Vulnerability Management: Definition, Process & Tools

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As enterprise networks continue to grow in size and complexity, so have the misconfigurations and vulnerabilities that could expose those networks to devastating cyber attacks and breaches. Vulnerability management is the process of prioritizing and minimizing those risks.

When you consider that the average Fortune 500 company has nearly 500 critical vulnerabilities, the importance of vulnerability management becomes clear.

Vulnerability management is a cyclical cybersecurity management process that involves identifying, evaluating, remediating, and reporting on security vulnerabilities with the guidance of a vulnerability management framework. It combines specific cybersecurity actions like risk evaluation and patch management with an organized plan that addresses a wide range of vulnerabilities. Risk-based prioritization and remediation are core tenets of vulnerability management, making it a holistic cybersecurity strategy that considers compliance, daily operations, and business strategy requirements as important decision-making factors.

How Does Vulnerability Management Work?

At its core, vulnerability management is a cybersecurity team practice that identifies an organization’s vulnerabilities and prioritizes them based on risk metrics and other criteria. For vulnerabilities that receive a higher risk score, cybersecurity teams must further analyze the assets involved — hardware, software, applications, databases, endpoints or other IT assets — to determine the best course of action to correct the vulnerability or at least minimize its threat to the network.

Many teams use specialized software and tools to help them simplify and automate vulnerability management. Vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, risk scoring, patch management, and vulnerability assessment tools are all technologies that businesses incorporate in each step of the vulnerability management lifecycle. In many cases, these businesses decide to lessen their IT tool sprawl by selecting a comprehensive vulnerability management platform to support their efforts.

See the Top Vulnerability Management Tools

Throughout the vulnerability management process — regardless of whether or not you use supportive vulnerability management tools — a vulnerability management framework or policy is implemented to guide cybersecurity professionals and other relevant stakeholders.

Vulnerability management is not a one-time network audit or cleanup session; it is an ongoing process that security teams must diligently commit to and tweak over time for the best results. The vulnerability management framework should be updated on a continuous basis in order to keep up with the company’s changing attack surface and emerging outside threats.

Also read: Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Testing

Vulnerability Management Process

Vulnerability management involves both a planning phase and an operational phase where security teams carry out that plan.

Developing a Vulnerability Management Policy

Before you can effectively handle the rest of the vulnerability management lifecycle, it’s important to first get your bearings with a vulnerability management policy or framework. A vulnerability management policy is a rules and reference guide that establishes how security teams should identify and remediate security vulnerabilities. It offers support for best practices and also delineates any legal or regulatory compliance requirements that must be followed while addressing vulnerabilities in sensitive datasets and systems.

Best practices for developing a vulnerability management policy include the following:

Prepare your policy before you do anything else

First and foremost, you must create and share your vulnerability management policy with all appropriate decision-makers before engaging in further vulnerability management tasks. If this plan isn’t finalized before security teams start tackling vulnerability issues, your business runs a serious risk of falling into noncompliance or making another costly mistake.

Clearly identify the goals and scope of your vulnerability management program

While your company may very well want to identify and address vulnerabilities of all types across all parts of its network, chances are that certain types of systems and  vulnerabilities should be prioritized. Leaders from across the business should play a role in deciding what the vulnerability management program aims to do. This part of your vulnerability management policy is particularly important for framing what needs to be reported on after each round of vulnerability remediation.

Consider industry- and region-specific factors for regulatory compliance

If you’re working in a highly regulated industry or part of the world, it’s important for your vulnerability management policy to state what can and can’t be done when assessing and remediating vulnerabilities in sensitive assets like personal data. Especially for regulations like HIPAA, it’s important to clearly document your compliance posture and steps you’re taking to protect patient data.

Identify and train all vulnerability management stakeholders

Cybersecurity professionals will be doing the bulk of hands-on work for vulnerability management, but several other roles and responsibilities need to be defined in your vulnerability management policy for an effective program. The following people need to be aware of their roles and and responsibilities for vulnerability management:

