7 Steps to Implement an Effective Vulnerability Management Program

Ariel Beck writer profile image
By Ariel Beck

Published March 26, 2024.

7 Steps to Implement an Effective Vulnerability Management Program

When a new vulnerability is found, the race is on to either solve it or exploit it (depending on which side you’re on). But while attackers are getting faster, companies not so much. 

Dev teams take around 215 days to resolve a security vulnerability. The numbers are only marginally shorter when dealing with critical vulnerabilities. This delay is particularly concerning given the rise in zero-day exploits, where hackers take advantage of a security flaw before the organization even knows it exists. 

Effective vulnerability management programs that close the response gap are essential. These programs can help your team speed up remediation workflows and focus on high-risk vulnerabilities through effective prioritization. 

What is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management is the process of identifying, assessing, prioritizing, and rectifying security vulnerabilities within your organization’s attack surface. It involves precise risk assessments that use various metrics to measure impact on your business. Metrics can include complete or partial denial of service, latency, exposure level, reputation and brand damage, financial losses, and compliance implications.

These assessments are critical to ranking vulnerabilities so you can focus your efforts on those needing immediate attention. Effectively managing vulnerabilities also improves remediation speed, including patch applications, configuration changes, and compensating controls. 

Unlike ad-hoc or one-time fixes, vulnerability management offers a continuous cycle of prioritization – maintaining a state of readiness and adaptability rather than just responding to issues as they arise.

Why Do You Need a Vulnerability Management Program?

In a world where security tools and scanners can overwhelm your team with hundreds of vulnerability alerts, it’s crucial to have a targeted vulnerability management program to help you cut through the noise and prioritize vulnerabilities based on their severity, potential impact, and likelihood of exploitation. This allows for a focused approach to handling the most critical vulnerabilities first, based on a risk-based assessment rather than a scattergun approach.

It’s also crucial to understand the exploitability of these found vulnerabilities by analyzing each vulnerability in the context of your specific environment – considering factors like network architecture, existing security controls, and potential attack paths. 

In situations where immediate patching is not feasible, such as compatibility issues with existing systems, potential disruptions to critical services, or when a patch is not yet available – the insights gained from vulnerability analysis become invaluable. They guide you in implementing alternative security measures, like temporary workarounds or isolating vulnerable systems.

Beyond patching, vulnerability management programs can reduce the overall attack surface of your systems by tightening configurations, removing unnecessary services, and verifying that security controls are adequate and suitably aligned with the current threat landscape. 

These programs also help companies adhere to growing requirements from industry-specific regulations such as PCI DSS, ISO 27001, or SOC 2. The documentation and detailed reports can also be used during external audits to evidence your security efforts. 

a diagram of the security model

The 4 Stages of a Vulnerability Management Program

A typical vulnerability management program consists of four key stages:

1. Identification

This stage involves systematically discovering vulnerabilities within the organization's network, infrastructure, and applications through various testing methodologies, each focusing on a specific risk area. These methodologies include

Static Application Security Testing (SAST) SAST tools dive into the dataflow of your source code, byte code, or binaries, hunting for patterns or coding errors that could lead to security weaknesses. 

Secrets detection – It’s surprisingly easy to accidentally leave sensitive information, like passwords or API keys, in your code repositories. Secret detection tools use advanced algorithms for pattern recognition and entropy analysis to detect these embedded secrets.

Infrastructure as Code (IaC) Scanning – IaC tools analyze code used to manage and provision your infrastructure. They are looking for misconfigurations and security flaws within scripts and templates that define cloud resources, network configurations, and other infrastructure elements. 

Vulnerability Scanning Against Known Databases – This involves using sophisticated scanning tools that compare system configurations, software versions, and code against extensive databases like CVE and NVD. These tools identify known vulnerabilities and assess their potential impact, offering a more contextual understanding of the risks. 

2. Prioritization

A detailed evaluation process begins to prioritize all identified vulnerabilities at this stage. The goal is to determine which vulnerabilities pose the most significant risk and need attention first, which can be mitigated through easily implementable controls, and which can be shelved for later because the associated risk is relatively low in real-world environments. 

