Every application, every system, and—by extension—every organization has vulnerabilities. These flaws and weaknesses expose the organization to risk and can be exploited by attackers. Vulnerability scanning or assessment can identify issues, but you need a more comprehensive solution that manages the vulnerability lifecycle from scan to discovery to remediation or mitigation. That is vulnerability management.
Before we can discuss vulnerability management in any practical sense, though, we have to start with understanding what a vulnerability is. In terms of technology, a vulnerability is any flaw or weakness that reduces the system’s information assurance. In a cybersecurity context, a vulnerability is the combination of a bug in application code or a flaw in a system, the ability for an attack or exploit to access the flaw, and a tool or technique to exploit the weakness.
A vulnerability is not confined to technology, though. People and processes also play a significant role. Poor processes or procedures can expose weaknesses and may lead to noncompliance with security policies. People are often the weakest link in the security chain. Improper training and human error can create vulnerabilities despite the best cybersecurity tools and policies.
Understanding Vulnerability Management
Vulnerability management plays an essential role in helping organizations mitigate or remediate vulnerabilities and minimize the attack surface, but what do we mean when we say, “vulnerability management”?
Vulnerability management is often confused or conflated with vulnerability scanning or vulnerability assessment, but these are three distinct things. Vulnerability scanning—as the name implies—is simply the process of using some sort of vulnerability scanning tool to scan your applications and network environment to identify vulnerabilities. Vulnerability assessment is the process of analyzing the results of vulnerability scanning within the proper context of the severity of the vulnerability and potential impact to the environment in order to prioritize remediation efforts. Vulnerability management is a process of proactively and continuously addressing threats based on risk level to minimize the attack surface and reduce exposure to risk.
Vulnerability management is a fundamental element of effective cybersecurity for any business. Many organizations today do not have standardized or common configurations. The increasing diversity of hardware and software in use adds complexity and significantly expands the volume of potential vulnerabilities that IT teams need to detect and address. Vulnerability management encompasses both vulnerability scanning and vulnerability assessment as part of a more comprehensive lifecycle that includes, discovery, organization, scanning, reporting and assessment, and remediation and verification.
Effective Vulnerability Management
To be effective, vulnerability management must address the complete vulnerability lifecycle, and it must be a persistent, continuous process. Traditionally, vulnerability scanning was conducted periodically—such as monthly or quarterly—and then IT teams would work on resolving vulnerabilities before the next scheduled scan. The problem with that approach is that neither vulnerabilities nor attackers follow a periodic schedule like that. New vulnerabilities and exploits could pop up and wreak havoc in between vulnerability scans.
Vulnerabilities have to be considered in a holistic context to properly assess risk and prioritize remediation efforts. In addition to bugs software or flaws in hardware, vulnerability management should also consider the people and the processes.
The goal of vulnerability management is to reduce or eliminate vulnerabilities with minimal impact to business productivity. A risk-based strategy will help you improve your security posture and maintain effective cybersecurity. The methodical approach—backed with compliance requirements—can help to gain support for the vulnerability management program at all levels of your organization.
In next installment, I will cover Rapid7 vulnerability assessment technology in more detail.
This blog was written by Jeanice Russell, Chief Cloud Security Architect at Set Solutions.