Vulnerability management refers to solutions, processes, and approaches that aid in identifying, assessing, reporting, and remediating cyber vulnerabilities across your network. Vulnerabilities can affect endpoints, systems, and workloads. Vulnerability management tools can detect vulnerabilities and make proactive efforts to them, such as deploying patches and updates and running diagnostics.
Vulnerability management solutions take a holistic view of the network, empowering teams to make informed decisions on vulnerabilities and how to best approach them. For this reason, continuous and continual security scans is a key part of running a successful vulnerability management system. Networks, endpoints, systems, and workloads must be continuously scanned for any vulnerabilities–either fully fledged or developing–so admins can begin to work towards remediating these vulnerabilities.
What Is Vulnerability Management?
Vulnerability management is the ongoing process of managing vulnerabilities that may emerge in your network environment, endpoints and applications. This can be achieved via a wide range of tools and capabilities. Vulnerability management tools scan assets for vulnerabilities, threats and risks.
Vulnerabilities refer to a weakness of an asset, device, or network. These can be exploited by a threat. Common types of vulnerabilities would include misconfigurations and unpatched bugs which could enable malicious access to a system.
Threats are ways in which a vulnerability can be exploited. In the more traditional sense this would be cybersecurity threats such as malware and ransomware attacks. And finally, risk is what either occurs or has the potential to occur from a threat being able to exploit a vulnerability.
Vulnerability management solutions help IT teams to discover, prioritize and resolve security vulnerabilities in their IT assets. A robust vulnerability management strategy involves having strong vulnerability management technologies, bolstered by a team that leverages threat intelligence, their own expertise, and knowledge of business operations in order to prioritize risks as they’re made aware of them and address these vulnerabilities as fast as possible–and in the right order.
Often vulnerability management can be intertwined with patch management, and these solutions are often delivered as part of the same solution, although this is not always the case. Patch management and whether patch application is relevant in certain scenarios will fall under the wider umbrella of vulnerability management.
What Are Network Vulnerabilities?
There are a range of vulnerabilities that can be foung in your network and all of them can lead to the potential for data breach if not adequately and efficiently dealt with:
- Operating system vulnerabilities: Bugs or flaws in your operating system software code.
- Network vulnerabilities: Hardware, software, or operational process vulnerabilities that can be leveraged by attackers to access your network.
- Application vulnerabilities: These vulnerabilities affect an application’s security, which can enable attackers to use that application as an attack vector into a network.
- Configuration vulnerabilities: These arise due to improper configurations, which can include incomplete installations, default deployments, or badly executed updates. Threat actors can target these vulnerabilities in order to instigate attacks against networks and endpoints.
How Does Vulnerability Management Work?
Vulnerabilities can appear at any time after a software update, or can be discovered after months or even years. As such, security teams need to perform vulnerability management as a continuous lifecycle rather than intermittent, one-off events. There are a few stages in the vulnerability management cycle that are key:
- Discovery and assessment of vulnerabilities: Discovery workflow focuses on vulnerability assessments, which include scans of an organization’s IT assets for all known and potential vulnerabilities. This will be performed through automated vulnerability scanner software. Depending on the vendor and product chosen, some of these scanners can perform quick, episodic network scans that are done on a schedule. Other solutions use agents that are installed on endpoints to collect data from each device. Teams can also choose to use episodic vulnerability assessments such as penetration testing.
- Categorization and prioritization: Once a vulnerability has been identified, it will be categorized by type and then prioritized by ‘Criticality’. This essentially means the solution will assess how severe the vulnerability is and how likely it will lead to a cyberattack. Most vendors and solutions will adhere to the Common Vulnerability Scoring System, which is a free and open industry standard to assess and communicate the severity and characteristics of software vulnerabilities with each other. This system will rank a vulnerability on its level of risk on a scale of 0 to 10. Aside from using the scoring system, solutions will also leverage other threat intelligence sources such as MITRE’s list of Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) and NIST’s National Vulnerability Database (NVD). CVE is a list of publicly disclosed cybersecurity vulnerabilities. It is free to search and use, and even for vendors to incorporate into their products and services. The NVD is the US government’s repository of standards-based vulnerability management data, which includes security checklists, product names, impact metrics, security related software flaws, and misconfigurations to be used for intel and cross referencing.