The industry-standard Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) helps strategically direct resources toward the most dangerous vulnerabilities. While this system is a good starting point, it is insufficient because it lacks the depth to consider whether a security flaw is exposed in a production environment.

For example, a vulnerable feature may only be available to a small, authenticated user group. In this scenario, the real-world risk of exploitation may be significantly lower than the CVSS score suggests. 

Considerations When Assessing Vulnerability Exploitability in Production

Properly assessing vulnerabilities for their exploitability in production involves several considerations that extend beyond a surface-level indicator of criticality:

  • Network Accessibility – If the vulnerability is not exposed to external networks or requires internal network access, it may have a lower risk of exploitation.
  • Authentication Requirements – Does the vulnerability require authenticated access? The vulnerability is generally more critical if attackers don’t need authentication for exploitation.
  • Complexity – Evaluate how complex it is to exploit the vulnerability. Consider the technical skills required, the availability of exploit tools, and the need to meet specific environmental conditions.
  • Public Exploit – Check if there are known exploits available. Vulnerabilities with publicly available exploit code are more likely to be exploited.
  • Configuration and Usage – Consider how your systems are configured and used. Some vulnerabilities might be mitigated by specific configurations or usage patterns that deviate from the default setup. 
  • Data Sensitivity and System Criticality – Assess the nature of data and systems at risk. Vulnerabilities in systems that handle sensitive data or are critical to business operations pose a higher risk. 
  • Compliance and Regulatory Implications – Vulnerabilities that could lead to compliance violations or legal issues might need urgent addressing.
  • Interconnected Systems – A vulnerability in one system might be a low risk on its own but could become critical if it provides access to more sensitive systems or data. 
a table with two different ratingss for different ratingss

3. Remediation

This phase focuses on tackling the identified vulnerabilities head-on. Actions range from deploying specific patches and upgrading software components to adjusting system configurations and introducing compensating controls such as additional firewalls or intrusion detection systems when direct fixes aren't viable. 

4. Reporting

The focus here is on efficiently conveying critical information through summarized reports highlighting the most critical vulnerabilities, their impact, and remediation status. Keep reports focused on actionable insights and leverage tools that automatically compile and present data from your vulnerability management system. This approach offers a concise yet comprehensive view while supporting compliance requirements and streamlining internal and external audit processes.

7 Steps to Create a Stellar Vulnerability Management Program

Step #1 - Define Your Environment and Its Risks

Start by diving into the specifics of your organization and its technology ecosystem. Identify the vulnerabilities pertinent to your industry, infrastructure, and systems. Only then can you create a program that effectively addresses the vulnerabilities that span your entire environment. 

a bunch of different types of security related items

Evaluate the vulnerabilities associated with your network infrastructure. Understanding the network topology and how data flows through it can reveal critical points where vulnerabilities have the most impact. Assess attack paths in commercial and custom-built applications, including third-party components and supply chain dependencies. 

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the ins and outs of your production environment equips you with essential insights to effectively evaluate and prioritize the slew of vulnerabilities that show up during the scanning process. Lacking this in-depth knowledge can significantly hinder your ability to assess each vulnerability's risks accurately – impacting the effectiveness of your vulnerability management strategy. 

Step #2 – Create and Keep an Asset Inventory

This continuously updated inventory should encompass a granular listing of all hardware, software, and network assets – including specifics like software versions, patch levels, and configuration settings. Specialized asset management solutions, such as Qualys or ServiceNow, can help automate the inventory process and ensure that vulnerability scanning tools have the latest information about each asset. 

a woman in a blindfold with her hands on her hips

In structuring your asset inventory, focus on tagging and categorizing each asset by its criticality level and specific function within your infrastructure. For instance, a database server containing customers’ personal data would be a high priority, while a development testing server might be categorized as a lower risk. This methodical categorization allows you to create a clear, actionable roadmap for targeted vulnerability scanning and prioritization.

Step #3 – Surface Vulnerabilities with Automated Scanning Tools

In scenarios like cloud-native architectures, where you might be dealing with hundreds of microservices, manual scanning processes are inefficient and practically infeasible due to these environments' sheer scale and dynamic nature. Services are continuously being developed, updated, and scaled, making scanning particularly challenging. Automated scanning tools are the key to scalability and efficiency in these environments.

