What is network scanning?

The field of digital security is so dynamic and complex that understanding fundamental concepts is crucial. One of those key principles is network scanning — a procedure that is perhaps not always given the prominence it deserves, but incredibly significant to the health and safety of networks and systems.

But what exactly is network scanning? That’s precisely what we’ll explore here.

Essentially, network scanning is an investigative process comprising a range of actions executed on a specific computer system or an entire interlinked ecosystem (a “network”). These actions are designed to identify operational units as well as their primary attributes and accessibility status — similar to taking an inventory of all devices operating within a digital domain.

With the ability to detect real-time activities within a network structure — such as identifying active hosts (computers), services offered by these hosts, along with details about running systems and open ports — network scanning provides a comprehensive cybersecurity snapshot of the complete digital ‘territory’.

This technical discovery strategy paves the way for a range of tasks and applications, ranging from straightforward system upkeep such as managing software updates or troubleshooting tech issues, to protecting complex security structures against potential cyber threats.

Now that we’ve explored the question “what is network scanning?”, perhaps the concept is not quite as daunting as before. So now we can dive more deeply into the various types of network scanning procedures, how they work, and what they are for.

Types of network scanning

Network scanning is a broad term covering different types of scans that IT professionals use to gain cybersecurity insights about networks. Each scan has its particular methodology and purpose. Simply put, there’s no one-size-fits-all type of network scan; you need to select the most suitable method for your specific goal. Here are several common network scanning types:

Passive scanning

Passive scanning involves observing system communications without actively sending any data packets. This approach enables you to monitor real-time network activities unobtrusively. In contrast with other methods, passive scanning is particularly effective at detecting systems whose presence is not indicated by observing traffic patterns alone.

Active scanning

Unlike passive scanning, active scanning often initiates contact with multiple network devices through various forms of interaction, like pings or port checks. It aims to gather more comprehensive and in-depth details about target systems, at the expense of stealthiness.

External vulnerability scan

As the name suggests, an external vulnerability scan focuses on identifying potential weaknesses from outside the network — effectively viewing your system as a hacker would. This type of scan plays a crucial role in developing an advanced threat protection strategy.

Full-assessment scan

Also known as an Internal Vulnerability Assessment or Comprehensive Audit, the full-assessment scan is a comprehensive review process inside your network environment that assesses every device within it.

This type of extensive scan helps build a complete inventory, detailing attributes such as device functionality, configurations settings, and currently installed software applications.

Penetration test

Penetration testing, or ‘pen testing’, is a process of staging mock cyber attacks against your own systems to identify weak spots before real hackers do. A penetration test deliberately attempts to exploit vulnerabilities uncovered during the scanning process, revealing what steps need to be taken to close these loopholes and boost the network’s cyber defenses.

While penetration testing might sound somewhat aggressive, it is an integral part of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy and helps build robust network defense mechanisms.

The process of network scanning

Network scanning may seem convoluted at first glance, but a deeper understanding reveals a systematic, logical process. In essence, “How to scan a network?” can be answered with these procedural steps:

  1. Identify the target system or network of systems you intend to scan. This decision may be influenced by several factors, such as the value of the data in a specific system or inherent vulnerabilities previously uncovered.
  2. Select the type of scan you wish to perform, such as passive scanning or active scanning, external vulnerability scans, full-assessment scans — each with unique features serving different purposes. For instance, suppose your aim is intrusion detection with a less aggressive approach. In this case, passive scanning would be an ideal choice. Active scanning, on the contrary, is suitable for immediate and detailed inspection.
  3. Conduct the scan using appropriate tools or software. This helps identify open ports and assess if they’re more susceptible to being hacked due to misconfigurations or other issues.
  4. Now it’s time for post-scanning activities, known as the analysis phase. During this critical step, the IT team analyzes results obtained from scanning and discerns potential vulnerabilities ready for exploitation.
  5. The final stage is mitigation, working extensively with reported findings to generate an effective solution to remediate security weaknesses.

In recent years, automated processes have become prevalent in network scanning methodologies, working in tandem with non-automated monitoring across networks in real-time. This hybrid approach is key to optimizing the efficiency of network scanning at scale.

Benefits of network scanning

Network scanning is an essential tool for network management and cybersecurity practices. Its importance lies in its ability to drastically improve the security, performance, and overall health of your IT environment.