- Acting and remediation: IT teams, drawing on intel from the vulnerability management tool and scanners, as well as any intelligence cross referenced from vulnerability and threat databases, can now begin working towards remediating the vulnerability and preventing exploitation. This can include installing patches, retiring and replacing a vulnerable asset, instigating network updates, amending configurations, and more. In some instances where patches or updates aren’t feasible, teams can take mitigation measures. An example of mitigating a vulnerability would be to keep an affected device online, but isolating it from the rest of the network so if it does become compromised it won’t impact the network. A lot of vulnerability management solutions include tools such as patch management and configuration management.
- Reassessment: After initial remediation, teams often conduct new vulnerability assessments to make sure the issues have truly resolved and that in remediation they did not inadvertently cause any new vulnerabilities.
- Reporting: After any event concerning a vulnerability, reports need to be produced. Teams will need to report on aspects like mean time to detect (MTTD) and mean time to respond (MTTR)–essentially how long it took to detect a vulnerability and how long it took for teams to respond to and resolve the vulnerability. Solutions will often record any identified vulnerabilities, so admins can track resolutions, audit past vulnerability management instances, and keep a database for future use, such as cross referencing and intelligence. Reporting can also help teams establish a baseline for ongoing vulnerability management lifecycles and be able to track performance over time. Reporting may also be needed for things like auditing and compliance purposes.
Vulnerability management solutions can either come as a software-based, physical appliance, a virtual appliance with management software, or as a cloud-hosted service. Some vendors can offer a product combining some of those options. Not every option will be a perfect match, so scheduling a demo call and having an assessment of your environment before making a purchase can be key in finding a vulnerability management tool that works best.
Why Is Vulnerability Management Important?
There are a few key reasons as to why having a strong vulnerability management system and software in place is important. Reasons such as compliance and regulations, threat prevention, visibility, and scanning are listed below and briefed in turn.
Threat And Attack Prevention
Threat actors can leverage vulnerabilities in order to instigate attacks, infiltrate a network, and steal data. Automated vulnerability management can prevent this from occurring. Vulnerability management enhances and improves an organization’s security posture by recognizing key assets, spotting vulnerabilities and areas of potential risk, and prioritizing remediation efforts in order to reduce those risks. Failure to have vulnerabilities mitigated or remediated can potentially lead to devastating impacts such as data loss, theft, leaks, financial losses, and damaged brand image.
As vulnerability management tools can help prevent breaches and other devastating cyberattacks by reducing a network’s attack surface area, several regulatory bodies have made it a prerequisite for companies to have a strong vulnerability management solution and system in place. Regulatory and industry standards that have vulnerability management as a requirement include HIPAA, SOC 2, ISO 27001, NIST, PCI DSS, GLBA, and FISMA–all of which the majority of businesses in the US must adhere to in some capacity. Having a robust vulnerability management solution in place is therefore important for many organizations to demonstrate compliance with data protection regulations.
Long gone are the days when you could perform intermittent security scans. The rising number of vulnerabilities, consistency of attacks, the devastating toll of attacks when they’re successful, and threat actors who will take advantage of any vulnerability found, has left companies with no other choice than to run continuous security scans in order to find any vulnerabilities and fix them as soon as possible. Companies have to deal with more and more vulnerabilities as their network perimeters expand, become more porous and have an influx of unmanaged and managed devices to contend with. Constant scanning means that as soon as a vulnerability appears, teams will be notified of it.
Faster Response To Threats And Risk
The attack landscape has changed a lot in recent years, that is to say, it’s gotten a lot worse and a lot more chaotic. In Check Point’s most recent cyberthreat report, it was found that in 2022 there was a 38% increase in global cyber attacks from the preceding year. Companies are getting bombarded with alerts, attempted attacks, successful attacks, and exploits.
Vulnerabilities can pose a huge problem due to how easily they enable access to your network. Attackers can exploit them to gain access to a network or even implant their own harmful code. It’s made the remediation of vulnerabilities a pressing task where every moment matters. While you might have the best and infallible security team on the planet, they can’t be in every place at once and they can’t perform manual vulnerability scans without wasting time and resources. Vulnerability management systems can perform automated scans across the entire network and any endpoints in a short span of time, meaning that not only is the vulnerability and potential area of risk found faster, it can be remediated faster.
Enhanced Visibility And Reporting
Vulnerability management provide enhanced visibility into the entire network. When a vulnerability assessment is deployed, it aggregates data, risk information, and status, all of which teams can track via the dashboard and use this information for reporting. Trend reports can measure performance and the state of your network and endpoint devices. This visibility can help teams demonstrate returns on investment in security to stakeholders, which can help to support other projects. The reports can also provide information for senior admins to be able to make informed decisions on key areas.