Jit offers integration capabilities with a suite of 17 specialized security tools, including SAST tools like Semgrep and Gosec, Nancy and OSV-Scanner for scanning dependencies (SCA), and KICS for IaC misconfigurations. Jit unifies the execution and UX of these tools, which are invoked as developers create new PRs, pre-commit hooks, or deployments – which enables developers to secure their code without having to leave their environment.

a diagram of the devops orchestra platform

Step #4 – Contextualize Vulnerability Impact 

Scanning software for vulnerabilities can generate tons of noise. Prioritizing the most important vulnerabilities should factor in the context of each security issue.

Go beyond standard risk scoring by contextualizing the impact of vulnerabilities within your specific environment. This step involves analyzing how a vulnerability affects your systems, business processes, and data flows. You can develop custom risk models to reflect the unique aspects of your organization's risk profile.

For example, a critical vulnerability in a web server might not seem as urgent until you realize it's the gateway to your customer portal, making it a potential entry point for attackers to compromise sensitive data. Or consider a scenario where a vulnerability is discovered in the authentication module of your healthcare organization's patient portal. The CVSS score suggests moderate risk, but contextualizing it makes you realize that unauthorized access could compromise patient privacy and result in severe regulatory penalties.  

With a contextual approach, you can precisely identify which vulnerabilities, out of thousands that may appear during scanning, pose the greatest threat to your organization’s specific environment. This approach allows developers to prioritize and fix the most critical vulnerabilities, ensuring they allocate their finite resources effectively to tighten security and reduce risk.

Step #5 – Establish Patch Procedures

Patch management is the backbone of vulnerability mitigation. Use automated patch management tools – like Solar Winds Patch Manager, Automox, and ManageEngine Patch Manager Plus – to streamline the detection, downloading, and deployment of patches across your systems. These tools can schedule patches during off-peak hours to reduce potential business disruption.

Consider implementing a "canary deployment" approach for patches in a cloud-native microservices environment. To minimize the blast radius of potential issues, gradually roll out patches to a small subset of microservices first. The patch can be progressively deployed to the entire environment if everything remains stable. 

a circle with the words patch management process

Step #6 – Integrate Vulnerability Detection with Incident Response

Vulnerability detection and indecent response go hand-in-hand. It can make the difference between a contained incident and a data breach catastrophe. 

Consider implementing vulnerability detection mechanisms that trigger incident response workflows when vulnerabilities of specific severity or risk criteria are identified. These mechanisms require seamless communication between vulnerability management tools and incident response platforms such as ServiceNow, PagerDuty, and Splunk Phantom

For example, when a critical vulnerability is discovered in a web application – an automated trigger can initiate predefined incident response actions, such as isolating the affected system, generating alerts, and notifying the incident response team.

It’s essential to have systems that filter the overwhelming volume and noise of vulnerability alerts. Incident response procedures should only be initiated when a vulnerability poses a high risk to the current production environment.

Step #7 – Streamline Remediation Workflows

Identify integration points where vulnerability remediation can be woven into your development and operational pipelines. This step may involve pinpointing critical stages within your CI/CD processes, such as code commits, build pipelines or deployment phases. 

Creating easy-to-follow procedures and workflows can simplify the process for developers and reduce the cognitive load associated with security tasks. This encourages developer adoption and enthusiasm for vulnerability management while also shifting security left. By handling security concerns early on in the SDLC – developers can cut down on the need for heavy-duty fixes down the line. It's a smarter, more economical way to keep security tight.

Proactive Vulnerability Management with Jit

If you’re looking for a simple way to surface, prioritize, remediate, and report vulnerabilities, try Jit’s free trial.

Jit unifies the entire application and cloud security toolchain into a single UX and integrates into your GitHub repos in a matter of minutes. As developers create new PRs, Jit automatically invokes the relevant tools to surface vulnerabilities without requiring the developer to ever leave their environment.

Plus, Jit verifies whether the vulnerability is actually exploitable in production, so engineers aren’t overwhelmed with vulnerability noise.

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