Vulnerability Management: Process, Lifecycle, Tools and Its Importance

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Vulnerability Management: Process, Lifecycle, Tools and Its Importance

No cybersecurity discussion is complete without talking about internal and external vulnerabilities, and ideally, no cybersecurity strategy is complete without a plan for vulnerability management. Despite being so crucial, organizations often don’t pay enough attention to both.

Until now, vulnerability management tools have been expensive and hard to use.

Urgency is critical to staying protected. While you can’t control threats, you can certainly control vulnerabilities.

In 2021, over 50 new vulnerabilities were identified EVERY DAY. While vulnerabilities start out hidden, as soon as they are identified and publicized, it becomes a race against time to protect your clients’ systems from cybercriminals. Hackers use sophisticated tools to automatically scan thousands of businesses, looking for that one vulnerability that will give them access.

Statistics show that most data breaches and ransomware attacks are caused by known vulnerabilities that have not been addressed. Lately, cyber insurance policies, business contracts and new regulations are including strict requirements for vulnerability management.

You don’t need to be a high-level security engineer to deliver this service. The right tool will help you automate the scans to run on a scheduled basis, send reports with discovered vulnerabilities and render suggestions on how to remediate them.

Weak vulnerability management can be attributed to the lack of clarity on what vulnerabilities truly are and how they can be managed before they are exploited by cybercriminals. Let’s dive right in by first understanding what a vulnerability means.

What is a vulnerability in cybersecurity?

In principle, a vulnerability is a weakness in a system or network that can be exploited by cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access to wreak havoc. What happens next is anybody’s guess — installation of malware, the stealth of sensitive data, damage caused by a malicious code and more.

Here are a few official definitions of a vulnerability:

  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST): Weakness in a system, system security procedures, internal controls, or implementation that could be exploited or triggered by a threat.
  • ISO 27005: A weakness of an asset or group of assets that can be exploited by one or more cyberthreats, where an asset is anything that has value to the organization, its business operations and their continuity, including information resources that support the organization’s mission.
  • IETF RFC 4949: A flaw or weakness in a system’s design, implementation, or operation and management that could be exploited to violate the system’s security policy.

Now that we’ve established what a vulnerability is in the cybersecurity realm, let’s look at how it compares to threats and risks (the two other common buzzwords in cybersecurity).

Vulnerability vs. Threat

While vulnerabilities are the gaps or weaknesses that undermine an organization’s IT security efforts, threats are what an organization is up against — from malware attacks that plant dangerous executables to ransomware attacks that lock up an organization’s systems and data. Threats lurk in today’s cyberthreat landscape looking for a vulnerability in an organization’s environment to exploit. No two threats are the same. Some threats are more likely to exploit a vulnerability than others.

Vulnerability vs. Risk

Risk refers to a thorough assessment of potential threats to an organization’s security and vulnerabilities in its network. It doesn’t just consider the probability of a vulnerability being exploited, but also the incident’s potential business impact on the organization.

What are the different types of vulnerabilities?

Vulnerabilities come in all shapes and forms. Some of the most common types are:

  • Outdated and unpatched software: This is the number one vulnerability identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Unpatched systems and software are probably the easiest targets for hackers. While every patch is aimed at eradicating a vulnerability, if a system or software is left unpatched, it serves as an open invitation to malicious actors.
  • Missing and poor data encryption: It’s easy for hackers to intercept data being shared among systems in a network. On top of that, if the data is unencrypted or poorly encrypted, it becomes easier for attackers to extract critical information.
  • Operating system and security misconfigurations: System misconfigurations emerge when a network asset has improper security controls or settings. One of the first things cybercriminals do is scan a network for endpoints with system misconfigurations.
  • Missing and broken authentication: Yet another common tactic used by attackers to gain access to a network is by cracking or guessing employee credentials. Missing and broken authentication make the credentials even more vulnerable.
  • Poor cyber awareness and human error: An organization’s employees are its first line of defense against cybercrime. However, employees with poor cyber awareness, or the ones who unintentionally jeopardize the organization’s security, are a huge vulnerability that is often overlooked.

Detecting vulnerabilities is just the first step of vulnerability management — a proven method of enhancing an organization’s cybersecurity. Let’s take a closer look at it now.

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerability management is the continuous and regular process of identifying, assessing, documenting, managing and remediating security vulnerabilities across endpoints, workloads and systems in a network. In short, vulnerability management is a proactive approach to closing the security gaps that exist in a network before they are taken advantage of.

Remember, vulnerability management is a race against hackers.

What is the difference between vulnerability management and a vulnerability assessment?

