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What is vulnerability management?

Rachel Bishop
Rachel Bishop|Updated June 17, 2024
Security grey
Security grey

Vulnerability management is the process of identifying, remediating, and monitoring vulnerabilities that impact your environment. A must-have for your business’s cybersecurity practices, vulnerability management makes it that much harder for malicious actors to access your systems.

What is a vulnerability?

A vulnerability is a weakness or error in software, hardware, a network, or a system. Vulnerabilities pose a threat to businesses because threat actors often leverage them to launch cyberattacks. For example, in 2023, cybercriminals found and exploited a vulnerability (CVE-2023-27350) in the print management software PaperCut. As a result, hackers could execute malicious code remotely on vulnerable, unpatched systems. 

In 2022, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) reported more than 13,000 vulnerabilities in their National Vulnerability Database, and 85% of those vulnerabilities were classified as medium or high severity.

The vulnerability management process 

Ultimately, you can break down the vulnerability management process into five main steps: 

  1. Inventory the assets in your environment 

  2. Assess vulnerabilities across monitored devices 

  3. Prioritize vulnerabilities by severity and potential impact 

  4. Remediate vulnerabilities 

  5. Monitor vulnerabilities 

Let’s dig right into what these steps entail.

1. Inventory the assets in your environment 

Before you can manage vulnerabilities, you have to know what software, hardware, and other assets live in your environment. This knowledge helps you determine which vulnerabilities (and patches!) are relevant. 

Examine the assets in your environment, and take note of software and hardware version numbers. Some of those numbers looking familiar when you read Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday update? Take note! 

2. Assess vulnerabilities across monitored devices 

Now that you know which vulnerabilities are relevant to you, you can assess them further. Which vulnerabilities put your organization at the highest risk of downtime? For example, you might tend to a remote code execution vulnerability or a zero-day faster than you remedy a less severe vulnerability — for example, where threat actors could merely gain host information and not much else. 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) can help you assess vulnerabilities through its Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS). This number-based severity rating tells you at a glance which vulnerabilities are the most dangerous. If a vulnerability is ranked 1, a threat actor would likely need physical access to your systems to wreak havoc. If a vulnerability is ranked 9, stop reading and go patch — especially if the affected machines are public facing. 

3. Prioritize vulnerabilities by severity and potential impact 

Once you’ve assessed relevant vulnerabilities, you can move on to prioritizing which ones to remedy first. This process is unique to your environment — but we can offer a few best practices to get you started. 

First, you’ll want to target any machines that cybercriminals might target first — for example, machines with elevated privileges. If a threat actor hacks into one of these machines, they can carry out attacks much more quickly because they don’t have to fight as much for privileges. You’ll also want to prioritize any machines with more critical vulnerabilities first. 

During an active exploit, time is precious. Setting these priorities will help you properly disperse your team members where they’re most needed to minimize downtime. 

4. Remediate vulnerabilities 

With your priorities set, it’s time to remediate existing vulnerabilities. To be frank, vulnerability remediation is not a process you want to tackle manually. It’s a tedious, time-consuming task that just doesn’t end. Once you remediate a vulnerability, five more pop up to take its place. 

That’s why we recommend adopting a vulnerability management platform. These platforms help find and remediate vulnerabilities for you so you can focus on other tasks. 

5. Monitor vulnerabilities 

Time for a quick progress check. Did your latest patches go through? Are your targeted vulnerabilities gone from your environment? If so, you can relax on this front for at least two whole seconds before new vulnerabilities spring up! 😅 

In all seriousness, monitoring vulnerabilities is a never-ending job. It’s a full-time job. It will never disappear from your to-do list. But you can get help to make things a little easier. 

If you need some help — and believe you us, you don’t want to manage vulnerabilities by yourself — consider partnering with an endpoint detection and response (EDR) or extended detection and response (XDR) provider. The fine folks who work at EDR and XDR companies can weed out the false positives and vulnerabilities that don’t really impact you. That’s time back in your day to take a long lunch — or, let’s be real, to reset Jerry’s password for the millionth time.

Automated vulnerability management 

Arguably, one of the most ingenious uses of automation just so happens to encompass vulnerability management. A good vulnerability scanner can save you a lot of time (and Google searches). 

Vulnerability scanners automatically scan the devices in your environment to check and see if any of them are susceptible to vulnerabilities. Much like antivirus software checks for known malicious signatures, vulnerability scanning tools check against known Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) to identify security vulnerabilities. 

