In today’s rapidly evolving threat landscape, the top priority for an organization is securing critical IT assets and systems while fulfilling end-user and regulatory demands. However, the focus of protecting an IT infrastructure is no longer merely on maintaining existing defenses but on keeping up with the increasing frequency and level of sophistication of cyberattacks. That’s where performing regular network security assessments comes into play. A network security assessment helps organizations gain a comprehensive understanding of network changes and hidden vulnerabilities in their IT infrastructure. This empowers organizations to promptly manage and address new vulnerabilities and threats, thereby effectively reducing the risk of a data breach.
In this blog, we’ll grasp the fundamentals of network security assessment, including its definition, why it’s important, the different types and how often an assessment should be conducted.
What is a network security assessment?
A network security assessment is a meticulous evaluation of an organization’s IT network infrastructure, protocols and configurations. The aim of network security assessments is to uncover hidden vulnerabilities, assess the level of risk and suggest an actionable plan for remediation. It equips an organization with key insights to incorporate robust security controls and reduce exposure to internal and external threats while ensuring adherence to compliance requirements.
Why are network security assessments important?
Network security assessments are essential to protecting the integrity of an organization’s sensitive data and intellectual property from potential cyberattacks. By scrutinizing an organization’s security posture, network security assessments enable IT teams to detect, assess and minimize loopholes or entry points that cybercriminals could exploit. Likewise, network security assessments help ensure an organization meets industry regulations and standards, such as GDPR, HIPAA and ISO 27001, that require implementing best practices for protecting sensitive data. In a nutshell, by conducting network security assessments, organizations are safeguarding their reputation, building a solid foundation for data security and avoiding significant expenses associated with data breaches, including hefty fines and legal fees.
If you’re running an organization, the goal of a network security assessment is to help you answer questions like:
- Which critical systems and data assets will likely be breached?
- What are the potential attack vectors for cybercriminals?
- What impact would a cyberattack have on a specific asset?
- How should sensitive data, such as personally identifiable information or protected health information, be stored and protected to avoid a data leak?
- How to proactively mitigate a particular type of attack?
What are the two types of network security assessments?
At its core, there are two types of network security assessments: vulnerability assessment and penetration testing. Both are great methods to evaluate the effectiveness of an organization’s IT network defenses and the potential impact of a cyberattack on specific assets. Let’s see what each method entails and how they assist in the process.
As its name suggests, vulnerability assessment is the process of identifying, classifying and prioritizing vulnerabilities in an organization’s network that cybercriminals can exploit. It provides an overview of the weaknesses, misconfigurations, open ports, malware and other security issues using automated tools. Once the scan is complete, the results are analyzed to assess which areas of the system need to be addressed and strengthened for their overall security.
The benefits of vulnerability assessment include the following:
- Uncover common vulnerabilities and anomalies, such as weak passwords, encryption protocols, misconfigured access controls and unpatched systems, to gain a clear understanding of potential entry points.
- Prioritize remediation efforts based on the level of risk identified threats pose.
- Minimize the window of opportunity for cybercriminals to attack by making informed cybersecurity decisions.
On the other hand, penetration testing, also known as pen testing or ethical hacking, is the practice of simulating a cyberattack on an organization’s network and applications to identify hidden vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Unlike vulnerability assessments that merely highlight potential threat vectors, penetration testing goes a step further by using the same techniques and tools malicious actors employ to assess an organization’s current security posture. It’s manually performed by skilled security professionals who follow a controlled methodology to actively probe systems, outline the potential impact of threats and help establish countermeasures.
The benefits of penetration testing include the following:
- Identifies vulnerabilities and weaknesses that may not be discovered by automated scans.
- Provides a comprehensive assessment of an organization’s vulnerabilities and incidence response measures in a real-world scenario.
- Equips you with valuable insights and recommendations to fine-tune the implementation and effectiveness of security controls and policies.
In summary, vulnerability assessments and penetration testing are valuable tools for proactive cybersecurity. By conducting these network security assessments, organizations will gain an in-depth understanding of the threats they face so they can implement appropriate measures to address them.
Network security assessment methodology
A network security assessment is integral to any security life cycle, providing organizations with valuable insights to ensure their networks and data are protected and adhered to regulatory policies.