Let’s explore some of the main benefits commonly attributed to network scanning:

  • Identifying potential security vulnerabilities: With regular and comprehensive network scans, it becomes easier to highlight potential flaws or weak points in your system that could be exploited by malicious entities. These may include outdated software versions, unused IP addresses, open ports, and more.
  • Improving network performance: A well-executed scan provides extensive data about each device connected to your network. Analyzing this data gives you a clearer understanding of how well your network is operating and where improvement efforts should be directed towards enhancing its performance.
  • Compliance with regulatory standards: Regular scanning assists businesses in complying with various industry-specific regulations, such as HIPAA for healthcare or PCI DSS for credit card transactions. Violation of these regulations can result in hefty fines and irreparable reputational damage. Network scanning helps prevent these unwanted consequences before they occur.

Network scanning best practices

When it comes to network scanning, there are certain practices to follow that maximize results while minimizing risks and disruptions. Granted, these are not set in stone; network scanning should be flexible, and you can adjust these guidelines according to your specific needs. Let’s dive in:

Go beyond default configurations

Before initiating the protocol of a scan operation, be sure to customize your network scanner settings. Using default configurations may seem like an easy go-to option but remember — every network is unique. Each network scan should have customized parameters that respect the individuality of the scan and ensure comprehensive coverage.

Schedule scans strategically

To mitigate potential disruption, plan your regular scanning sessions at off-peak hours when user activity is minimal. However, bear in mind the fine line between safety and stagnancy. Avoid staggered scanning intervals as they risk missing out on timely vulnerability detection.

Prioritize identified vulnerabilities

Following a network scan, swift triage of identified security threats should be priority number one. While minor vulnerabilities may trigger less alarm, ignoring them could lead to larger and less manageable problems over time. That’s why categorizing threats based on criticality is so important for streamlined remediation processes.

Regularly scan for updates maintenance

Networks are dynamic, and hackers never sleep! New and evolving cybersecurity threats are emerging all the time. Therefore, ensure that your scanning tool keeps up-to-date with the cybersecurity threat landscape by regularly updating definitions and signatures.

Manage ‘false positives’

Finally yet crucially, effective management of false positives requires a proactive approach. By regularly validating these alerts, you can minimize distractions during threat identification — using resources only when necessary and strengthening detection of true positives.

Ultimately, effective network scanning is not a one-time event but a consistent practice undertaken on constantly-changing networks. With network scanning, you gain insights into the health of your network infrastructure in real-time, which you can leverage for timely remedial actions wherever necessary. At the same time, ongoing network scanning is a part of a future-facing cyber-protection practice that ensures the security and resilience of your networks in the longer term too.

Atera’s network scan capabilities

The best IT management tools incorporate network scanning as part of the comprehensive solution. Atera’s all-in-one platform, for instance, supports network scanning across unlimited devices under single-management control. From proactive monitoring and automated patch management to intelligent alert systems and advanced reporting — Atera empowers IT professionals with tools for smart, swift network scanning processes.

  • Network discovery: This capability allows you to identify all devices connected to your network quickly. Atera eliminates any guesswork regarding which devices are consuming bandwidth or possibly creating vulnerabilities. Network Discover security scan capabilities lets you scan for open ports on customer’s networks so you can take action on security vulnerabilities
  • Real-time alerts: Atera’s robust Network Discovery system instantly notifies you when any unmonitored workstation or device connects to your network, ensuring proactive cyber defense. It is also capable of alerting you when the IP of the scanning device changes, the device goes offline, or the CVSS rating is low/medium/high.
  • Historical data access: Atera software provides historical data on your network activity. By monitoring trends and patterns over time, you are far better positioned for smart, strategic decision-making.

Atera’s comprehensive approach to network management goes way past the basic “what is a network scan” question — it provides users with a full-spectrum view of their network ecosystem and security status.

Why choose Atera network scanning?

Atera’s scanner function in network environments has several characteristics that set it apart:

  • Ease of use: Even for beginners, navigating through Areta’s platform is easy thanks to  the intuitive interface design.
  • Accuracy: The reliability of network data delivered by Atera helps users make informed decisions about enhancing their network security.
  • Customer support: Atera’s round-the-clock assistance helps you overcome challenges with your network scanning and IT management issues, so you get peace of mind.

In an era of constant cyber threats, maintaining network security cannot be an afterthought. It should be proactively managed and monitored, with the right approach to network scanning and other critical cybersecurity practices. Let Atera become your partner in network scanning and more, start your free trial today.

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