The Difference Between Vulnerability Assessment and Vulnerability Management

Published April 30, 2020 by 5 min read

In today’s constantly evolving cybersecurity threat landscape, you have to do everything possible and then some to protect your critical data assets.

Performing a vulnerability assessment and implementing a vulnerability management program can help your organization effectively deal with cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

However, it’s important to understand the difference between vulnerability assessment and vulnerability management.

What is Vulnerability Assessment?

A vulnerability assessment is a one-time project with a specific start and end date. Generally, an external information security consultant will review your IT environment to uncover any vulnerabilities that cybercriminals could potentially exploit. 

The information security consultant will document these vulnerabilities in a detailed report and offer recommendations to remediate those vulnerabilities. Once the information security consultant prepares the report, the vulnerability assessment is over. 

A vulnerability assessment identifies the security vulnerabilities in your network, systems, and hardware rates according to technical severity and provides the steps necessary to fix those security vulnerabilities. Additionally, a vulnerability assessment should consider the business processes that could be impacted by cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

A vulnerability assessment offers information that your information security and information technology teams can use to better mitigate and prevent cybersecurity threats.

Even the most secure IT environment typically has some cybersecurity vulnerabilities lurking inside. Vulnerability scanning tools can uncover host cybersecurity vulnerabilities along with network cybersecurity vulnerabilities. 

A vulnerability assessment that aims to identify cybersecurity threats and the risks they pose is generally conducted via automated vulnerability scanning tools, such as network vulnerability scanners, whose results are listed in the consultant’s vulnerability assessment report. However, a network vulnerability assessment should also include the technical assessments of your information security staff. 

Typically, a vulnerability assessment is followed by penetration testing since it doesn’t make sense to conduct penetration testing before you fix the security vulnerabilities identified by vulnerability assessment. The goal of penetration testing is to examine the network environment after you remediate security vulnerabilities.  The main objective of penetration testing is to identify security weaknesses or “weak spots” in an organization’s security posture that your team may not already be aware of.  

Types of Vulnerability Assessments

The vulnerability assessment process includes using a variety of tools, scanners, and methodologies to identify vulnerabilities, threats, and risks.

Some of the different types of vulnerability scans include:

  • Network-based scans that identify possible network cybersecurity attacks. 
  • Host-based scans that locate and identify cybersecurity vulnerabilities in your workstations, servers, and other network hosts. 
  • Wireless network scans of your Wi-Fi network that center around attack vectors in your wireless network infrastructure. 
  • Web application scans that test websites to detect known software vulnerabilities as well as network or web applications that aren’t configured correctly.

Because the risk environment is constantly changing, you should conduct regular vulnerability assessments along with vulnerability scanning and penetration testing as part of your company’s cybersecurity plan. 

You should implement vulnerability testing regularly to ensure the security of your network, particularly when you make changes, e.g., add services, install new equipment, or open new ports.

What is Vulnerability Management?

As opposed to the vulnerability assessment that has a specific start and end date, a vulnerability management process is an ongoing, comprehensive program that continuously manages cybersecurity vulnerabilities. 

The purpose of a vulnerability management program is to establish controls and processes that will help you identify vulnerabilities within your organization’s technology infrastructure and information system components. 

Vulnerability management is a best practice that’s recommended to protect your company and its sensitive corporate data. As such, implementing a comprehensive vulnerability management process represents the starting point of an effective program that can help you boost your organization’s cybersecurity.

Basically, vulnerability management is the continual process of identifying, evaluating, remediating, and reporting on cybersecurity vulnerabilities in systems and the software that runs on those systems. After the vulnerability management process verifies that the remediation has been done, the discovery process starts again. 

There are a variety of vulnerability scanning tools on the market that you can use to perform the vulnerability scans required by the discovery stage. An information security consultant often uses these vulnerability scanning tools to assess the current state of an enterprise’s security posture. 

However, it’s important to understand that as soon as the information security consultant presents you with the report, the content is already out of date because new cybersecurity vulnerabilities are being uncovered constantly. 

That’s why vulnerability management has to be a continual process that requires vulnerability scanning to assess vulnerabilities on an ongoing basis to ensure you understand exactly where your weaknesses are and what you are doing about them.

Steps for Vulnerability Management

A vulnerability assessment program is a critical part of a comprehensive vulnerability management strategy. An effective vulnerability management process generally includes the following steps that should be repeated continually:

  1. Asset inventory
  2. Information management
  3. Risk assessment
  4. Vulnerability assessment.

Asset inventory 

One of the first steps in the vulnerability management process is conducting an inventory of your assets. As a result of mergers and acquisitions, for example, your company may not have an accurate inventory of all the assets that need to be protected. Too often, companies have unknown assets in their environments that could compromise their cybersecurity over the long run. A centralized asset inventory function enables you to understand your company’s asset inventory and helps strengthen its security posture.

Information management 

Once you’ve identified all your assets and continue to manage them on a regular basis, another critical step in the vulnerability management process is to manage the information related to your cybersecurity. 

To ensure you implement an effective vulnerability management program, you need to establish a dedicated computer security incident response team. This team publishes security advisories, leads regular conference calls with stakeholders to talk about malicious activity, and simplifies and distributes security alerts. Your team should also create effective incident response guidelines that all of your employees can understand.

Risk assessment

Another critical part of an effective vulnerability management program is proper risk assessment or risk management. However, many companies don’t have the necessary documentation to enable them to manage their risk. Another problem is that individual business units don’t share information about their critical assets and the value of those assets with each other. 

A risk assessment is a key to understanding the various cybersecurity threats to your systems, determining the level of risk your systems are exposed to, and recommending how to protect them. 

A comprehensive risk assessment will also help you conduct a proper risk review and ensure the owners of the assets sign off on acceptable levels of risk in the event remediation isn’t necessary. A risk assessment will also assign approval of high-level risks to executives. If your company doesn’t have dedicated risk management software in place, you can use checklists or Excel spreadsheets to simplify risk analysis. 

Vendor risk management is also a primary component of cybersecurity compliance. A robust vendor risk management program can also protect your data, reputation, and business. Generally, major regulations, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), require that you implement formal vendor risk management policies and programs.

Vulnerability assessment

A vulnerability assessment is a major part of a vulnerability management framework and one of the best ways to improve your IT cybersecurity. Many companies continue to grapple with unknown assets, poorly configured network devices, disconnected IT environments, and way too much data to process and analyze. 

A vulnerability assessment will identify the key information assets of your organization, determine the vulnerabilities that threaten the security of those assets and provide recommendations to strengthen your security posture and help mitigate risk. 

Vulnerability scanning will allow you to conduct a full inventory of all your software and the exact versions of that software. Your IT environment is constantly changing, for example, because of software updates or system configuration changes, potentially introducing new cybersecurity risks. As such, you should perform new vulnerability assessments and scans regularly.

Bottom Line

A vulnerability assessment is a key part of vulnerability management, allowing organizations to protect their systems and data from cybersecurity breaches and unauthorized access. However, while a vulnerability assessment has a specific start and end date, vulnerability management is a continual process that aims to manage an organization’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities long-term.

Because cybersecurity vulnerabilities can enable hackers to access your IT systems and applications, it’s critical that you identify and remediate cybersecurity vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. 

A comprehensive vulnerability assessment along with a continual vulnerability management program can help your organization improve the security of its IT infrastructure.

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