Vulnerability Management: The Beginner's Guide

Vulnerability management is the ongoing practice of managing vulnerabilities in your hardware, software and working environment. A strong vulnerability management program gives companies the capacity to easily detect assets that might have been affected by these threats — allowing them to focus on what matters and also reducing risk more effectively. 

Underpinning overall cybersecureity, vulnerability management is a critical part of any organization that's even halfway serious about protecting its assets. So, let's take a look at vulnerability management, including how it works and challenges faceing it today. We'll also look at the things to consider when choosing the right vulnerability management solution.

Preventing vulnerabilities

As available software on the market increases, so do vulnerabilities. When a company's system is weak due to vulnerabilities in the software it uses, attackers take advantage of the situation to:

  • Steal sensitive data
  • Damage the system network
  • Deny authorized users access to use the product

This, in turn, causes the company to lose customers, reputation and money. To reduce threats, network personnel and system administrators are always on the front line, constantly patching the organization's software and operating systems. But to what end? For companies to protect their systems and networks against security breaches, organizations invest in vulnerability management and risk mitigation.

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerabilities are any sort of defect that weakens systems — usually systems that are large enough to support businesses, enterprises, governments and other organizations. These defects might be in software, hardware or even the people you work with. Unauthorized personnel or attackers can exploit these vulnerabilities to gain access to sensitive data.  

Vulnerability management is the ongoing practice that helps organizations identify, assess, prioritize and fix vulnerabilities in their system. Ultimately, the goal of vulnerability management is to reduce the risks posed by vulnerabilities by using techniques such as patching, hardening, and configuration management. This helps to ensure security while limiting risks that could potentially be exploited by malicious users. 

With the rise in cloud native apps, application security (AppSec) and cloud native security have become central to cyber strategies. 

(Understand how vulnerabilities, threats and risk all play a part.)

Examples of vulnerabilities

There are many types of vulnerabilities. Here are a few examples of vulnerabilites you might find in the wild: 

  • Unpatched software
  • Unsecured API
  • Weak credentials
  • Programming bugs
  • Misconfiguration
  • Uploads of dangerous and unsecured files
  • URL redirection to unsecured websites

A prime example of a notorious vulnerability is the Log4j zero-day vulnerabilities that occurred in late 2021. You can also explore the CVE, a global, reliable and timely list of common vulnerabilities and exposures. This list is maintained by a nonprofit group called MITRE, also well-known for the MITRE ATT&CK framework which helps categorize tactics and techniques of cyberattacks.

(Learn more about CVE severity.)

Now that we know understand vulnerability management and types of vulnerabilities, let's find out how it works. 

Three phases of vulnerability management

Patching and reconfiguring an organization's IT systems are only a small part of vulnerability management. In fact, its an ongoing practice — not a one-time process — that requires discipline and the understanding that new threats emerge every day: Continuous assessment and discovery are paramount. This continuous process has three major phases: 

  • Identification
  • Assessment
  • Remediation

Phase 1: Identification

You can't fix a vulnerability if you don't know it exists. To keep threats out of your company's system, it's essential to first identify all organization assets across your IT environment. You must monitor these assets regularly and always look to discover new vulnerabilities.

A variety of tools, including Splunk, can make this process easier, aiming to identify threats and prevent security breaches before they happen. Solutions like this generally rely on technologies including:

Since identification is the foundation of this process, the success of your vulnerability management program depends greatly on it. 

Phase 2: Assessment

The major goal of assessment is to help you understand the current state of the system and how the identified vulnerabilities have impacted it. Here, the team analyzes the assets collected so that they can identify the problems and prioritize them. It helps you to get answers to questions such as these: 

  • How many systems have the vulnerabilities impacted?
  • Are the vulnerabilities found to be low risk or high risk?
  • How much time will it take to fix them?

Phase 3: Remediation

After you've completed the identification and assessment processes, determining the level of risk these vulnerabilities pose, you’re ready for the next phase.

The remediation process focuses on fixing the vulnerabilities discovered based on priority. This can either be through patching or reconfiguration. Whichever method the team decides to use, the end goal is the same: ensuring that the system is risk-free. Once the team has completed this process successfully and ensuring its validity, the team should document the process to help with future issues.