A vulnerability assessment is a project with a specific start and end date aimed at uncovering any vulnerabilities that cybercriminals could potentially exploit. Once the assessment report is prepared, the project is marked as complete. Vulnerability management, on the other hand, is an ongoing, comprehensive process that continuously manages cybersecurity vulnerabilities in a network. Vulnerability assessment is a part of the vulnerability management process, not the other way around.

What is the purpose of vulnerability management?

A vulnerability management strategy is devised to establish controls and processes that help an organization identify vulnerabilities in its technology infrastructure. Essentially, vulnerability management creates a cycle of steps that ensure vulnerabilities are quickly detected, assessed and remediated. Once complete, the cycle repeats.

Why is vulnerability management important?

Vulnerability management just can’t be ignored, especially in this day and age. The pandemic has accelerated the rise of cybercrime at an unprecedented pace. Without vulnerability management, an organization leaves the front door open for nefarious cybercriminals.

Every day you wait means another 50 unmanaged vulnerabilities.

What is a vulnerability management process?

Not that we know the objective behind vulnerability management, it’s time to understand the various elements an organization must be wary of. Incorporating all the below-mentioned elements ensures an organization’s vulnerability management strategy is impactful.

What are the main elements of a vulnerability management process?

While every organization might take a different approach to its vulnerability management process, it largely revolves around three main elements or phases. Skipping any of them renders the entire process incomplete and ineffective.

  1. Identifying vulnerabilities: This step usually involves a vulnerability scanner that identifies a variety of systems on a network and probes them for different attributes — operating system, open ports, installed software, file system structure and more. Once obtained, this information is used to associate known vulnerabilities to the scanned systems to identify the systems with vulnerabilities. The final data is demonstrated in the form of reports, metrics and/or dashboards.
  2. Evaluating vulnerabilities: After having identified the vulnerabilities, the next step is to evaluate them to assign different risk ratings and scores to determine the level of priority each vulnerability deserves. A few questions that can be considered while evaluating each vulnerability are:
  1. Is the vulnerability a true or false positive?
  2. Could the vulnerability be directly exploited from the internet?
  3. How difficult or easy would it be to exploit the vulnerability?
  4. What would be the potential impact on the organization if the vulnerability is exploited?
  5. Do any security controls already exist to protect the vulnerability from being exploited?
  6. For how long has the vulnerability existed on the network?
  1. Treating Vulnerabilities: Once a vulnerability has been evaluated and validated, an organization must decide how it should treat it by involving the relevant stakeholders. The ways to treat vulnerabilities include:
  • Remediation: Deemed as the ideal treatment of a vulnerability, remediation involves fully fixing or patching the vulnerability so that it can’t be exploited.
  • Mitigation: Organizations can opt for mitigation when a proper fix or patch isn’t yet available for the vulnerability. This method will reduce the likelihood and/or impact of a vulnerability being exploited, buying an organization time to eventually remediate the vulnerability.
  • Acceptance: Organizations can also decide neither to fix the vulnerability nor reduce its likelihood/impact. This is justified when the vulnerability is considered low risk and the cost of fixing it is greater than the potential cost the organization would incur upon its exploitation. You must know the requirements in cyber insurance policies, contracts and regulations before deciding to leave a vulnerability unfixed.

What is the vulnerability management lifecycle?

Right at the outset, we mentioned how vulnerability management is an ongoing process. Having understood its core elements, you will now be able to comprehend the vulnerability management lifecycle. It is a defined and accepted framework that constitutes six main steps. This helps organizations identify and address vulnerabilities efficiently and in a continuous manner.

What are the steps in the vulnerability management lifecycle?

Before you understand each of the below-mentioned steps, let’s remind ourselves that they are steps of a never-ending process (or rather, a process that must not end).

  1. Discovery: This step entails building an inventory of all assets across the network and host details, including operating systems and open services. You must also develop a network baseline and identify security vulnerabilities on a regular, automated schedule.
  2. Prioritization: At this stage, you must categorize assets into groups or business units and assign a business value to asset groups based on how critical they are to business operation.
  3. Assessment: The third step involves determining a baseline risk profile to eliminate risks based on asset criticality, vulnerability threat and asset classification.
  4. Reporting: This is when you must measure the level of business risk associated with assets according to security policies. Additionally, you must also develop and document a security plan, monitor suspicious activity and define known vulnerabilities.
  5. Remediation: Easily the most crucial step of the process, this is the moment when you prioritize and fix vulnerabilities in an order determined by business risk. It’s crucial to establish controls and demonstrate progress at this step.
  6. Verification: This last step of the lifecycle involves conducting follow-up audits to verify threats have been eliminated.

What are vulnerability management tools?

