What is vulnerability management?
Vulnerability management is the process of identifying, assessing, remediating and mitigating security vulnerabilities in software and computer systems. It's a critical part of managing cybersecurity risk in IT environments: Vulnerabilities that aren't found and fixed can expose an organization to damaging cyber attacks and data breaches.
A typical vulnerability management process involves continuously scanning IT assets for vulnerabilities, evaluating the risks of ones that are found, and addressing the vulnerabilities in a prioritized order based on risk severity. The goals of vulnerability management include reducing attack surfaces, improving an organization's security posture, meeting regulatory compliance requirements and minimizing business risks.
Vulnerability management isn't the same thing as patch management. They do overlap, but there are differences between the two processes. Vulnerability management takes a big-picture view to identify vulnerabilities and then resolve them across IT systems, while patch management provides a tactical fix for known bugs and security holes in software through the installation of patches typically issued by software vendors. Many practitioners view patch management as a part of vulnerability management.
Vulnerability management also differs from risk management, though they again are related to one another. While vulnerability management focuses on finding and fixing technical security gaps, risk management is a broader initiative for dealing with potential cybersecurity threats and various other types of issues that pose a risk to business operations.
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Why vulnerability management is important for organizations
Security vulnerabilities occur in applications, endpoint devices, servers, networks and cloud services. Malicious attackers are constantly looking for potential security gaps in IT systems. Finding an exploitable vulnerability makes it easier for an attacker to get into systems, access corporate data and disrupt business operations.
As a result, effective vulnerability management is essential to proactively secure increasingly complex IT environments. No organization is immune from attack -- even the smallest ones can benefit from a vulnerability management program. For larger organizations with more systems and applications in place, a single vulnerability could be a pathway to an enterprise-wide attack.
In various industries, including healthcare, financial services, retail and e-commerce, regulatory compliance measures require organizations to have vulnerability management initiatives in place. For example, vulnerability management practices are mandated by government and industry regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. They're also required for compliance with ISO 27001, an information security management standard developed by the International Organization for Standardization and formally known as ISO/IEC 27001:2022.
How does vulnerability management work?
Vulnerability management isn't a single task -- it's a multistep process that is conducted by IT security teams on an ongoing basis. In addition to vulnerability scanning that probes IT systems for missing patches, misconfigurations, unprotected sensitive data and other issues, it often includes penetration testing -- or pen testing for short -- that attempts to exploit vulnerabilities in systems to measure their risk level for an actual attack.
Using the results of scans and pen tests, vulnerability assessments are done to evaluate potential threats. As part of an assessment, information about identified vulnerabilities can be fed into a threat intelligence platform and scored based on potential impact and exploitability. For example, a missing patch that could enable attackers to do remote code execution in a system would likely be deemed a high risk.
Security teams then prioritize and remediate the detected issues through various actions, depending on the nature of the vulnerabilities. In the case of the missing patch, an organization's security team generates a remediation workflow ticket for the IT operations staff that's responsible for the affected systems. After IT ops installs the patch, the security team commonly runs a scan to confirm that the vulnerability was patched properly.
Throughout the vulnerability management process, the status of vulnerabilities is tracked against remediation goals and service-level agreements, giving an organization's security leaders and business executives real-time visibility into cybersecurity risk reduction and compliance efforts.
Business benefits of effective vulnerability management
Vulnerability management is a key contributor to a successful cybersecurity strategy. Effectively managing vulnerabilities helps organizations reduce costs, drive more revenue and maintain customer trust. It also provides the following business benefits:
- Smaller attack surface. By finding and remediating vulnerabilities, organizations shrink the number of security flaws that attackers can potentially exploit to breach systems, install malware, steal data or cause operational issues.
- Less disruption to business operations. Finding and fixing vulnerabilities before they're exploited eliminates potential business disruptions from ransomware infections, distributed denial-of-service attacks and other types of cyberthreats.
- Resource optimization. As vulnerabilities are identified in an organization, prioritizing them based on risk severity as part of a vulnerability management program enables smarter allocation of IT resources on remediating the issues that have the biggest potential impact.
