The Case for Agentless Scanning for Simpler Cloud-Native Security

Tricia Nagar
Thursday, Mar 30th, 2023

As the cloud-native security space continues to evolve and expand, emerging concepts from the domain keep finding their way into mainstream industry vernacular. “Agentless” being one such concept. If you’ve never heard of agentless scanning before, you are not alone. Conversely, if you are tired of hearing about the agent-based versus the agentless security debate, you are still not alone.  

The purpose of this post is not to put you through yet another hotly debated session on the merits of choosing one over the other or both. The purpose is to solely highlight the fact that implementing security in your cloud-native environment should be simple. And modern agentless scanning is what makes it simple.   
Let’s go back to the drawing board and revisit the concept of agentless as it relates to cloud security.  

“Agentless” in Cloud-Native Security 

There’s no question that the upswing in cloud-native application development has necessitated the need for securing modern apps from the dangers of security breaches. Agile DevOps teams dealing with the security conundrum are looking for fast and easy-to-implement security mechanisms that monitor cloud-native applications. This is where agentless scanning comes in as the nifty, new approach to monitoring cloud workloads in modern apps.  

In cloud security, agents stand for specialized software components that are installed on a workload to perform security-related actions such as security scanning, reporting, and applying software patches. Going agent “less” means dropping the need to install numerous software-based “agents” inside of your cloud infrastructure and individual containers.  

While the agent versus agentless debate continues to rage, modern enterprises with dynamic cloud-native environments are leaning increasingly towards agentless alternatives because they can effectively scan the entire multi-cloud estate without the complexity associated with deploying a software agent on each workload.  

How Agentless Scanning Works 

Overall, agentless scanning is designed to be lightweight and non-intrusive whether installed in the cloud or in containerized application environments. It works on the underlying principle of using a single centralized deployment of cloud-based software to scan and interpret all data to find vulnerabilities across cloud workloads.  
Agentless scanning in the cloud leverages APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) provided by the cloud provider to retrieve information about the infrastructure and applications running in the provider’s cloud environment. The agentless scanning tool typically connects to the API and retrieves information on virtual machines (VMs), storage, network configurations, and running applications. For example, agentless scanning can help you figure out whether your VMs are secure, whether any network ports are open that could be exploited by attackers, or whether any known vulnerabilities have been detected in any of your applications running in the cloud. 
In the case of containers, agentless scanning works by using APIs from the container management system or platform to obtain information about the containers and their contents. The agentless scanning tool connects to the API and retrieves information about the containers, their metadata, configuration settings, and running processes. It then analyzes this information to find any potential security risks or vulnerabilities. For example, it may check whether your containers are running the latest version of software, whether open ports can be exploited by attackers, or whether any known vulnerabilities have been detected in the container's base image. 
Agentless scanning easily integrates into your cloud and container environments without affecting the performance or functionality of the infrastructure and the containers where applications run. It allows you to easily find potential security risks without having to install and manage additional software agents on each individual host, or each individual container. 

Agentless Scanning Simplifies Cloud-Native Application Security 

Agentless scanning simplifies cloud-native application security in many ways. First, it eliminates the need to install and maintain software on each individual host or container, which can be a significant burden in a cloud environment where hosts are rapidly provisioned or deprovisioned, or containers added or removed from a pod. In a cloud environment where speed and agility are critical, agentless scanning keeps pace with the speed of innovation. It simplifies the overall security scanning process making it easier to support a consistent security posture across the entire cloud environment. Being platform agnostic, it can be used with any cloud provider or technology stack since there are no compatibility requirements or concerns.  

And lastly, agentless scanning is great at drastically reducing risk. Agents are sometimes targeted by attackers as a potential entry point into the system. With agentless scanning, there is no software agent to target, thereby shrinking the attack surface and reducing the overall risk of an attack. The quick and easy characteristics of agentless scanning also make it a wise choice when performing scans to mitigate risks and comply with security regulations and standards.  
All in all, agentless scanning reduces complexity by simplifying the scanning process and reducing the amount of management and maintenance needed. 

Simplified Cloud-Native Security Begins with Panoptica  

Cisco's Emerging Technologies and Incubation (ET&I) team is paving the way with “DevOps-friendly” cloud-native security solutions that fundamentally simplify conventional offerings. Built from the ground up to meet the needs of modern applications, our Panoptica solution simplifies cloud-native application security making it easy to embed into the software development lifecycle, and best of all, it integrates with the tools that DevOps teams are already using.  

Panoptica uses agentless scanning for finding vulnerabilities in running containers, VMs, and APIs. Unlike other cloud-native security solutions that deploy an agents on each Kubernetes node, Panoptica deploys a single pod controller on the cluster. With the controller deployed, you gain visibility about the workloads running on the cluster, and can create and apply Panoptica runtime policies to manage activity and communications on the cluster.

Panoptica secures the full application stack from code to runtime by finding security vulnerabilities and exploits, calculating risk scores, and offering mitigation guidance so that you can prioritize and protect the weakest link. To learn more, visit us here. You can try Panoptica for free for an unlimited time by signing up here.  

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