A network scanner is a somewhat vague term. While it is easy to answer questions such as “what does a patch manager do?”, the same cannot be said of a network scanner. The main reason for this is that a network scanner, unlike a patch manager, is not designed to perform a single function. In general, a network scanner can perform a series of different tasks and checks to ensure that your network is secure against all known vulnerabilities as well as to make sure that it is configured in a secure way.
This is all well and good, but at the end of the day, why do you need a network scanner?
1. To ensure your software is configured securely:
An administrator’s life can be quite demanding at times. It is not enough for an administrator to make sure that any software deployed on the network works as it should but s/he also needs to make sure that this software is configured securely in a way that makes it quite hard for others to exploit.
I cannot stress enough this point. Consider a mail server, for example, that allows relaying from any source. Such a mail server would be seen as working correctly. Any person on your network would be able to send and receive emails without any issues. In fact, in terms of functionality there are no issues.
However, a mail server which relays messages from any source is prone to be discovered by spammers and it is quite likely that they will exploit it to run massive spam campaigns through it. This will lead to a severely degraded performance as your bandwidth would be flooded with spam. Moreover, such activity could get the organization into trouble, your server blacklisted internationally and your company labelled a spammer. This is why a securely configured server is a must.
2. Ensuring there are no unnecessary services or applications:
Every service or application that runs on a system is a potential security risk. One can never be absolutely sure that a service or application is not exploitable. The solution is to avoid running unnecessary services or applications and to do so you have to identify what these are.
While one can manually do a software inventory periodically, using a good network scanner will allow the administrator to do so accurately on a daily basis and be a lot more proactive.
3. Removing unused user accounts and open shares:
User accounts that are no longer required should be deleted at once. They can easily be exploited by their former owners when they leave the company especially if they were fired or they left on bad terms and hold a grudge against the organization.
Deleting accounts as soon as people leave the company is a good practice but is not always enough. Employees with a grudge might have created new user accounts on a number of systems, even more so nowadays when you can deploy virtual machines so easily. Apart from sending out alerts when new user accounts are created, a network scanner can be set to notify the administrator when an account has not been used for a long period of time.
Open shares are also common vectors used to spread malware. A good network scanner can periodically look for such unauthorized shares saving administrators from having to do lengthy inventories in order to maintain network integrity.
There are other reasons why you should be using a network scanner. For instance, to identify vulnerabilities that are hard to find manually. You can regularly monitor the network, automatically carry out audits that otherwise would take ages to complete manually.
What is important is that issues are discovered today and not in a month’s time or when something goes wrong. That is the difference between a safe network and one at risk of being exploited and compromised.
Editor Note: This guest post was provided by Emmanuel Carabott on behalf of GFI Software Ltd. GFI is a leading software developer that provides a single source for network administrators to address their network security, content security and messaging needs. Read more on the importance of using a network scanner.
Disclaimer: All product and company names herein may be trademarks of their respective owners.