Vulnerability Management: Complete Guide to Process and Tools

What Is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management enables organizations to identify, evaluate, mitigate, and report security vulnerabilities in various systems and software. A security vulnerability is a technological weakness that enables attackers to compromise a system, device, network, database, or application and the information these assets hold.

A corporate network may contain many vulnerabilities at different levels. Vulnerability management helps achieve continuous visibility into the vulnerabilities within the corporate environment, identifying the most critical vulnerabilities and prioritizing remediation efforts to minimize the attack surface efficiently and appropriately.

What Is Vulnerability Management as a Service (VMaaS)?

Setting up a vulnerability management program in-house can be complex and time- and resource-consuming. You need continuous visibility and assessment that accounts for compliance regulations, organizational requirements, and industry standards while keeping abreast of the ever-increasing number of new vulnerabilities.

An effective vulnerability management program needs to invest in a vulnerability scanner that provides immediate, global visibility into all assets and vulnerabilities. However, deploying this type of scanner — physical or virtualized — is challenging, and you need depth of expertise to properly schedule scans according to proven processes.

Vulnerability Management as a Service (VMaaS) vendors identify, prioritize, and respond to vulnerability exposure on behalf of the organization. It helps fill in the gaps left by talent and resource shortages, letting organizations take advantage of the vendor’s security staff to manage the organization’s vulnerability management process.

What Are the Steps in the Vulnerability Management Lifecycle?

You should consider the following six steps as part of a continuous cycle rather than a linear process. As soon as you complete all the steps, you need to go back and start the process again.

1. Asset Discovery

First, you must create (or maintain) your asset directory. In this step, you take inventory of your organization’s assets, including software, hardware, operating systems, and services, taking note of the current versions and applied patches. Establish a baseline of identified vulnerabilities to serve as a reference when detecting new vulnerabilities. Periodically revisit the inventory and update it when you add new assets (software or devices).

2. Prioritization

Classify your assets based on their risk level and importance to business operations. Assign business values to every asset class to determine which assets should be first for vulnerability assessment. Core business software and hardware should be the priority.

3. Vulnerability Assessment

Once you’ve established baseline risk profiles and determined the priority level of your assets, arrange them according to the degree of exposure to specific vulnerabilities. The vulnerability assessment should consider each asset’s classification, criticality, and vulnerabilities. Research publicly available vulnerability lists and risk rankings to identify the exposure level of each asset to specific vulnerabilities.

4. Reporting

Build an asset security strategy based on your identified risks and priority levels. Document the required remediation steps for each known vulnerability and continuously monitor suspicious behavior to lower the system’s overall risk.

5. Remediation

Implement the security strategy to remediate your prioritized vulnerabilities, addressing high-risk and critical assets first. This step typically involves updating software and hardware, applying vulnerability patches, modifying security configurations, and identifying vulnerable areas to protect critical assets and infrastructure. You might have to deactivate specific user accounts, provide additional security awareness training, or introduce new technologies to handle certain tasks that the IT team used to perform manually.

6. Evaluation and Verification

The final step in the vulnerability management lifecycle involves evaluating your security strategy and verifying that your security measures have successfully reduced or eliminated your prioritized threats. This process will likely include several steps and should be a continuous effort with regular scans and assessments to ensure your vulnerability management policies are effective.

Vulnerability Management vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Vulnerability management and vulnerability assessment help address and resolve security vulnerabilities. The terms may look the same, but each practice works differently. Vulnerability assessment offers visibility into the current state of the situation, while vulnerability management provides continuous, real-time intelligence, reporting, and remediation guidance.

Here are the key differences between the two processes:

  • A vulnerability assessment is typically the first step in a vulnerability management process. It involves using scanners to gather information from devices and systems on the corporate network and comparing the information to known vulnerabilities disclosed by software vendors. The organization’s IT staff runs scans at regular intervals and schedules upgrades and patching.

  • Vulnerability management is a continuous process rather than a scheduled process performed ad-hoc. It involves running an ongoing program that cycles through vulnerability assessments, prioritization, and remediation. The process employs multiple data sources to continually assess the situation and reassess the existing state of services and software.

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Here are some of the main differences between penetration tests and vulnerability assessments.

Objective

  • Both penetration tests and vulnerabilities assessments identify security risks and help organizations prioritize their weaknesses.