  • (Chief) security officers: These are strategic security leaders who spearhead the vulnerability management program, supporting the cybersecurity team while simultaneously getting buy-in from other leaders in the organization. This individual may occasionally act as a project manager, though they’ll more likely be handling strategic planning, training across the organization, and reporting key results and next steps to the rest of the C-suite.
  • Other business leaders: Although the security officer is the business leader with the expertise and day-to-day knowledge of how vulnerability management works, other business leaders will often be part of the conversation when it comes to prioritizing certain types of risk mitigation. These business leaders are also responsible for championing good security practices at an individual level as well as involvement from asset owners in their departments.
  • Cybersecurity or vulnerability engineers: These are the individuals who first come to mind when you’re creating a vulnerability management team. They are responsible for the identification and resolution of vulnerabilities, based on the vulnerability management framework. In some cases, they may also be responsible for training and communicating with asset owners for specific risk management tasks.
  • Asset and data owners: These individuals are secondary characters in the vulnerability management process, but they play a crucial role at the individual-asset level. Because asset owners own and likely know their specific systems and databases the best, they’ll often be called upon to provide more information about that asset and/or to accept some of the risk involved in remediating and managing vulnerabilities for that asset.
  • Managed security service providers (MSSPs): In some cases, third-party teams will be hired to deploy and automate steps of the vulnerability management process. Depending on an individual organization’s internal IT and security capabilities, these individuals may take on multiple of the roles and responsibilities listed above.

Also read: Best Managed Security Service Providers

6 Steps of the Vulnerability Management Lifecycle

Now that you have your vulnerability management policy in place, your team is ready to begin identifying and correcting network security vulnerabilities. The vulnerability management lifecycle is broken down into six steps below. Keep in mind that these steps should be cycled through regularly, as attack surfaces and hacker tactics change regularly:

  1. Identify vulnerabilities through vulnerability scanning and vulnerability assessments. Vulnerability scanning can be completed through a continuous, scheduled process or a more limited scan of specific system assets. In many cases, vulnerability scanning is completed in conjunction with manual penetration testing techniques.
  2. Evaluate and prioritize vulnerabilities. Before you start repairing the vulnerabilities you’ve identified, you’ll want to determine which vulnerabilities are most harmful to the network. Risk scoring is a form of risk-based prioritization that is often used to clearly designate which vulnerabilities are the most pressing.
  3. Remediate vulnerabilities. Starting with the highest-risk vulnerabilities, your cybersecurity team should correct problems through patch management, system reconfiguration, and other risk mitigation techniques. Vulnerability patching is one of the most effective ways to eliminate vulnerabilities; however, patches aren’t always available, meaning your team will sometimes need to get creative with other risk mitigation solutions. The process of implementing security controls when patches can’t be applied is sometimes called virtual patching.
  4. Reassess and verify the success of remediation. This step involves additional scanning and penetration testing. It’s important to continually reassess your vulnerability management work, especially as new patches become available, and to make sure that patches and mitigations work as expected.
  5. Document and report on vulnerabilities and resolutions. While every step of the vulnerability management process should be carefully documented, it’s most important that results and next steps are documented in a clear way. From there, the cybersecurity team can report their findings and receive additional input and context from other teams.
  6. Adjust your vulnerability management framework and strategies over time. At some level, your vulnerability management plan should be reevaluated each time you re-enter the vulnerability management lifecycle. On a less regular basis, your entire framework should receive a closer review and overhaul as new techniques or tools become available to improve the process.

Also read: Patch Management Policy: Steps, Benefits, and a Free Template

Vulnerability Management Best Practices

Your vulnerability management program will have the best chance at success if you follow certain principles and best practices.

Set measurable goals

Setting goals is one of the first steps you’ll take when creating your vulnerability management policy, but it’s crucial that they are goals you can actually measure. At the individual and team level, set measurable KPIs to keep daily work on track with overall goals. Some KPIs to consider for your own vulnerability management team include scan frequency and scan type requirements, rate of vulnerability remediation after discovery, mean time to remediation (MTTR), and patch duration. Service-level agreements (SLAs) for some vulnerabilities, such as for high-severity ones on critical assets, can help ensure that none slip between the cracks.

Keep up with regular vulnerability scans and patch checks

New vulnerabilities can develop or morph overnight. New patches are released on a regular basis — for some vendors, on a weekly basis. If you’re not regularly scanning your assets and researching new patching opportunities, your network’s security will slip as soon as you finish your last round of the vulnerability management lifecycle. If your team struggles to keep up with the constant pace of vulnerability scanning and patching, consider investing in a tool that automates or otherwise handles the scanning process.

Integrate vulnerability management solutions with other IT and security tools

Many of the best vulnerability management software solutions exist as part of a larger cybersecurity suite. And even for the ones that don’t, several of these tools integrate nicely with SIEM and other cybersecurity software as well as ITSM and CI/CD solutions. If you choose to use a vulnerability management tool in your process, do your due diligence to find out how it can fit more seamlessly into your existing tech stack; taking this step can streamline tasks for members of your team and even save you money by decreasing the number of tools you use.