The results from your vulnerability scans help you determine which patches you need to deploy. 

The benefits of vulnerability management 

Vulnerability management may initially feel intimidating, but it’s a necessary step to business continuity. Here are a few of the many benefits of vulnerability management. 

It minimizes cybersecurity risks and downtime 

When you don’t patch cybersecurity vulnerabilities, you're essentially giving hackers the keys to your environment. When you don’t patch vulnerabilities for months (or even years), you’re throwing in a complimentary beverage and snack. And when you don’t have any vulnerability management plan in place, you’re giving them a guided tour.

Threat actors when they hear about a new vulnerability meme

Vulnerability management is one of many steps you can take to make threat actors work harder to access your systems. And if someone has to have a challenging day packed with complicated tasks, it might as well be them. 

It gives you insights into your environment 

Think about all the steps you completed to gain your footing with vulnerability management. You walk away from the process with a handy, comprehensive view of everything that’s in your environment. You know which systems have what programs, which systems to prioritize should the worst happen, and which vulnerabilities matter most. 

In a field where so much is scattered and done ad hoc, this level of visibility is a godsend.

How to choose a vulnerability management platform for your business 

A quick Google search tells you there’s no shortage of vulnerability management tools. And while no size fits all, here are a few questions to ask when choosing a vulnerability management solution for your business. 

  • Can the tool meet the unique needs of your business, given the size and complexity of your environment? 

  • Which features do you need the tool to have — and which ones do you already have (e.g., asset inventorying)? 

  • Does the tool offer automation when applicable? 

  • Is the tool easy to use? 

  • Is the vulnerability management vendor trustworthy? Does it have good reviews? (G2 and Reddit are great sources of information for this question.) 

  • Can the tool scale as your business grows? 

Vulnerability management FAQs 

What is a vulnerability? 

A vulnerability is a weakness or error in software, hardware, a network, or a system. Vulnerabilities pose a threat to businesses because cybercriminals often leverage them to launch cyberattacks. 

How does vulnerability management differ from patch management? 

Vulnerability management includes identifying, classifying, and addressing vulnerabilities, whereas patch management focuses on administering software updates. While patch management is often a component of vulnerability management, vulnerability management also incorporates other functions.

Think of it this way: If we compare the difference between vulnerability management and patch management to baking a cake, vulnerability management includes finding a recipe, gathering the ingredients, measuring them, combining them, mixing them, putting the cake in the oven, taking it out, letting it cool, decorating it, serving it, and then reflecting on how the recipe turned out. Meanwhile, patch management is more akin to gathering and combining the ingredients.

How are vulnerabilities scored? 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) scores vulnerabilities through its Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS). This number-based severity rating tells you at a glance which vulnerabilities are the most dangerous and can cause the most downtime. 

What’s the difference between a vulnerability assessment and vulnerability management? 

A vulnerability assessment is a one-time or ad hoc process where you work to discover which vulnerabilities could impact you, given what’s in your environment. Vulnerability management is the ongoing, evolving process of checking for, validating, and remedying vulnerabilities. 

While a vulnerability assessment can give you a snapshot of the vulnerabilities relevant to your business, vulnerability management zooms out a bit to give you a more comprehensive view of your business’s vulnerability profile. 

What’s the difference between a vulnerability assessment and penetration testing? 

Vulnerability assessments help you flag the vulnerabilities that could impact your business. At the surface, penetration testing, or pentesting, assists with identifying vulnerabilities as well — but on a much deeper, more comprehensive level. 

Trained security teams perform penetration testing to thoroughly examine the security measures you have in place in your environment. Not only do pentesters find and flag vulnerabilities, but they also use their knowledge of threat intelligence to test out your security controls, weed out false positives from automated tools, and conduct simulated attacks on your environment — all while thinking like a hacker. 

What are the most common vulnerabilities? 

While there are many different types of vulnerabilities, some of the most common include unpatched software, zero-days, weak passwords, and misconfigurations. 

Why is vulnerability management important? 

Vulnerability management is important because it helps you harden your organization’s security posture. If you’re on top of monitoring for and remedying vulnerabilities, you’re giving threat actors one less way to infiltrate your environment.

Rachel Bishop
Rachel Bishop

A professional writer turned cybersecurity nerd, Rachel enjoys making technical concepts accessible through writing. At this very moment, she’s likely playing a video game or getting lost in a good psychological thriller. She enjoys spending time with her husband (a former sysadmin now in cybersecurity) as well as her two cats and three birds.

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