Vulnerability Management: Key Components, Process, and Practices

Hadas Spektor
Hadas Spektor

9  min read | min read | 26/02/2024

What Is Vulnerability Management? 

Vulnerability management is a continuous process of identifying, classifying, remediating, and mitigating vulnerabilities. It’s an integral part of any organization’s security framework, designed to protect against potential threats and exploits. Vulnerabilities are weaknesses in a system that can be exploited by hackers to gain unauthorized access or disrupt operations. They can exist in any part of a system, including hardware, software, network protocols, and even people and processes.

The goal of vulnerability management is to limit the potential for exploitation by reducing the number of vulnerabilities in a system. This is achieved through a cycle of regular audits, assessments, and remediation activities. It is a comprehensive approach that involves multiple stakeholders, not just IT or security staff.

Vulnerability management is vital for maintaining the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of information and systems. It helps organizations mitigate risks, enhance security, ensure compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, and improve overall operational performance. In addition to protecting data, it can help preserve an organization’s reputation and trust, and support regulatory compliance.

How Are Vulnerabilities Ranked and Categorized? 

Vulnerabilities can be ranked based on their potential impact and the likelihood of exploitation. This helps organizations prioritize their remediation efforts and allocate resources effectively. The Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) is widely used for this purpose. It provides a standardized method for rating vulnerabilities, taking into account factors such as exploitability, impact, remediation level, and report confidence.

Vulnerabilities are also categorized based on their type or nature. For instance, some vulnerabilities are software-related, such as bugs in code or insecure configurations. Others are hardware-related, like faulty components or design flaws. Others are related to people, like weak passwords or lack of awareness about phishing scams. Understanding the different types of vulnerabilities helps organizations develop targeted strategies for managing them.

Vulnerability Management vs. Vulnerability Assessment 

Vulnerability assessment is the process of identifying and evaluating vulnerabilities in a system. It involves tools and techniques like scanning, testing, and analysis to detect weaknesses and assess their potential impact. It’s a critical step in the vulnerability management process, providing the information needed to make informed decisions about remediation.

Vulnerability management is a broader concept that encompasses not only assessment but also remediation, prevention, and monitoring. It’s about managing vulnerabilities throughout their lifecycle, from discovery to resolution. This includes establishing policies and procedures, implementing security controls, training staff, and maintaining a vulnerability management program.

While vulnerability assessment focuses on the technical aspects of vulnerabilities, vulnerability management takes a more holistic approach. It recognizes that vulnerabilities are not just technical issues but also business risks that need to be managed strategically. It involves not only IT professionals but also managers, executives, and even board members.

Components of Vulnerability Management 

A typical vulnerability management cycle should include scans, assessments, patches, and other remediation measures.

Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning is the process of automatically checking a system for vulnerabilities. It’s usually done using specialized software tools that scan the system’s hardware, software, and network components. These tools use databases of known vulnerabilities to identify potential weaknesses. They can also detect insecure configurations, missing patches, or other issues that may increase the risk of exploitation.

Vulnerability scans provide a baseline for assessing the system’s security status. It’s important to keep the scanning tools updated with the latest vulnerability information to ensure their effectiveness. Modern vulnerability scanning tools integrate with threat intelligence feeds to get more detailed information about attack tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).

Some vulnerabilities may not be included in the tools’ databases or may be difficult to detect due to their complexity or obscurity. Therefore, scanning should be complemented with other techniques, such as behavioral testing, which can identify anomalous activity on computer systems, even if it does not match a known malicious pattern, manual testing, and penetration testing.

Vulnerability Assessment

Vulnerability assessment is the process of identifying and evaluating vulnerabilities in a system. It involves analyzing the detected vulnerabilities, assessing their potential impact, and ranking them based on their severity or risk level. It requires a deep understanding of the system, its components, its operations, and its vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability assessment requires expertise in various areas, including system architecture, network protocols, software development, and cybersecurity. It involves the use of sophisticated tools and techniques, such as static and dynamic analysis, fuzz testing, and reverse engineering.

Patch Management

Patch management is the process of managing updates or patches for software applications and systems. Patches are pieces of code that are released by software vendors to remediate security issues, fix bugs, improve performance, or add new features. They are a primary means of remediation for software-based vulnerabilities, helping to prevent their exploitation.