Consider attack paths

Since the number of vulnerabilities will almost always be more than the number that can realistically be fixed, enterprises must create objective prioritization rubrics that quantify the severity of the vulnerability and the criticality of the asset. However, these prioritization patterns can also be exploited. Bad actors have been known, for example, to utilize vulnerabilities with a 5 or 6 CVE rating, as they know many organizations ignore them. The best approach is to find out from experts across the industry what they are saying about different vulnerabilities, how they are being used by threat actors, how easy they are to exploit, and how much access they provide to sensitive resources. Such data should be considered along with CVE ratings.

Bring in support to fill in the gaps

Larger companies may have all of the security management resources they need in-house, but for the average company, it’s difficult to find, hire, and retain enough expert staff to manage vulnerabilities alongside so many other critical IT tasks. If your team is struggling to keep up with your vulnerability management plan or to establish one in the first place, consider outsourcing this work to an MSSP that specializes in vulnerability and risk management.

Vulnerability Management vs Vulnerability Assessment

The vulnerability assessment is just one component of the whole vulnerability management process. It is an early step in the vulnerability management lifecycle that is used to document specific vulnerabilities and their properties, like location, size, and similarity to other known vendor vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability assessments are typically one-off, concrete documentations of vulnerability issues, which are followed by risk scoring, prioritization, and remediation — all steps in the vulnerability management lifecycle. Vulnerability management is the overarching framework that is used to manage all of these steps for eradicating security vulnerabilities.

19 Best Vulnerability Management Tools and Software

Vulnerability management tools range from single-use-case solutions to holistic platforms to managed services. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best vulnerability management solutions below, briefly stating the area of vulnerability management each one specializes in:

  1. Qualys VMDR 2.0 with TruRisk: Vulnerability management platform that’s also available as vulnerability management as a service (VMaaS).
  2. Rapid7 InsightVM: Vulnerability management tool with risk prioritization.
  3. Tenable Nessus: Vulnerability management tool with assessment focus.
  4. Tripwire IP360: Vulnerability management platform.
  5. GFI LanGuard: Patch management, auditing, and security scanning tool.
  6. BreachLock Vulnerability Assessment: Vulnerability assessment tool.
  7. WithSecure Elements Vulnerability Management: Vulnerability management platform.
  8. Holm Security VMP: Cloud, system, network, and web application vulnerability scanning tool.
  9. Digital Defense Frontline Vulnerability Manager: Vulnerability management platform.
  10. Arctic Wolf Managed Risk: Vulnerability management platform.
  11. Risk-Based Vulnerability Management by Balbix: Vulnerability management platform.
  12. Microsoft Defender Vulnerability Management: Vulnerability management tool, primarily for Microsoft users.
  13. Ivanti Neurons for RBVM: Risk-based threat detection and remediation through VMaaS.
  14. ServiceNow Vulnerability Response: VMaaS-powered patch orchestration and vulnerability solutions management.
  15. Syxsense Secure: Cybersecurity managed services with vulnerability scanning, patch management, and compliance management.
  16. Flexera Software Vulnerability Management: Path management and patch automation services.
  17. Asimily Insight: Risk prioritization and vulnerability management services for medical, laboratory, and IoT devices.
  18. Rapid7 Managed Vulnerability Management: Vulnerability management platform with additional support for remediation guidance and service deployment.
  19. Crowdstrike Falcon Spotlight: Unified threat and vulnerability management VMaaS.

For more information about what each of these solutions offer, read our in-depth buyer guides for Top Vulnerability Management Tools and Vulnerability Management as a Service (VMaaS).

Bottom Line: Vulnerability Management

Whether you’re operating a massive healthcare network or a local digital marketing agency, every business manages critical assets and information that need to be protected. Vulnerability management is a great cybersecurity strategy for all of these needs, as vulnerability management policies, assessments, frameworks, and software can be right-sized to fit specific organizational requirements.

As tempting as it may be to adopt the most comprehensive vulnerability management software or to hire the top managed security services provider, it’s more important to find solutions that align with your business’s data and system security requirements. Depending on your organization’s size, in-house security expertise, budget, and industry compliance requirements, a lesser-known tool or service provider that specializes in supporting your unique network needs may be the best solution. As with anything in cybersecurity, just getting started is a great step forward.

Drew Robb contributed to this report.

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