What Is Vulnerability Management and 5 Critical Best Practices
What Is Vulnerability Management?
Vulnerability management enables organizations to identify, evaluate, handle, and report security vulnerabilities in systems and software. When implemented with other security measures, vulnerability management helps prioritize potential threats and minimize the attack surface.
A security vulnerability is a weakness that can allow threat actors to compromise a computer system or sensitive data. A continuous vulnerability management process can help organizations keep up with newly added systems and recent changes to timely discover new vulnerabilities.
Why Is Vulnerability Management Important?
Vulnerability management is a critical part of cybersecurity because it allows organizations to identify potential risks and remediate them before they escalate into security breaches.
According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), almost 20,000 new vulnerabilities are reported yearly, and this number grows consistently annually. Cyber threats are not only growing in volume but also becoming more sophisticated. Vulnerability management plans can allow an organization to identify vulnerabilities that affect its systems, ensure they remediate the most dangerous vulnerabilities, and thus prevent the most dangerous attack vectors.
Another aspect of vulnerability scanning and management is that many compliance standards explicitly require it. For example, ISO 27001 has specific requirements for vulnerability management.
Vulnerability Management vs. Vulnerability Assessment vs. Vulnerability Scanning
A vulnerability assessment is a one-time assessment used to identify security vulnerabilities in a network or host system. Vulnerability management is an ongoing process that involves multiple vulnerability assessments as part of a holistic vulnerability management framework.
Vulnerability assessments provide greater visibility into an organization’s security posture. They help companies continuously investigate the effectiveness of their existing security processes. Vulnerability assessments can also help an organization comply with regulatory requirements and compliance standards designed to protect sensitive data.
A common technique for performing vulnerability assessments is automated vulnerability scanning. Vulnerability scanners can identify vulnerabilities in organizational systems, classify the risks they pose, and provide context and remediation guidance. Vulnerability scanners are available for networks, servers, as well as virtualized and containerized environments.
Key Components of a Vulnerability Management Framework
Establishing an organization-wide vulnerability management framework requires the following components:
- Policies—define the scope and frequency of scans and determine policies and processes for scenarios like security breaches and zero-day vulnerabilities.
- Asset management—establish automated methods for identifying, classifying, and monitoring all IT assets. Maintain accurate and up-to-date inventory to efficiently scan all assets.
- Configuration management—misconfigured servers are a prime target for attackers, so it is important to track configuration drift and address it. Even better, adopt immutable infrastructure like containers to prevent configuration drift.
- Patch management—obtain, test, and apply security patches quickly to remediate known vulnerabilities. Patching vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by threat actors should be at the top of any organization’s security priority list.
- Vulnerability scans—automated scanning can identify vulnerabilities in hosts, applications, and networks. Ensure that critical assets are scanned frequently while non-critical assets are scanned at least periodically.
- Vulnerability assessments—these involve comprehensive scanning and testing against your organization’s full set of security policies and compliance requirements, with an in-depth analysis of results. Vulnerability assessments should be performed on an ongoing basis.
- Penetration testing—in addition to internal vulnerability scans and assessments, external penetration testing should be performed. Penetration testers simulate the operating methods of malicious attackers, scanning the network from outside, discovering exposed vulnerabilities, and attempting to exploit them. This can help discover gaps in the vulnerability scanning process and in other security controls.
- Reporting—it is critical to document vulnerability management activities to provide visibility inside the organization, ensure tracking over time of high-priority vulnerabilities, and enable reporting for external auditors.
The Vulnerability Management Process and Lifecycle
Here are the key steps involved in vulnerability management.
Vulnerability scans are the main way to find vulnerabilities. The efficacy of a scanner depends on its ability to identify software and devices and to correlate collected data with vulnerability databases. Vulnerability scans can have various levels of intrusiveness— this is important given the potential impact of scanning on system stability and performance.
One solution is to schedule vulnerability scans during off-peak hours, although some organizations require constant connectivity between the network and employee devices. A workaround to this issue is to use an endpoint agent on devices that pushes data to the vulnerability management system.
