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What’s the Difference Between Vulnerability Assessment Scanners and Vulnerability Prioritization Tools

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Under the umbrella of risked-based vulnerability management (RBVM) live a host of tools who’s applications correspond to various stages of the vulnerability management lifecycle. The earliest stages of this lifecycle include Discover and Prioritize. In these stages, our two technologies of discussion come into focus – vulnerability assessment scanners (VAS) and vulnerability prioritization tools (VPT). These two tools serve specific purposes, but can overlap and cause confusion in some areas of function. If you’re new to vulnerability management or are in the process of evaluating these technologies, allow us to demystify these two critical components of your cybersecurity program.

Let’s start this comparison by putting things in very simple terms. Vulnerability assessment scanners discover the vulnerabilities in your environment. Vulnerability prioritization tools tell you which of those vulnerabilities you need to fix first. Now there is a lot more that goes into making this happen with respect to both tools, but this is the simplest way to explain the unique purposes they serve. If we’re looking at a VAS from a relationship standpoint when compared to a VPT, a VAS is the peanut butter while a VPT is the jelly. You need both to have them work together in order to produce an ideal output for the early stages of the vulnerability management lifecycle. 

To dive deeper into the details, vulnerability assessment scanners come first, both in terms of the vulnerability management lifecycle and remediation workflow. As previously mentioned, these tools are responsible for discovering vulnerabilities in your environment. They do this by first extracting all sorts of information from the environment hosts, including:

  • Active network interfaces
  • Process lists
  • Open ports via network port scans
  • OS and application version fingerprinting
  • Presence of endpoint EDR and anti-viruses
  • Network topology, routing, subnetting and network segmentation information, and more

With this information collected, the VAS will then correlate it to known CVEs (common vulnerabilities and exposures) based on corresponding parameters. When environmental parameters map to known CVE parameters, a vulnerability is identified.

It’s important to note that there isn’t a one-and-done vulnerability assessment scanner. They come in many different flavors based on what is being scanned:

  • Infrastructure
  • Cloud/Container
  • Application – SAST
  • Application – DAST
  • End Point

fSome scanners are capable of scanning several of the above options, but a true all-in-one vulnerability assessment scanner doesn’t exist. Generally speaking, the larger your organization and the more complex your environment (cloud, on prem, hybrid), the more and various types of scanners you’ll have to have.

It’s unquestionable that vulnerability assessment scanners are very powerful tools. They are a must-have for any SOC or VM team looking to identify the latest and greatest vulnerabilities exposing their companies to cyber risk. However, there is a side effect of the function these tools perform. Organizations’ SOCs and security departments quickly get buried with the number of vulnerabilities that VASs find and report. More often than not, the majority of these identified vulnerabilities are all labeled Critical or High Risk (at least based on the CVSS score’s scale). Combine that overwhelming number of vulnerabilities with similar risk ratings and you can see where manageability goes out the window. 

Vulnerability prioritization tools were created to address the problem created by scanners. Recall our simple explanation at the top of this post – vulnerability prioritization tools tell you which vulnerabilities you need to fix first. Where scanners tend to operate on the assumption that EVERY vulnerability is critically important. VPTs instead operate on the philosophy that if every vulnerability is critically important, then none of them are. In terms of the vulnerability management lifecycle, VPTs address the Prioritize stage and come second in the workflow when remediating vulnerabilities. 

In terms of how VPTs work, let’s assume that your enterprise has a complex hybrid environment and thus you have multiple scanners. You’d integrate all of these scanners into your vulnerability prioritization tool. As vulnerabilities are identified, their information is piped into your VPT to be consolidated and stack ranked. From there, context is the name of the game for the VPT (another area where scanners tend to fall short). To get the context necessary to make prioritization calls, VPTs use the collected vulnerability information from scanners and then correlate it with the following:

  • Host function and intrinsic value based on the host unique features
  • Contextual information, such as network topology and subnetting that might facilitate or prevent the vulnerability exploitation through network segmentation
  • Mitigating controls, which might reduce the probability of a successful exploitation

After this process is performed, the vulnerabilities are aggregated into an organized list for VM teams to remediate. This alleviates the overload problem created by scanners. If you’d like to dive deeper into the details on VPT, we recommend reading this blog on the inner workings of vulnerability prioritization tools (what they are and how they work).

There is one final important distinction that separates vulnerability assessment scanners and vulnerability prioritization tools. Where a VAS serves one main purpose (identification), VPTs also usually offer additional capabilities beyond just prioritization. These can include:

  • Workflow automation – by integrating with ITSMs, VPTs can push tickets for their console to ITOps to facilitate remediation/patching operations
  • Program reporting – VPTs do a much better job of communicating the state of vulnerability management within an organization, both at the analyst and executive levels
  • Process centralization – instead of working out of a wide array of tools, because of their ability to integrate with a number of security tools, VPTs can serve as the centralized operational home base for VM teams

Both vulnerability assessment scanner and vulnerability prioritization tools are critically important to reduce cyber exposure, but they serve different purposes. VPTs are what make it possible for Security teams to fix less and secure more. If you’re in the market for a solution that will help you better prioritize and manage vulnerabilities, here is a buyer’s guide for vulnerability prioritization tools. If you’re interested in learning about NopSec’s VPT you can schedule a demo with us and talk to our vulnerability management experts about your problems.

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