Automated Scanning And Patching
As vulnerability management software can automate scanning and patching, this reduces the overall time, resources, and finances spent on manually performing the scans and patching. It leaves teams free to analyze results and make decisions rather than having to aggregate the results themselves.
Vulnerability management solutions is that they prioritize based on risk and severity. They deliver intel that highlights vulnerabilities in the network and demonstrate which of these vulnerabilities are the most likely to cause damage if exploited. This means that teams can channel their efforts to more pressing, risky matters rather than wasting time on cross-referencing the solution’s finding with additional intelligence to figure out which vulnerability they need to focus on first.
Vulnerability management solutions can prove to be cost efficient in the long run. They eliminate the need for ad hoc patching (a form of patching that is best for doing one-time patch installs), which can often result in missed patches and compound costs. It can prevent heavy financial losses from breaches and data leaks by preventing them from occurring and through the prioritization of vulnerabilities with the highest level of risk.
Vulnerability Management: Features To Look For
Some of the key features you need to look out for when choosing a strong vulnerability management solution are listed below.
- Automation: The solution should work silently and diligently in the background, performing automated scans and alerting admins automatically when anything anomalous or problematic has been found.
- Reporting And Alerts: Reporting for your solution should be robust, effective, and performed in either real-time or very close to it. Admins should get alerts as soon as vulnerabilities are found so investigations can commence. Any findings should be clear, concise, and in-depth.
- Customized Reporting: In a similar vein, admins should be able to generate custom reports for a range of requirements, including creating reports for auditing and compliance requirements.
- Dashboards: Dashboards should be clear, intuitive, and easy to navigate. Admins should be able to identify and track vulnerability severity levels, track these vulnerabilities over time, and view risk scores. Admins should also be able to easily manage policies, along with managing scanners and agents, from their dashboards.
- Scanning: Scanning features ideally should scan the network perimeter and the internal network. Some solutions, particularly web-based ones, can only perform external perimeter scanning.
- Customization: The solution should be able to be customized to meet specific organizational needs. Admins should be able to modify security controls, for instance.
- Vulnerability Ranking: Ideally, in order for staff to be able to respond to the most pressing and vulnerable vulnerabilities, your vulnerability management solution should be able to report on the status and severity of any vulnerabilities in your network that have been found.
- Speed: While this is less of a specific feature than it is a capability, timeliness and the overall speed of detection, prioritizing, alerting and reporting is important. If your chosen vulnerability management tool cannot detect vulnerabilities as quickly as possible, then its ability to reduce attack surface areas and minimize attacks is significantly impacted. The solution should be fast and robust, able to perform fast and in-depth scans.
- Lightweight Agent: Some solutions use bulky agents which can negatively impact an endpoint’s performance and hinder work and productivity. For companies looking to deploy an agent-based solution, one with a lightweight agent is key to preventing impact on performance and affecting productivity.
- Visibility: As your vulnerability management solution must serve your entire network and leave no stone unturned, it is important that the visibility capabilities of your solution must be pervasive and strong. It should be able to cover and deliver protection to your workstations, laptops, servers, web servers, databases, and virtual machines. Visibility should be unified and continuous, with teams able to view all endpoints’ health regardless of their location.
- Built-in Patching: A feature that not necessarily all solutions will offer, though most of them do. Integrated patch management can speed up patching processes and make remediation of vulnerabilities faster and smoother.
Vulnerability management has become an integral part of most organizations’ threat and risk mitigation strategies. Vulnerability management is critical because it discovers network vulnerabilities and risk in a short time frame, something that would be either wholly time consuming or near impossible to do manually. Vulnerability management systems can detect, prioritize, and remediate vulnerabilities and misconfigurations. They offer risk-based assessment of security posture and vulnerabilities, continuous visibility, and they can prioritize vulnerabilities based on attributes such as age, exploitability, and impact. They can automate patching and detect zero-day vulnerabilities and apply mitigation workarounds. Vulnerability management can also be an important component of cloud security posture management.
In an ever-changing threat landscape where any vulnerability or weak point can be leveraged and turned into an attack vector, ensuring that vulnerabilities in your network are swiftly and efficiently taken care of is key. Not only has its efficiency proved that a vulnerability management system is worth the price tag, in a lot of cases it has become a regulatory and compliance imperative. As mentioned earlier, important regulatory and compliance bodies such as HIPAA, SOC2, PCI DSS, and ISO 27001–to name a few–have made having vulnerability management systems in place a requirement for organizations.You can read our guide to the top 10 vulnerability management solutions here.