Another option is adaptive scanning—detecting network changes that trigger more advanced vulnerability scans as needed rather than on a schedule.
After identifying vulnerabilities, it is important to evaluate the risks they pose to the organization. Different vulnerability managers use different risk rankings, like CVSS scores, that help organizations prioritize vulnerabilities. However, the real risk of a vulnerability depends on additional factors, such as:
- Actual vulnerability vs. a false positive.
- Exploitability (i.e., via the Internet).
- Whether there are known exploit scripts for the vulnerability.
- The potential business impact of an exploit.
- Additional security controls to reduce the impact of an exploit.
- The vulnerability’s age.
Vulnerability scanners sometimes generate false positives, so evaluating vulnerabilities with penetration tests can help reduce the false positive rate.
After confirming the vulnerabilities as a risk, organizations should consult with stakeholders to prioritize the actions to address each vulnerability. Ways to address a vulnerability include:
- Remediation—fully patching the vulnerability to prevent an exploit.
- Mitigation—reducing the likelihood of an exploit or minimizing its impact (full patches are not always available).
- Acceptance—accepting the risk without taking action to remediate or mitigate the vulnerability (usually for low-risk vulnerabilities and costly fixes).
A vulnerability management solution can recommend the best remediation method, although these recommendations are occasionally suboptimal. Security teams, system administrators, and owners must decide the right course of action. While remediation is often simple, it can also be highly complex.
After completing remediation, the security team should run further vulnerability scans to ensure the problem is gone. Some vulnerabilities can be ignored, for instance, if other mitigation measures indirectly prevent exploits.
Creating Vulnerability Assessment Reports
Report creation is important for adding value to the remediation recommendations. Assessment teams can use final reports to add new recommendations.
Risk mitigation methods should depend on asset criticality, with findings related to potential deviations between the results and recommendations. The vulnerability assessment’s findings are usually useful and easy to understand.
Medium and high-risk vulnerabilities should generate reports with the following details:
- The vulnerability’s name.
- The discovery date.
- The CVE score.
- A description.
- The affected assets.
- The recommended remediation process.
- Fields for the vulnerability owner, remediation time, next update, and additional countermeasures.
What Are Vulnerability Management Solutions?
A vulnerability management solution is a preventive security measure that can help remediate many issues that threat actors can potentially exploit as an attack vector. These tools automatically scan IT resources for security vulnerabilities that can potentially expose them to cyberattacks.
Here are key features of vulnerability management solutions:
- Vulnerability detection—these tools can automatically identify vulnerabilities within various IT resources.
- Prioritization—most tools can also automatically prioritize vulnerabilities to help stakeholders identify the vulnerabilities that pose the greatest risk if exploited.
- Remediation—some tools offer remediation activities that instruct teams on how to fix a vulnerability or mitigate a security issue.
You can use these tools alongside runtime security tools, such as anti-malware software and host intrusion prevention systems (HIPS), which can block attacks as they occur, and cloud security posture management (CSPM) solutions to harden cloud infrastructure.
Evaluating Vulnerability Management Services and Tools
A vulnerability management tool scans networks for exploitable weaknesses and recommends or performs remediation actions. It helps reduce the impact of network attacks using a different approach from traditional network security measures like antivirus and firewalls, which respond to active attacks. Vulnerability management software preemptively looks for vulnerabilities and fixes them before an attack occurs.
Vulnerability management solutions start by scanning the network and its ports. They prioritize findings to address critical issues first. Organizations should allow their vulnerability management software to perform basic scans and remediate issues immediately, reserving extensive scans for high-priority threats.
Remediation should be fast and reduce dependence on an external intrusion detection tool. Removing vulnerabilities helps prevent attackers from escalating their attacks even if they break into the network.
The main features to look for in a vulnerability management solution include:
- Speed—vulnerability scanning is a time-sensitive process.
- Reliability—scanning tools should be as accurate as possible to reduce false positives.
- User experience—the solution should be easy to navigate and interpret. Some vulnerability management tools offer several options to help detect risks.
- Compatibility—the vulnerability database must cover the main operating systems and applications and integrate seamlessly with the organization’s legacy systems.