The patch management process involves monitoring for new patches, testing them for compatibility and performance, deploying them in a controlled manner, and verifying their successful implementation. It’s a critical aspect of vulnerability management, ensuring that the system is always up-to-date and protected against known vulnerabilities.

However, patches can sometimes introduce new issues, disrupt operations, or require significant resources to deploy. Therefore, it’s important to have a well-defined patch management process that balances the need for security with the need for stability and efficiency. This includes procedures for emergency patching, rollback, and exception handling.

Vulnerability Remediation

Remediation involves fixing or mitigating vulnerabilities in a system, with the goal of eliminating or reducing the risk of exploitation:

  • For software-based vulnerabilities, remediation often involves applying patches or updates, as discussed in the previous section. However, patches are typically just one part of the solution. For example, a patched software system might also need to be securely configured, and some vulnerabilities may have no available patches.
  • For hardware-based vulnerabilities, remediation may involve updating firmware, replacing faulty components, isolating the system, or even replacing or redesigning it. 
  • For people-related vulnerabilities, it may involve training, awareness campaigns, or changes in policies or procedures.

Some vulnerabilities may be difficult to fix due to their complexity, the cost involved, or the potential impact on operations. In such cases, organizations may choose to accept the risk, implement compensating controls to mitigate it, or transfer the risk to a third party, such as an external security provider or cyber insurance agency.

Learn more in our detailed guide to vulnerability remediation (coming soon)

The Vulnerability Management Lifecycle 

The vulnerability management process can be broken down into several steps:

1. Discovery

The discovery phase involves identifying the systems, software, and services within your organization’s environment. It extends to locating all network devices, servers, desktops, laptops, and mobile devices that connect to your network.

Discovery is an ongoing process as the technology environment is continually changing with the addition of new systems and software. Regular updates and scans are necessary to maintain an accurate inventory of assets. Tools like network discovery scanners can assist in automating this process.

2. Prioritization of Assets

Some IT assets are more critical to your organization’s operations than others. Thus, it’s essential to prioritize these assets based on their importance and the level of risk associated with them.

The prioritization process involves evaluating each asset’s value to the organization, the potential impact of a security breach, and the likelihood of such a breach occurring. This step helps in focusing resources and efforts on the most critical assets, ensuring that they are adequately protected.

3. Identifying and Prioritizing Vulnerabilities

In this stage, you identify and evaluate the vulnerabilities present in the prioritized assets. This involves conducting vulnerability scans and penetration tests to find potential weaknesses in your systems and software.

The assessment should be comprehensive, covering all potential areas of risk. It should also be conducted regularly to ensure that new vulnerabilities, which might have emerged due to changes in the technology environment, are identified.

4. Reporting

The purpose of the reporting stage is to communicate the findings of the vulnerability assessment to the relevant stakeholders. It involves creating detailed reports that outline the identified vulnerabilities, their potential impact, and recommended remediation strategies.

Good reporting is crucial for effective vulnerability management. It should be clear, concise, and actionable, allowing decision-makers to understand the risks and make informed decisions about remediation.

5. Remediation

Remediation involves fixing the identified vulnerabilities to reduce the risk of a security breach. Remediation strategies may include patching software, updating systems, reconfiguring security settings, or even replacing vulnerable systems.

Remediation should be carried out based on the priority of the assets. It should also be planned and executed carefully to minimize disruption to business operations.

6. Verification and Monitoring

After remediation, it’s essential to verify that the fixes have been implemented correctly and are effective in removing the vulnerabilities. Another important step is monitoring, which involves continuously checking for new vulnerabilities and ensuring that remediation measures are still effective over time. 

Learn more in our detailed guide to vulnerability management lifecycle (coming soon)

What Are Vulnerability Management Tools? 

Vulnerability management tools are software applications that aid in identifying, assessing, and managing vulnerabilities in a system or network. These tools scan systems for known vulnerabilities, often comparing them against databases of known vulnerabilities to identify weaknesses that could be exploited by cybercriminals.

