scan.
  • Misconfigured scan settings. Incorrect scan settings can lead to incomplete scans or scans that fail to run. This could be due to improperly defined targets, incorrect scan intensity levels, or the selection of inappropriate scan types for the target environment.
  • Inadequate access permissions. Scans often require specific permissions to access and assess the systems they are scanning. Without the necessary permissions, the scan might fail to analyze the systems thoroughly, leading to incomplete vulnerability assessments.
  • Outdated scanning software. Vulnerability scanning tools need to be updated regularly to recognize the latest vulnerabilities. Outdated software may not only fail to detect new vulnerabilities; it can also experience compatibility issues with newer systems and protocols, leading to scan failures.
  • Interference from security controls. Firewalls, intrusion prevention systems (IPS), and other security measures can mistakenly identify scan traffic as malicious and block it. This interference, while well-meaning, can prevent the scan from reaching its targets or completing its tasks.

What should I do if my vulnerability scan service stops working?

When facing issues with your vulnerability scan service, a systematic approach to troubleshooting can help identify and resolve the problem efficiently.

  1. Verify network connectivity and login credentials. Confirm that no network issues are preventing the vulnerability scanner tool from accessing its targets. Also, verify that the login credentials used by the scanner are correct and have not expired.
  2. Review scan configuration. Examine the scan settings to assure they are correctly configured for your specific environment. This includes checking the target definitions, scan type selections, and any custom scan options that have been set.
  3. Assure the scanning software is up to date. Regularly update your vulnerability scanning software to incorporate the latest vulnerability signatures and compatibility improvements. This both enhances the effectiveness of your scans and also reduces the likelihood of technical issues.
  4. Consult the documentation. Many common issues and their solutions are documented in the tool’s user guide or online support resources. Reviewing these resources can provide insights into resolving the problem.
  5. Seek support from the software provider. If the issue persists despite your troubleshooting efforts, contact the software provider’s support team for expert assistance. Provide them with detailed information about the problem, including any error messages and the steps you have already taken to resolve the issue.

Addressing issues with vulnerability scans promptly assures that your organization can continue to identify and address security vulnerabilities effectively, maintaining a strong cybersecurity posture.

Troubleshooting Vulnerability Scan Failures

When a vulnerability scan fails or doesn’t perform as expected, identifying and addressing the root cause is crucial for maintaining an effective cybersecurity posture. Here are expanded steps on how to troubleshoot common issues that could lead to vulnerability scan failures.

Check Network Connectivity

  • Diagnose network issues. Use network diagnostic tools (ping or traceroute, for example) to verify that the scanning tool can communicate with the target systems. Network outages or misconfigurations can impede this communication, causing scans to fail.
  • Verify network configurations. Confirm that the network configuration allows the scanner to reach its targets. This may involve checking network segments, VLAN configurations, and routing rules.

Review Scan Configurations

  • Check target definitions. Incorrectly defined targets can result in scans failing to execute properly. Verify that all target IPs or domain names are correctly specified in the scan settings.
  • Adjust scan intensity. Aggressive scan settings may overwhelm target systems or network resources, leading to disruptions. Consider adjusting the scan’s intensity or speed to reduce its impact on the network and target systems.
  • Custom scan options. Custom scan options that aren’t compatible with the target IT environment can cause failures. Review any custom settings or advanced options and confirm that they are appropriate for the targets being scanned.

Validate Access Permissions

  • Scanner credentials. Confirm that the scanner has been provided with valid credentials that grant it the necessary access levels to perform comprehensive scans on the target assets.
  • Permission settings on targets. Ensure that the target systems are configured to allow the scanner to access and evaluate the necessary files, directories, and services. This may involve configuring or temporarily relaxing access control lists (ACLs) or permissions.

Update Scanning Software

  • Install updates. Regularly check for and install updates to your vulnerability scanning software. These updates can include new vulnerability signatures, compatibility fixes, and performance improvements.
  • Compatibility checks. Be sure that the scanning software is compatible with the operating systems and applications present on your target assets. Compatibility issues can lead to incomplete scans or false negatives.

Examine Security Controls

  • Firewall rules. Review and adjust firewall rules that may be blocking scan traffic. Assure that the scanning traffic is allowed through from the scanner to the target systems.
  • Intrusion prevention systems (IPS). Temporarily disable IPS features that might be interpreting scan traffic as a threat. If disabling is not possible, consider creating exceptions for scan traffic based on its source IP.

Consult Logs and Documentation

  • Review scan logs. Scan logs can provide valuable insights into why a scan failed. Look for error messages or warnings that indicate what went wrong during the scan process.
  • Documentation and support resources. Consult the scanning tool’s documentation and online support resources for troubleshooting advice. Many common issues and their solutions are documented and can guide you in resolving the problem.

By methodically working through these troubleshooting steps, organizations can identify and resolve the issues causing vulnerability scan failures, ensuring their scanning tools are effectively identifying and helping to mitigate security vulnerabilities.

ZenGRC Is Your Solution for Continuous Compliance & Risk Management

ZenGRC streamlines the vulnerability management program process by integrating with leading scanning tools and providing a centralized platform for tracking and managing vulnerabilities. 

Its dashboard offers real-time visibility into your security posture, allowing you to prioritize and address vulnerabilities efficiently. By automating compliance tasks and simplifying risk management, ZenGRC helps organizations maintain an active stance against cyber threats. This assures continuous compliance with industry standards and regulations. 

With ZenGRC, businesses can not only troubleshoot vulnerability scan failures more effectively; they can also enhance their overall cybersecurity framework, protecting their assets from potential breaches.

Learn how ZenGRC can help ease the burden of data exfiltration detection by scheduling a demo today. That’s worry-free compliance and incident response planning — the Zen way.