The following is a sample of a six-step methodology for performing a comprehensive network security assessment:
1. Document and prioritize network assets
The fundamental prerequisite step of a network security assessment, before IT teams test for vulnerabilities and weaknesses, is to take inventory of critical IT resources (networks, endpoints, data and other vital assets). This documentation is used to establish a complete map of an organization’s IT environment and its security controls.
2. Examine and assess vulnerabilities
Once a map of an organization’s IT environment is established, IT teams can start scanning for vulnerabilities and weaknesses. A thorough assessment of vulnerabilities should include the following:
- An assessment of both internal and external weaknesses of the organization.
- A comprehensive evaluation of security configurations and patch levels in systems and devices.
- Assessment of database security settings, permissions and configurations.
- A review of information security, third-party access and employee behavior policies.
Network administrators should prioritize and plan remediation efforts based on the potential impact of vulnerabilities and weaknesses on an organization’s security. This includes external risks, bottlenecks, unused or underutilized resources and other areas requiring optimization.
3. Test security controls and defenses
At this point, organizations must actively test their security controls and defenses to ensure they have correctly assessed their vulnerabilities. This can be done via manual penetration testing or automated ethical hacking tools. Conducting these simulation tests is a valuable method to assess the efficacy of an organization’s security controls and risk mitigation techniques in a real-life scenario.
4. Document and communicate results
The scans and tests help organizations gain valuable insights into their security posture, but to maximize the impact, organizations need to document and communicate the findings effectively. It includes creating summarized reports that categorize and prioritize these threats to drive informed decision-making.
5. Plan and implement remedies
The next step is turning the insights into actionable plans, such as implementing a range of controls, leveraging technological solutions and creating robust security policies, to optimize network performance without compromising security and future growth.
6. Monitor and review continuously
IT security experts know that continuous monitoring is the only way their organization can navigate through today’s threat landscape. The simple truth is that there is a never-ending threat of new vulnerabilities rising because an organization’s internal and external software tools and other aspects of its systems are constantly being updated and modified. Beyond this, continuous monitoring also helps comply with security standards, such as ISO 27001, GDPR and SOC 2 . In the case of many of these security standards and certifications, organizations need continuous monitoring to be compliant.
How often should you perform network security assessments?
A periodic and thorough IT security assessment provides an up-to-date snapshot of an organization’s security posture. This helps IT teams establish best practices and policies that identify, assess and prioritize vulnerabilities and weaknesses early on before they snowball into more significant threats. It’s important to understand that carrying out a network security assessment ranges from a straightforward IT infrastructure audit to a customized project that spans for months and aims to target every area of risk in a network.
The frequency of network security assessments depends on an organization’s nature, size, industry regulations and risk tolerance. As a best practice, it’s often suggested that network security assessments must be conducted at least annually or whenever there’s a significant change in an organization’s IT infrastructure. However, in heavily regulated industries, organizations have greater accountability for conducting regular network security assessments. For example, healthcare organizations in the U.S. need to comply with HIPAA. Generally, organizations need to strike a balance between staying vigilant and allocating resources to determine the appropriate frequency.
Conduct automated network security assessments with RapidFire Tools
In today’s threat landscape, managing network security can be daunting unless you have a complete picture of an organization’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses and can properly measure the risk of each issue. That’s why a recurring network security assessment is so crucial. They help you take a complete “snapshot” of your organization’s IT infrastructure at various points in time, allowing you to quickly identify trends and changes, as well as prioritize the severity of new vulnerabilities.
RapidFire Tools offers a suite of discovery tools that, together, deliver a layered approach to risk management. Our products — Network Detective Pro, VulScan, Cyber Hawk and Compliance Manager GRC — offer IT security professionals the ability to effectively identify and score hidden risks and vulnerabilities. They each function independently as separate “point solutions” or together as a complete risk management solution. All four tools help gather different sets of data, analyze what’s discovered, organize the issues by type and by risk, and feed the information to end users through dashboards, reports and compliance documentation.
Curious to know how RapidFire Tools simplifies risk management through network security assessments and robust compliance management? Schedule a demo today!