- Prioritization—there should be automated mechanisms to prioritize vulnerabilities and risks.
- Remediation recommendations—there should be guidance to help teams identify and remediate vulnerabilities.
- Support—the solution must support advanced configurations to scan various systems continuously.
- Compliance—the solution should enable compliance with relevant regulations.
5 Best Practices for Vulnerability Management
Build a Vulnerability Management Strategy
A well-planned vulnerability management strategy helps organizations comply with security regulations and standards like the PCI DSS. It helps management teams maintain visibility into IT infrastructure, enabling security teams to respond quickly to risks. An inadequate strategy will not allow organizations to stay on top of vulnerabilities.
The strategy should include security controls and take the following aspects into account:
- Personnel—the IT and security teams must have the skills to implement the vulnerability strategy. For instance, they must understand how each vulnerability affects the overall environment. Another important aspect of effective personnel is to ensure cross-team communication.
- Processes—implementing the vulnerability strategy depends on understanding and performing specified processes. Teams should be able to decide their actions quickly when confronting vulnerabilities.
- Technologies—organizations must leverage the right tools and configure them properly to collect and process vulnerability information and track high-risk assets.
While each category is important, an effective management strategy will combine them to produce a more rounded solution. Multiple systems collaborating provide an edge because they offer different advantages and viewpoints.
Extend Vulnerability Management Tools
Tools like vulnerability scanners usually focus on detecting application vulnerabilities, but many tools are extensible. Additional functions to leverage in vulnerability scanning and management tools include:
- Application management—vulnerability scans are a crucial part of the SDLC, especially for testing software before and after release. They can help track application issues at different stages of the SDLC.
- Infrastructure visibility—vulnerability scanners offer actionable insights to help validate and improve patches, post-build updates, and security configurations. They can produce comprehensive reports about builds. Security teams can use this information to perform vulnerability checks and ensure the tool handles all vulnerabilities.
- Groups and user reviews—vulnerability scanners can help identify local users and groups to find potential security risks.
- Rogue device discovery—evaluate all assets in the system to identify suspicious devices in the IP address.
- Certificate management—businesses can use vulnerability scanners to discover and manage their installed certificates, providing details such as expiry dates and whether they are purchased or self-signed.
Vulnerability scans often identify large volumes of vulnerabilities, which can be difficult to patch without disrupting the system. The vulnerability management strategy should address patch management, specifying processes for quick patching. Patch management should integrate with change management processes, ensuring that your patches and updates address vulnerabilities.
Establish an Incident Response Plan
Effective vulnerability management involves responding quickly to security incidents—faster responses help decrease the impact of threats on an organization. Incident response should not be purely reactive; businesses must have a clear plan to prepare them for breaches.
Implement Frequent Scans
New vulnerabilities can always enter the network, so frequently scanning the network is important to identify and address vulnerabilities before they cause damage.
One approach is to assign the resources to maintain network security, ensuring the correct implementation of updates and patches. Another approach is to use a security scanner to test and fix the existing security infrastructure. The point is to proactively fix vulnerabilities instead of relying on intrusion prevention and detection systems (IPS/IDS), firewalls, and antivirus.
SAP Vulnerability Management with Pathlock
Pathlock enables you to continually analyze and optimize every level of your landscape to address vulnerabilities – including in your operating systems, databases, and network configurations – while factoring in critical OSS Notes. It even examines your custom ABAP source code with a simple string pattern match to identify and eliminate potential flaws. The Pathlock vulnerability management solution:
- Provides comprehensive transparency across system boundaries.
- Accounts for DSAG’s auditing guidelines, recommendations from BSI, and SAP’s security guidelines.
- Offers more than 4,000 automated checks and security notes that are constantly updated.
- Enables automated policy-based auditing of security-relevant parameters and settings.
- Analyzes all underlying platforms, from SAP ERP to SAP Mobile Platform (running on the latest release of SAP NetWeaver).
- Offers dashboard-based security reporting that includes clear recommended actions for eliminating your landscape’s vulnerabilities.