Vulnerability management tools aim to simplify and automate the process of vulnerability management. While some focus solely on vulnerability scanning, others go beyond that to aid the entire vulnerability management process further. Most products provide detailed analysis reports and charts built from scan results. Some of them also include an exploit software that is used as a penetration test tool, which allows an administrator to see how a hacker would exploit the vulnerability without disrupting network operations.

Vulnerability management tools, when used regularly, help organizations of all sizes — from small to midsize businesses (SMBs) to enterprises — strengthen their cybersecurity in a proactive and informed manner. A key aspect in deciding the impact of a vulnerability management tool is the type of vulnerability scanning it deploys. This is where vulnerability scanners come into the picture.

A vulnerability scanner helps businesses secure their networks by identifying and addressing vulnerabilities in public-facing and internal assets that could be exploited by a hacker. It brings to light information about:

  • Vulnerabilities in an IT environment
  • Degrees of risk from each vulnerability
  • How to mitigate a vulnerability

Vulnerability scanners can be largely divided into three types:

  • External vulnerability scanners: External scanners check all the public-facing assets, including network firewalls, routers and other “perimeter” devices, targeting areas of IT infrastructure that are exposed to the internet or aren’t restricted to internal users and systems.
  • Internal vulnerability scanners: These can be stand-alone servers or deployed as virtual machines on any computer attached to the network with sufficient capacity. The internal scanners can check any (or all) ports on any device within a network with an IP address, identifying known vulnerabilities a hacker or malware can exploit once inside.
  • Portable vulnerability scanners: While it’s best practice to have scanners permanently installed on the network for regular internal scanning, portable vulnerability scanners are also available that can be transferred from one network to another for ad hoc assessments and diagnostics.

What is Vulnerability Management-as-a-Service?

Vulnerability Management-as-a-Service (V-MaaS) is when IT service providers, such as managed service providers (MSPs), provide organizations a comprehensive service to help them through every step of the vulnerability management lifecycle. V-MaaS ensures that known vulnerabilities have the shortest possible lifespan and builds proof of due diligence in case a network is compromised. It lets a business focus on what it can control, i.e., network vulnerabilities, because no business can control every threat.

In recent years, as cybercrime has grown in both scale and sophistication, MSPs have been expected to protect their clients by providing ongoing vulnerability scanning with well-planned remediation. However, the domination of IT security companies and the high costs of vulnerability scanning solutions have long stopped MSPs from offering this much-needed service.

Having said that, with the right solution by your side, your MSP can develop a portfolio of right-sized vulnerability management offerings to serve every client. Offering V-MaaS to all your clients will not only strengthen their cybersecurity but generate recurring revenue for your MSP as well.

Here’s a V-MaaS task list that you can follow to automate the process:

  • Set up and configure the scanner(s)
  • Run scans automatically on a scheduled basis
  • Review alerts when they come in
  • Address all severe alerts when discovered
  • Review dashboard based on SLA
  • Remediate all high and medium risks
  • Optimize platform with exclusion rules
  • Meet with client to discuss results

Most importantly, you can build various levels of service for different clients by considering client attributes, scan and alert frequency, remediation SLA and fees. Here’s an example of a typical configuration:

  • Bronze Level: On-demand assessments for smaller organizations
  • Silver Level: Quarterly reviews for SMB clients
  • Gold Level: Monthly updates for mature businesses
  • Platinum Level: Continuous monitoring and remediation for elite clients

Whether your MSP can seize this opportunity of offering V-MaaS profitably or not would totally depend on the vulnerability management platform you opt for. So, what platform does your MSP need? Well, we might have an answer to that question.

The vulnerability management platform your MSP needs

VulScan is a multitenant vulnerability management platform, purpose-built and priced for smart MSPs like you to deliver a profitable portfolio of Vulnerability Management services to the masses. It is a streamlined tool that includes all the key features and functions that you need, without the unnecessary bells and whistles that add complexity and cost.

By opting for VulScan, you get:

  • Internal, external and portable vulnerability scanning
  • Unlimited number of assets per network
  • Unlimited scanning frequency
  • Web-based, multitenant client management portal
  • Post-scan vulnerability reports
  • Drill-down vulnerability management dashboard for each client
  • Built-in false-positive/exclusion management
  • Support for multiple scanners running on the same client network for increased speed
  • Three pre-configured levels of scan intensity, including brute-force login attempts
  • Security service ticket integration with most PSA tools
  • Direct integration with Network Detective Pro for enhanced reporting
  • Brandable client portal and V-MaaS sales and marketing materials

Schedule a demo of VulScan now to see how it puts you in the ideal position to start offering Vulnerability Management-as-a-Service with recurring revenue.



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