Six free network vulnerability scanners

Though you may know and follow basic security measures on your own when installing and managing your network and websites, you'll never be able to keep up with and catch all the vulnerabilities by yourself.

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3. Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA)

Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA) can perform local or remote scans on Windows desktops and servers, identifying any missing service packs, security patches, and common security misconfigurations. The 2.3 release adds support for Windows 8.1, Windows 8, Windows Server 2012 R2, and Windows Server 2012, while also supporting previous versions down to Windows XP.

MBSA is relatively straightforward to understand and use. When you open it you can select a single Windows machine to scan by choosing a computer name from the list or specifying an IP address or when scanning multiple machines you can choose an entire domain or specify an IP address range. You can then choose what you want to scan for, including Windows, IIS and SQL administrative vulnerabilities, weak passwords, and Windows updates.

Once the scan is complete you'll find a separate report for each Windows machine scanned with an overall security classification and categorized details of the results. For each item you can click a link to read details on what was scanned and how to correct it, if a vulnerability were found, and for some you can click to see more result details. The reports are automatically saved for future reference, but you can also print and/or copy the report to the clipboard.

Although free and user-friendly, keep in mind that MBSA lacks scanning of advanced Windows settings, drivers, non-Microsoft software, and network-specific vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, it's a great tool to help you find and minimize general security risks.

4. Nexpose Community Edition

Nexpose Community Edition can scan networks, operating systems, web applications, databases, and virtual environments. The Community Edition, however, limits you to scanning up to 32 IPs at a time. It's also limited to one-year of use until you must apply for a new license. They also offer a seven-day free trial of their commercial editions.Nexpose installs on Windows, Linux, or virtual machines and provides a web-based GUI. Through the web portal you can create sites to define the IPs or URLs you'd like to scan, select the scanning preferences, scanning schedule, and provide any necessary credentials for scanned assets.

Once a site is scanned you'll see a list of assets and vulnerabilities. You can see asset details including OS and software information and details on vulnerabilities and how to fix them. You can optionally set policies to define and track your desired compliance standards. You can also generate and export reports on a variety of aspects.

Nexpose Community Edition is a solid full-featured vulnerability scanner that's easy to setup but the 32 IP limit may make it impractical for larger networks.

Next: SecureCheq

5. SecureCheq

SecureCheq can perform local scans on Windows desktops and servers, identifying various insecure advanced Windows settings like defined by CIS, ISO or COBIT standards. It concentrates on common configuration errors related to OS hardening, data protection, communication security, user account activity and audit logging. The free version, however, is limited to scanning less than two dozen settings, about a quarter of what the full version supports.SecureCheq is a simple tool. After scanning the PC you'll see a list of all the checked settings and a Passed or Failed result.

Click a setting and you'll find links to references about the vulnerability, summary of the vulnerability, and how to fix it. Though you can't save the results for later viewing in the application, you can print them or view/save the OVAL XML file.

Although SecureCheq is easy-to-use and scans for advanced configuration settings, it actually misses some of the more general Windows vulnerabilities and network-based threats. However, it complements the Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer (MBSA) well; scan for basic threats and then follow up with SecureCheq for advanced vulnerabilities.

6. Qualys FreeScan

Qualys FreeScan provides up to 10 free scans of URLs or IPs of Internet facing or local servers or machines. You initially access it via their web portal and then download their virtual machine software if running scans on your internal network.

Qualys FreeScan supports a few different scan types; vulnerability checks for hidden malware, SSL issues, and other network-related vulnerabilities. OWASP is for auditing vulnerabilities of web applications. Patch Tuesday scans for and helps install missing software patches. SCAP checks computer settings compliance against the SCAP (Security Content Automation Protocol) benchmark provided by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Though you first see just an online tool that appears to just do scanning via the Internet, if you enter a local IP or scan, it will prompt you to download a virtual scanner via a VMware or VirtualBox image. This allows you to do scanning of your local network. Once a scan is complete you can view interactive reports by threat or by patch.

Since Qualys FreeScan only provides 10 free scans, it's not something you can use regularly. Consider using another solution for day-to-day use and periodically run Qualys FreeScan for a double-check.

Eric Geieris a freelance tech writer--keep up with his writings on Facebook or Twitter.  He's also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, and On Spot Techs, a tech support company.