  • However, while vulnerability assessments aim to discover vulnerabilities as quickly as possible and are more effective for detecting known vulnerabilities, penetration tests provide an in-depth assessment to identify unknown vulnerabilities. Penetration testing is a form of ethical hacking, where testers exploit the vulnerabilities to predict an attacker’s trajectory.

Approach

  • Vulnerability assessment typically involves automated, repeatable scans, which are useful for evaluating remediation attempts.

  • Penetration testing relies on human expertise and creative thinking, with each test involving unique processes and outcomes. Pentesting helps organizations understand the real risk of a vulnerability, while scanning tools might not reflect the real risk of an exploit.


Vulnerability types

  • Vulnerability assessments identify outdated applications or operating systems and device configuration issues like insecure ports and weak passwords. They are best suited to detecting common vulnerabilities and exposures, or CVEs, listed on public databases.

  • Penetration tests uncover CVEs but focus more on identifying hidden vulnerabilities that evade scanning tools. Examples include code injection, cross-site scripting, authentication, misconfiguration, and encryption vulnerabilities. Pentesting provides better insights into an attacker’s actions after breaching the network.


Tooling

  • Vulnerability assessments involve automated tools that scan the network for known CVEs. There are many vulnerability scanning tools ranging from open source to commercial solutions. When choosing a tool, organizations should consider various factors, including the infrastructure to be tested and configuration and support options.

  • Pentesters use various tools to conduct penetration tests, including specialized platforms and networking tools. Breach and attack simulation (BAS) tools can simulate attacks but require expertise to master.

Evaluating Vulnerability Management Tools

Vulnerability management tools scan corporate networks for vulnerabilities that potential intruders could exploit. If the scan finds weaknesses, the software suggests or initiates corrective action. In this way, vulnerability management software reduces the likelihood of a cyber attack.

The most important features an organization should expect from a vulnerability assessment tool are:


  • Quality and speed — vulnerability scanning can take a long time in large networks, and can result in false positives. Test a prospective tool on your network, see how long it takes to run, and compare selected findings with a manual assessment of vulnerabilities.

  • User experience the product should be easy to navigate and use, and vulnerability reports should be easy to understand by all relevant stakeholders.

  • Compatibility the product’s signature database should support all major operating systems, applications, and infrastructure components used by the organization.

  • Cloud support most organizations are running workloads in the cloud, and the tool should be able to detect vulnerabilities in IaaS, PaaS and SaaS environments.

  • Compliance — the product must support all relevant compliance standards applicable to the organization, and should provide reports in the format required by auditors.

  • Prioritization — the product should offer both manual review of vulnerabilities and automated prioritization.

  • Remediation instructions — the tool must provide actionable remediation instructions that can be easily followed by IT staff and developers.

Best Practices for an Effective Vulnerability Management Program

Account for all IT Assets and Networks

All organizations have hardware or software that are not in common use, or were deployed without the knowledge of IT staff. They may seem harmless, but these outdated programs and systems are often the most vulnerable parts of the security infrastructure, just waiting to be exploited by potential attackers.

This makes it critical to perform a comprehensive inventory of all hardware and software in the organization, and scanning all assets for vulnerabilities.

Establish a Vulnerability Management Policy

The purpose of a vulnerability management policy is to define rules for reviewing and evaluating vulnerabilities, applying system updates to mitigate them, and validating that the risk is no longer present.

Vulnerability management policies typically cover network infrastructure, but policy scope can vary by organization size, type, and industry. They can extend to vulnerabilities affecting servers, operating systems, cloud environments, database servers, and more.

Use High Quality Threat Intelligence Feeds

High quality data about threats can be a game changer in keeping your network secure. It allows IT and security teams to stay one step ahead of attackers, by being aware of the latest attack patterns and known vulnerabilities.

Threat intelligence feeds can uncover newly discovered vulnerabilities and exploits. These feeds are maintained by experts who track potential threats. Continuous access to updated information is critical for augmenting automated vulnerability scanners.

Perform Regular Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is conducted by ethical hackers working on behalf of an organization, and aims to identify exploitable vulnerabilities in networks or computing systems. It helps businesses find and fix high priority vulnerabilities that attackers can actually exploit.

Penetration testing can help protect your network from external attacks, and also provides unbiased and expert insight into weaknesses in security infrastructure. When combined with other threat management processes, such as vulnerability assessments, regular penetration testing is a highly effective way to identify and remediate vulnerabilities.

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