What is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management is an organized attempt to identify, classify, and remediate vulnerabilities in computer systems. Some of the world’s biggest data breaches were caused by known vulnerabilities that could have easily been remediated, and would have been prevented by an effective vulnerability management process. 

Amit Sheps
March 16, 2021

The modern IT stack is complex and includes many components that could have security weaknesses or vulnerabilities, such as:

  • Operating systems
  • Applications and workloads
  • Containers and serverless functions
  • Servers and endpoints
  • Cloud systems and configurations
  • Firewalls and other security tools
  • Network equipment
  • Internet of Things (IoT) devices

Vulnerability management aims to provide comprehensive coverage of as many infrastructure elements as possible, to identify vulnerabilities and make it easy for teams to prioritize and remediate them. The process must be continuous, because new vulnerabilities are discovered all the time, and IT infrastructure is also subject to constant change.

In this article, you will learn:

Why Do Organizations Need Vulnerability Management?

Here are three key reasons why organizations need vulnerability management:

  1. Evolution of the cyber threat landscape: Cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated, employing advanced techniques to exploit vulnerabilities. By continuously identifying and addressing vulnerabilities, organizations can stay one step ahead of attackers and minimize the impact of breaches when they occur.
  2. Regulatory compliance: With the increase in cyber threats, regulatory bodies are implementing stricter regulations to ensure organizations adequately protect their data. Compliance with these regulations often requires comprehensive vulnerability management.
  3. Asset visibility: A comprehensive vulnerability management program provides better visibility of all assets within an organization. By identifying all assets and their associated vulnerabilities, organizations can gain a clear understanding of their security posture, to make informed decisions about resource allocation and risk management.

What Are the Differences Between a Vulnerability, a Risk, and a Threat?

A vulnerability refers to a weakness in a system or network that could be exploited by a threat actor. This could be a software bug, a misconfiguration, a weak password, or any other gap in your security defenses. Vulnerabilities provide the openings that threat actors need to infiltrate your systems or networks.

A threat is a potential danger to your systems or networks. This could be a hacker, a piece of malware, a malicious insider, or any other entity that could exploit a vulnerability. It’s important to note that a threat alone cannot harm your organization; it needs a vulnerability to exploit.

Risk is the potential for loss or damage when a threat exploits a vulnerability. In other words, risk is the intersection of vulnerabilities and threats. If there are no vulnerabilities, a threat has no means of causing damage. Similarly, if there are no threats, a vulnerability poses no risk.

How Are Vulnerabilities Defined?

Security vulnerabilities affect entire communities of organizations and users. In order to facilitate knowledge sharing and organized response to security threats, there are accepted standards for defining and codifying vulnerabilities.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) publishes SCAP, a standard for defining vulnerabilities, which includes the following elements:

  • Common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVE)—a specific vulnerability discovered in a computer system which can enable attacks 
  • Common configuration enumeration (CCE)—configuration issues with a certain system that could cause security concerns 
  • Common platform enumeration (CPE)—identifies a group of software applications or devices that could be affected by the same vulnerabilities
  • Common vulnerability scoring system (CVSS)—defines the severity of a vulnerability, between 0 and 10

There are many open vulnerability databases that follow the SCAP conventions, including:

Vulnerability Management vs. Vulnerability Assessment

While both vulnerability management and vulnerability assessment are essential components of a robust cybersecurity framework, they are not the same:

Vulnerability assessment is a process that identifies and quantifies vulnerabilities in a system. It involves scanning systems, identifying vulnerabilities, and creating a report detailing these vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability management is a broader and more comprehensive approach. It involves not just identifying vulnerabilities but also prioritizing them based on their risk levels, remediating or mitigating them, and continuously monitoring the systems for new vulnerabilities.

It’s important to remember that while vulnerability assessment can provide valuable insights into the security posture of an organization, it is just the first step. Without effective vulnerability management, these insights could be of little use. Organizations must focus on implementing an effective vulnerability management program that includes regular vulnerability assessments.

Vulnerability Management Process

The vulnerability management process includes the following main stages: identification, evaluation, remediation, and reporting.

Identification

The Center for Internet Security advises performing automated vulnerability scans at least once per week. Organizations with CI/CD development pipelines may need to scan for vulnerabilities in their code and components several times a day. 

Organizations need to map out IT assets and may need to use different tools to understand the vulnerabilities  for each type of asset:

  • Open source components
  • Proprietary code
  • Running applications
  • Operating systems
  • Cloud native infrastructure

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Evaluation

Once the organization has a list of vulnerabilities discovered across its systems, it is important to classify and prioritize them using factors such as:

  • CVSS severity scores
  • Ease of exploitation
  • Business impact of a breach
  • Compensating security controls

Penetration testing can help identify which vulnerabilities have the biggest real world impact and can facilitate damaging data breaches. 

Remediation

Vulnerability management tools typically recommend a remediation for each vulnerability. There are three options for each vulnerability you discover:

  • Remediate—fix the vulnerability by applying a patch, replacing a vulnerable component, etc., and rerunning the vulnerability scan to validate the fix.
  • Mitigate—taking steps to reduce the impact of a vulnerability until it can be fixed, for example, isolating affected systems from the network.
  • No action—in reality it is impossible for organizations to remediate all vulnerabilities. Some vulnerabilities which have lower severity or impact can be safely ignored.

