Vulnerability Scanning: What It Is & Why It’s Important for Security and Compliance

  • August 29, 2023

Celine Pham

Content Marketing Advisor at Red Sentry


Anna Fitzgerald

Senior Content Marketing Manager at Secureframe

This article is written and contributed by Red Sentry, a proud Secureframe partner.

As organizations navigate an increasingly complex threat and regulatory landscape, vulnerability scanners can help bolster an organization’s vulnerability management program

Vulnerability scanners automatically identify and report on any vulnerabilities found. When used in conjunction with a compliance automation platform, they can help organizations enhance their security posture and meet compliance requirements. 

Keep reading to learn what vulnerability scanning is, how it works, and what benefits it offers.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning uses automation to identify security weaknesses in computer systems, networks, and applications. By conducting regular scans, organizations can proactively address vulnerabilities, reducing the risk of cyberattacks and data breaches.

This approach can also help organizations maintain compliance with industry regulations and security standards, as many frameworks require vulnerability assessments.

Implementing automated scanning also demonstrates a commitment to data protection, instills confidence in stakeholders, and strengthens overall security measures.

Before we dive deeper into how vulnerability scanning works and what benefits it offers, let’s clarify how vulnerability scanning relates to terms that are often used interchangeably.

Vulnerability scanning vs penetration testing

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are both designed to assess an organization’s security posture, but there are key differences. 

A vulnerability scan is a high-level test that focuses on finding, prioritizing, and reporting vulnerabilities using automated tools, whereas a penetration test is a more in-depth test designed to not only discover but exploit vulnerabilities and potentially move deeper through your environment to discover additional threats. 

A penetration test can do this by using threat modeling simulations to map out the application’s entire attack surface to identify possible attack entry points. Automated vulnerability scans, on the other hand, don’t necessarily consider the organization’s application business logic, which could lead to overlooked vulnerabilities or false positives.

That’s why a vulnerability scan is often just one part of the penetration testing process. 

Vulnerability scanning vs vulnerability management

Vulnerability management is the overall process organizations use to identify, analyze, and manage vulnerabilities within their operating environment and it often consists of multiple components, including:

So you can think of vulnerability scanning as a subset of vulnerability management. 

How does vulnerability scanning work?

Vulnerability scanning works by using specialized software tools to systematically scan and analyze computer systems, networks, and applications. The scanning tool searches for known security weaknesses, misconfigurations, and outdated software versions. It then generates a detailed report highlighting the identified vulnerabilities and their severity levels.

Organizations can use this information to prioritize and address the vulnerabilities, applying patches, configuration changes, or other security measures to strengthen their defenses and reduce the risk of potential cyber threats.

Regular vulnerability scanning helps maintain a proactive security stance, ensuring that new vulnerabilities are promptly detected and mitigated to safeguard critical data and assets.

Benefits of vulnerability scanning

Organizations of all sizes can use vulnerability scanners to proactively detect and address security weaknesses. In fact, small businesses are often more vulnerable to cyberattacks due to resource limitations and potentially weaker defenses.

With vulnerability scanning, organizations can effectively bolster their cybersecurity efforts, safeguard critical data, and mitigate the heightened risk of cyber threats that could lead to operational disruptions and reputational damage. Let’s take a closer look at these benefits below.

1. Early detection of weaknesses

Vulnerability scanners allow you to identify security weaknesses and flaws in your systems, networks, and applications before they are exploited by malicious actors. This proactive approach enables timely mitigation, reducing the risk of cyberattacks and data breaches.

2. Efficient risk management

By providing detailed reports on vulnerabilities and their severity levels, vulnerability scanners help your business prioritize security efforts. This allows you to allocate resources more effectively to address the most critical vulnerabilities first, thereby reducing your overall risk exposure.

3. Compliance and regulatory adherence

Many industry regulations and standards require organizations to conduct regular vulnerability assessments. For example, SOC 2, ISO 27001, and PCI DSS all require regular internal and external vulnerability scanning (usually quarterly). 

By using vulnerability scanners, your organization can demonstrate compliance with these requirements, avoiding potential penalties and legal consequences.

4. Time and cost savings

Automated vulnerability scanning significantly reduces the time and effort required to identify security weaknesses manually. This translates into cost savings by minimizing the potential impact of security incidents and streamlining security operations.

5. Enhanced security posture

Regular use of vulnerability scanners helps organizations maintain a strong security posture by continuously monitoring for new vulnerabilities and changes in the environment. This proactive stance can help you stay ahead of potential threats and maintain a vigilant approach to security.

Overall, vulnerability scanners are valuable tools for identifying, prioritizing, and addressing security vulnerabilities, contributing to a more secure and resilient digital infrastructure.

Vulnerability scanning tools

Vulnerability scanning tools are automated tools that scan web applications and networks to look for and report vulnerabilities such as cross-site scripting, SQL injection, command injection, path traversal and insecure server configuration.

Here are some possible criteria to use when evaluating vulnerability scanning tools:

  • Types of environments: A vulnerability scanning tool can analyze different environments: internal, external, and cloud. Ensure you pick a tool that can analyze the environments you have. You may need one tool that can scan all three. 
  • Actionable reporting: A vulnerability scanning tool should provide comprehensive reports that show you what's wrong, where it's wrong, and how to fix it.
  • Size of database and frequency of updates: When evaluating vulnerability scanning tools, determine how large its database of known vulnerabilities is and how often it’s updated. This can help provide assurance that it’s finding and reporting the latest identified exploits and vulnerabilities.
  • False positive rate: The best vulnerability scanning tools strike a balance between quantity and quality of vulnerabilities so they identify as many vulnerabilities as possible while minimizing false positives and negatives. Look for a vulnerability scanning tool with a low false positive rate. 

Using a vulnerability scanner in conjunction with an automated compliance platform 

Vulnerability scanners play a pivotal role in safeguarding digital assets by proactively identifying security weaknesses. They help organizations stay ahead of potential threats, enabling timely mitigation and reducing the risk of cyberattacks and data breaches.

While vulnerability scanners are powerful tools in themselves, pairing them with compliance automation platforms can further streamline the vulnerability management process as well as the often complex task of maintaining security and privacy compliance. For example, Secureframe is an automated compliance platform designed to help companies achieve and maintain rigorous security standards, such as SOC 2, ISO 27001, HIPAA, and PCI DSS. It streamlines the compliance process by automating evidence collection, risk management, vendor and personnel management, asset inventory management, remediation for failing tests, and more. 

The synergy between Red Sentry’s vulnerability scanner and Secureframe’s compliance automation platform ensures that not only are vulnerabilities promptly addressed, but also that the organization's overall security posture aligns with industry standards. Together, these tools offer a comprehensive and proactive approach to cybersecurity and regulatory compliance.


What is an example of vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scans can be conducted by independent third parties, or conducted internally with tools and services that may already be part of an organization’s tech stack. Examples include AWS Inspector and Github Dependabot. 

What is vulnerability scanning and why is it important?

Vulnerability scanning uses automation to identify security weaknesses in computer systems, networks, and applications. By conducting regular scans, organizations can proactively address vulnerabilities, reducing the risk of cyberattacks and data breaches. It can also help organizations maintain compliance with industry regulations and security standards, as many frameworks require periodic vulnerability assessments.

What is the difference between a vulnerability scan and a security scan?

Like a vulnerability scan, a security scan uses a variety of automated software tools to test a network’s vulnerabilities.