- Increased visibility into security risks. Vulnerability management dashboards provide executives with information on vulnerability trends, outstanding threats, mean time to remediate issues and other relevant security metrics to inform strategic decisions.
- Regulatory compliance documentation. Effective vulnerability management provides evidence of due diligence and cyber-risk reduction to compliance auditors.
Key steps in the vulnerability management process
Here's a more detailed look at the core steps in a vulnerability management initiative.
- Asset discovery and inventory. The first step is to develop a comprehensive inventory of all the technology assets deployed in and connected to an organization's IT infrastructure, including servers, endpoints, cloud resources, networking equipment and more. This inventory provides the foundation for all subsequent vulnerability management activities.
- Continuous vulnerability scanning. Vulnerability scanners are used to check the inventoried assets and identify potential vulnerabilities in them. The scanning is commonly performed by automated tools that probe for known vulnerabilities through lightweight agents installed on IT systems and devices. Pen testing, which can be automated or done manually, also helps find unknown flaws and gauges how exploitable vulnerabilities are.
- Vulnerability prioritization and risk analysis. Detected vulnerabilities are evaluated and prioritized based on the level of risk they pose to the organization. Factors such as vulnerability type, the business importance of affected assets and the potential impact of exploits are used to determine priority levels. The Common Vulnerability Scoring System, an open framework maintained by the Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams, can also be used to help rate risk severity.
- Vulnerability remediation and mitigation. The next step is eliminating vulnerabilities by implementing remediation measures, such as patching, upgrading software, reconfiguring systems or retiring assets that are no longer needed. If full remediation isn't feasible, mitigation techniques can be used to reduce risk -- for example, by isolating vulnerable systems.
- Continuous monitoring and assessment. Because vulnerability management is an ongoing cycle, scans must be run regularly to ensure that remediation work was effective and to identify new threats. Asset inventories are also updated on an ongoing basis, and various metrics are used to measure the effectiveness of the vulnerability management program.
- Reporting and documentation. Detailed reporting provides data on identified vulnerabilities, the progress of remediation and risk reduction efforts, and the program's overall status to help communicate security risks and resource needs to business stakeholders.
Common vulnerability management challenges
The vulnerability management process isn't always a smooth path. The following are some common challenges that organizations face when implementing and running vulnerability management programs:
- Lack of a complete asset inventory. Not having full visibility into all of the assets across complex IT environments can make comprehensive scanning difficult.
- Resource prioritization. With thousands of potential vulnerabilities to deal with in some cases, determining which ones should be fixed first requires mature processes.
- Inter-team coordination. Effective remediation of vulnerabilities requires collaboration between security and IT teams, which can be hampered by weak processes and poor communication.
- Reliance on manual processes. Manual workflows for vulnerability tracking and remediation often don't scale and lead to delays in addressing issues.
- Tool sprawl. Disjointed vulnerability management tools that aren't integrated can result in workflow gaps and limited visibility into security risks.
- Difficulties getting a full view of vulnerabilities. Complex environments also make getting a unified view of vulnerabilities across the enterprise a challenge, especially in large organizations.
- Remediation gaps. Even when vulnerabilities are found, efforts to remediate them can be hampered by resource constraints and disparate systems.
- Dealing with dynamic attack surfaces. New vulnerabilities emerge continuously, complicating the process of monitoring and managing the attack surface in an organization.
Core features of vulnerability management tools
Various vulnerability management tools are available to help organizations identify and fix security weaknesses at scale. These are some of the core features and capabilities that the tools provide -- not surprisingly, many correspond to steps in the vulnerability management process:
- Asset discovery.
- Vulnerability scanning.
- Vulnerability prioritization and risk ratings.
- Built-in remediation workflows.
- Compliance mapping of vulnerabilities to regulatory frameworks.
- Alerting functions to notify security teams of critical new vulnerabilities and other high-priority issues.
- Application programming interface integrations to synchronize vulnerability data with other security tools.
- Customizable rules and policies to meet specific vulnerability management requirements.
- Dashboards and reporting tools.