Pros and cons of outsourcing vulnerability assessments

As with other kinds of software, customers used to buy and maintain their own vulnerability assessment systems. Now, some vendors have moved to an application service provider model in which they take care of the hardware and software and charge customers for services.

Suppliers such as Foundstone Inc. and Qualys Inc. remotely scan network perimeters and identify known security weaknesses. Some of the systems even include differential analysis reports that help customers see how their security postures have evolved over time.

With these services, an agency can schedule scans so that they are run automatically at predetermined times, and reports are then e-mailed to designated users or stored on servers for review. Because the services contain data about agency networks that any hacker would love to find, security can be a major concern with those services. To protect sensitive data, vendors usually store reports in encrypted databases that are only accessible with the proper credentials.

One major benefit with the online services is that an agency does not have to update any software. Because the service provider operates everything, it is responsible for monitoring updates about new vulnerabilities and automatically including them in the next scan. Another plus is that these service providers typically have the focus and resources to get a new update deployed within a few hours, while users are often faced with a number of other pressing tasks.

Although they offer similar services, vendors have different distribution and sales models. Foundstone runs scans and provides users with vulnerability information. Qualys has focused more on developing scanning software and then selling it to other outfits, such as consulting firms, which brand the vulnerability assessment services as their own. For example, NCC Networks Inc. provides vulnerability assessments to their clients using the Qualys scanning engine.

Assessment services can fit the needs of certain agencies. Some may be looking for a hands-free, regularly scheduled scan of their Internet-facing devices, but not want to become bogged down with the expenditures needed to keep vulnerability information up-to-date. Others may not feel comfortable with a third party constantly monitoring and evaluating their networks. The services would not appeal to agencies that want to keep their security perimeters closed, even to potential allies.

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