Choosing the right vulnerability management solutions

Vulnerability management is about identifying the riskiest parts of your IT infrastructure and then taking steps to address them. There are dozens of possible solutions out there, and they all range in price point and features.

Now let’s cover some of the main things to consider before choosing a solution. 

Your organization's objectives

When choosing a vulnerability management solution, there are several factors to consider. But the biggest is whether the program can work with your existing systems and processes. The right tool for a small business might not be the right tool for a larger one. Therefore, it’s important to understand your organization's needs before deciding what to use.

For vulnerability management to be successful, it must fit into your organization's overall information security strategy and policies.

(Explore common cybersecurity frameworks.)

Easy threats detection system

The last decade has seen a dramatic shift in the way organizations are managing their IT security risks. The traditional complex detection system has become slow and insufficient for most organizations. Companies now require easy-to-use vulnerability solutions that can:

  1. Detect attempted attacks across networked devices and applications in real time.
  2. Then prioritize vulnerabilities that pose more threats to the system.

(Know the difference between threat detecting & threat hunting.)

Support for cloud services

Does the solution include the ability to monitor and detect threats across different cloud environments? Providing support for cloud environments also means unlocking innovations and adapting to the speed of the cloud to detect issues and protect your entire IT infrastructure.

Performance and quality

If a vulnerability management tool impacts your application performance or doesn't accurately detect vulnerabilities, then that tool isn't the right one for your business. When looking out for the right vulnerability solution, you want to pick a tool that can both:

  • Accurately detect attacks very quickly
  • Consume very little space

One way to check for this? Identify the latest risk noticed, how accurate the detected vulnerabilities are and how long it took for these vulnerabilities to be visible.

Challenges of vulnerability management

As the world becomes more connected, the potential attack surface available to malicious actors increases. This exposes people and businesses to threats that may have previously been deemed remote or unlikely. These challenges are, for the most part, preventable — with a little forethought and planning.

There are many challenges in implementing vulnerability management solutions; let’s discuss some of them. 

Hazy organizational framework & lack of communication

Companies that lack communication among team members and have an unclear organizational structure tend to have difficult time managing vulnerabilities. The security teams in an organization like this have trouble defining their roles. Hence, members have a problem understanding where their skills fit in and what their focus should be at a particular time. 

Team members that understand their roles and what their tasks should be find it easier to detect vulnerabilities and work on them. Each team member can now fulfill their duties while also working together to manage these vulnerabilities on time. 

Inadequate assets management

One of the biggest challenges an organization faces is insufficient assets inventory. Organizations that make use of spreadsheets or some other obsolete method to store data often get an inaccurate or incomplete results. When you can't see the problem, finding a solution becomes an even bigger problem. 

Companies that make use of a more sophisticated asset management solution have a better chance at effective vulnerability management. 

High vulnerability assessment costs

While even the most complex organizations understand how important vulnerability assessment is, the cost might be a barrier for many. Vulnerability assessment is a part of vulnerability management that involves a thorough evaluation of a system for weaknesses. This assessment also suggests the remediation the system requires, if it needs any. 

According to Cybrary, the cost of vulnerability assessment for a moderately complex organization can range from $15,000 to $100,000. Some companies might have to settle for a cheaper solution, which might not, ultimately, solve the problem. 

Vulnerability management is not a one-time process

Vulnerability management is a proactive process — not reactive. It's an important investment that organizations must make to prevent cyberattacks. While you're likely to have fewer incidents when performing effective vulnerability management programs than if you are not doing so, there's no guarantee that vulnerabilities will not be exploited on your systems. 

What is Splunk?

This posting does not necessarily represent Splunk's position, strategies or opinion.

Stephen Watts
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Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts works in growth marketing at Splunk. Stephen holds a degree in Philosophy from Auburn University and is an MSIS candidate at UC Denver. He contributes to a variety of publications including CIO.com, Search Engine Journal, ITSM.Tools, IT Chronicles, DZone, and CompTIA.