Reporting

Vulnerability management systems can provide automated reports that show which vulnerabilities were discovered and which were remediated across all IT systems. This can facilitate periodic review of vulnerability status, planning for remediation efforts, reporting to management, and addressing compliance obligations.

What Is Risk-Based Vulnerability Management?

Risk-based Vulnerability Management (RBVM) is a strategic approach to vulnerability management that prioritizes vulnerabilities based on the risk they pose to the organization. It goes beyond traditional vulnerability management by considering the context in which vulnerabilities exist and the potential impact on the business.

The primary goal of RBVM is to optimize the use of resources in addressing vulnerabilities. Instead of treating all vulnerabilities equally, RBVM focuses on those that pose the highest risk. It takes into account factors such as the criticality of the affected system, the potential impact of a breach, and the likelihood of a threat exploiting the vulnerability.

RBVM involves a continuous process of identifying vulnerabilities, assessing their risk, prioritizing remediation efforts based on risk, and monitoring the effectiveness of those efforts. By focusing on the most significant risks, RBVM can help organizations make more informed decisions, allocate resources more effectively, and improve their overall security posture.

Common Vulnerability Management Challenges

Lack of a Complete Asset Inventory

Organizations often struggle with maintaining a complete inventory of all IT assets, which is essential for effective vulnerability management. Without knowing all assets, it’s impossible to ensure every vulnerability is identified and addressed.

A comprehensive asset inventory should include all hardware and software within the organization. Automated tools can be used to scan the environment, create an accurate inventory of IT assets, and keep it updated over time.

Invisible Vulnerabilities

Even with a complete asset inventory, gaining a comprehensive view of all vulnerabilities can be challenging. This is because vulnerabilities can exist in many forms across different assets, from software applications to networking equipment. Most vulnerability scanning and detection tools focus on a specific category of vulnerabilities or IT assets, potentially missing others.

Utilizing advanced vulnerability management tools that offer broad coverage and the ability to integrate with other security systems can help organizations get a fuller picture of their security posture.

Remediation Gaps

Once vulnerabilities are identified, the next challenge is remediating them effectively. Often, a gap exists between identifying vulnerabilities and successfully remediating them due to a lack of resources, expertise, or prioritization.

Effective remediation requires a well-defined process and collaboration between IT, security teams, and other stakeholders. Without coordinated efforts, critical vulnerabilities may remain unaddressed, leaving organizations exposed to attacks.

Dynamic Attack Surfaces

Today’s IT environments are more dynamic than ever, with cloud services, mobile devices, and IoT expanding the attack surface. Managing vulnerabilities in such a fluid environment presents unique challenges.

Organizations must adopt flexible vulnerability management strategies that can adapt to changing attack surfaces. Continuous monitoring and assessment are crucial to identifying vulnerabilities in new technologies and configurations.

Inter-Team Coordination

Effective vulnerability management requires cooperation across different teams within an organization. However, coordination between these teams can be difficult due to differing priorities, communication barriers, or lack of a unified strategy.

Establishing clear communication channels and shared objectives can help overcome these challenges. Regular meetings and collaborative platforms can facilitate better coordination and ensure a cohesive approach to managing vulnerabilities.

What are Vulnerability Management Tools?

Vulnerability management tools, sometimes known as vulnerability scanning tools, can help identify weaknesses in IT systems. They all have some sort of classification system, identifying vulnerabilities on a spectrum from low to high severity, and allowing organizations to prioritize the most impactful vulnerabilities.

A comprehensive vulnerability management solution requires the following features:

  • Vulnerability scanning—uses automated tools such as configuration scanning, network scanning, firewall log analysis, and automated penetration testing.
  • Identifying vulnerabilities—analyzes results of scans, identifying and reporting vulnerabilities that exist in the environment. 
  • Prioritizing vulnerabilities—identifying the systems and environment layers affected by each vulnerability, and providing information about its severity, impact, and root causes.
  • Remediation recommendations—providing guidance and instructions on how to remediate the vulnerability.
  • Vulnerability patching—some vulnerability management systems can automatically apply a patch to affected systems, or take other measures, such as changing firewall rules, to block the discovered attack vector.
  • Vulnerability shielding—in cases where it is difficult or impossible to fix a vulnerability at its source, some solutions enable virtual patching or shielding, which add controls to prevent the exploitation of a vulnerability. For example, if the vulnerability is based on accessing a specific file, the solution would protect access to this file.

Learn more About Vulnerability Management

Open Source Vulnerability Scanning: Methods and Top 5 Tools

Read more: Open Source Vulnerability Scanning: Methods and Top 5 Tools

Trivy Vulnerability Scanner Adopted by Leading Cloud Native Platforms

Read more: Trivy Vulnerability Scanner Adopted by Leading Cloud Native Platforms

Amit Sheps
Amit is the Director of Technical Product Marketing at Aqua. With an illustrious career spanning renowned companies such as CyberX (acquired by Microsoft) and F5, he has played an instrumental role in fortifying manufacturing floors and telecom networks. Focused on product management and marketing, Amit's expertise lies in the art of transforming applications into cloud-native powerhouses. Amit is an avid runner who relishes the tranquility of early morning runs. You may very well spot him traversing the urban landscape, reveling in the quietude of the city streets before the world awakes.