Vulnerability management tools can automate the complex and time-consuming process of vulnerability scanning. They can conduct regular, scheduled scans across all devices and networks within an organization, saving time and resources. These tools can also provide detailed reports on identified vulnerabilities, making it easier for security teams to prioritize and address the most critical threats.

Vulnerability management tools should offer real-time monitoring and threat detection, enabling organizations to respond swiftly to security breaches. They should also provide a centralized platform for vulnerability management, consolidating data from multiple sources and providing a unified view of the organization’s security posture.

Best Practices for an Effective Vulnerability Management Program 

Here are some best practices to ensure that your vulnerability management program is robust and effective.

Account for All IT Assets and Networks

For vulnerability management to succeed, you need to have a comprehensive inventory of all your IT assets and networks. This includes all hardware, software, systems, and data across your organization. Knowing what you have is crucial in identifying potential vulnerabilities. 

Next, you need to ensure that these assets are regularly updated. This includes installing patches, updates, and security fixes as soon as they are released. 

Establish a Vulnerability Management Policy

A vulnerability management policy serves as a guideline for your organization’s approach to dealing with vulnerabilities. This policy should outline the roles and responsibilities of each team member, the processes for identifying and classifying vulnerabilities, and the procedures for remediation.

The policy should also set clear expectations for reporting and communication. This includes defining the channels for reporting vulnerabilities, the format of reports, and the frequency of reporting. Clear communication ensures that everyone in the organization is aware of the current security status and can respond appropriately to any threats.

Use High-Quality Threat Intelligence Feeds

Threat intelligence feeds are an important resource for staying up-to-date with the latest vulnerabilities and threats. They provide real-time information on new vulnerabilities, exploits, and threat actors, helping organizations stay ahead of potential attacks.

Most vulnerability management programs use a range of threat intelligence feeds, covering a wide range of threat types and sources. These can be manually sourced by the security team, or delivered via a dedicated threat intelligence platform.

Perform Regular Penetration Testing

Penetration testing involves simulating cyber attacks on your own systems to identify vulnerabilities and assess your organization’s ability to defend against these attacks. Regular penetration testing helps you understand your security strengths and weaknesses. It provides insights into how an attacker might infiltrate your systems and the potential impact of a successful breach.

Penetration tests can also validate the effectiveness of your existing security measures. They can help you identify any gaps in your defenses and inform your remediation efforts.

Pay Special Attention to Internet of Things (IoT) Devices

Internet of Things (IoT) devices, which include everything from smart appliances to industrial sensors, significantly expand an organization’s attack surface due to their connectivity and the sensitive data they often handle. Managing vulnerabilities in these devices presents unique challenges, as they often operate continuously and cannot be taken offline for patches without disrupting business operations or user experience.

Organizations should maintain a separate inventory of these devices, given their unique nature and security requirements. Regular vulnerability scanning specific to IoT should be conducted, recognizing that these devices may not be compatible with traditional security solutions. Organizations should set up robust authentication and access control measures and avoid using default admin credentials.

It’s also crucial to work closely with device manufacturers to understand the specific risks associated with each device, to receive timely notifications about vulnerabilities, and to apply firmware updates. In some cases, network segmentation can be useful to isolate IoT devices and minimize potential damage in the event of a compromise. 

Learn more in our detailed guides to:

  • Vulnerability management plan (coming soon)
  • Vulnerability management solutions (coming soon)

Vulnerability Assessment and Remediation for IoT and Embedded with Sternum

If your organization operates IoT and embedded systems, they are a critical part of the attack surface. However, traditional vulnerability assessment tools are often incapable of discovering IoT devices and comprehensively identifying their security weaknesses. This is where Sternum comes in.

Sternum is an IoT security and observability platform. Embedded in the device itself, it provides deterministic security with runtime protection against known and unknown threats; complete observability that provides data about individual devices and the entire device fleet; and anomaly detection powered by AI to provide real-time operational intelligence.

Sternum operates at the bytecode level, making it universally compatible with any IoT device or operating system, including RTOS, Linux, OpenWrtZephyr, Micirum, and FreeRTOS. Plus, it has a low overhead of only 1-3%, even on legacy devices.

To learn more about how we help MDMs streamline IoT security and and build scalable and reliable products, check out this customer webinar we did with Medtronic:

Learn more about Sternum for vulnerability management.

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