Last updated at Fri, 14 Apr 2023 17:34:50 GMT

Evolving networks and evolving threats

When it comes to protecting your cloud or hybrid networks, what you don't know can most certainly hurt your enterprise. Today's NetOps teams are tasked with monitoring the health and performance of both on-premises and cloud applications, as well as software, devices, and instances. As if this wasn't complicated enough, malicious threat actors relentlessly seek to capitalize on the vulnerabilities in an enterprise's network.

These attacks affect enterprises across all industries. Recently, Gartner predicted that 45% of global organizations will have experienced attacks on their software supply chains by 2025. Statista also reported that approximately 15M data records were exposed worldwide through data breaches in the third quarter of 2022. This staggering figure represented a quarterly increase of over 37%.

Network attacks are costly, too. In fact, the average cost of a data breach increased to $9.44M in the United States in 2022. Keep in mind, this figure doesn't include the frustration, lost productivity, and negative impact on brand reputation that often accompany cyber attacks.

Vulnerability assessment (VA) and vulnerability management (VM) are two of the best ways to protect your enterprise against threats, but these terms are often used incorrectly and interchangeably. A better understanding of these concepts and how they relate to one another can help you significantly boost the security posture of your hybrid and cloud environments.

What is a vulnerability assessment?

TechTarget defines vulnerability assessment as “the process of defining, identifying, classifying and prioritizing vulnerabilities in computer systems, applications and network infrastructures." These vulnerabilities usually fall into one of three categories:

  • Hardware: Hardware refers to the physical devices in your network infrastructure, such as servers or routers. These require firmware upgrades and patches to remain secure. Vulnerabilities result from failure to perform upgrades and using outdated devices.
  • Software: Software refers to the applications an organization uses. Software vulnerabilities might be a flaw, glitch, or weakness in the software code. Again, patching and other updates are required to maintain security.
  • Human: These vulnerabilities stem from user security issues like weak (or leaked) passwords, clicking links on malicious websites, and human error such as opening a phishing email. Of the three categories, this is often the hardest for NetOps teams to control and enforce.

Vulnerability assessments scan your network for potential issues in each of these categories, and provide your team with crucial insight into the weaknesses of your IT infrastructure. Ideally, a vulnerability assessment will also prioritize the risks by level of severity, showing your team which to address first.

Enterprises looking to shift from reactive security measures like firewalls to a more proactive security approach look to vulnerability assessment as the first step in building an information security program.

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerability management is the process of identifying, evaluating, treating, and reporting on security vulnerabilities in systems and the software that runs on them. Sounds a lot like vulnerability assessment, right? The key difference between the two, however, is that vulnerability management is a continuous cycle that includes vulnerability assessment. Where VA identifies and classifies the risks in your network infrastructure, VM goes a step further and includes decisions on whether to remediate, mitigate, or accept risks. VM is also concerned with general infrastructure improvement and reporting.

According to Gartner, vulnerability management runs on a cycle—a five-step process (not including pre-work like selecting vulnerability assessment tools) that most organizations follow.

The vulnerability management cycle

  1. Assess: Here's where vulnerability assessments come in. In this step of the cycle, NetOps teams will identify assets, scan them, and build a report.
  2. Prioritize: The report generated in the first phase is used to prioritize risks. The NetOps team will also add threat context to the risks, which requires a thorough knowledge of the existing threat landscape as well as consideration of how threats may evolve over time.
  3. Act: The prioritized threats are then sorted into remediate, mitigate, and accept buckets. Remediation calls for removing the threat completely, if possible. Mitigation, on the other hand, reduces the likelihood of a vulnerability being exploited. Mitigation may be used if remediation is too disruptive to the system or if a patch isn't available yet. You may also have threats that fall under the acceptance category. These may include devices/software soon to be replaced, which wouldn't require any action.
  4. Reassess: Once the team has processed the risks according to their final recommendations, they'll need to rescan and validate that the risks have been properly remediated, mitigated, or accepted.
  5. Improve: In this final step, the team should evaluate their metrics, checking that they're accurate and up to date to ensure that they're correctly assessing risks. Additionally, this phase should be used to eliminate any other underlying issues that may be contributing to system vulnerabilities.

Benefits of vulnerability management and vulnerability assessment

Vulnerability assessments are an important part of the vulnerability management cycle, and the VM cycle should be a key component of your NetOps team's security strategy. Organizations today simply can't afford to ignore the risks in their network infrastructure. As networks grow more complex, teams struggle to maintain visibility into their network. This creates an ideal environment for threat actors looking to exploit system vulnerabilities. Often, risks and attacks go unnoticed until they've caused irreparable damage at considerable cost to the organization.

VM has benefits that extend beyond security. For example, regularly evaluating your network's devices and applications can help your team identify outdated technology or potential patches that will not only improve the general security of the network, but also optimize its performance. VM can also help your organization meet federal and internal compliance requirements. Regularly identifying and resolving risks through vulnerability assessments and the VM cycle can help your organization stay ahead of changing compliance requirements and prevent non-compliance penalties like fines.

Get started with a vulnerability assessment and vulnerability management solution

With the obvious benefits, it should be clear that vulnerability assessment and vulnerability management are crucial to reducing overall risk in an organization's infrastructure. And yet, many NetOps teams struggle to implement these processes. Whether your team is just getting started with vulnerability management, or looking to optimize your VM cycle to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex network and threat landscape, Rapid7 has the vulnerability management solutions that will empower your team to tackle vulnerabilities head on.

Ready to see the benefits of the vulnerability management cycle in your network?

Our report, Best Practices for Vulnerability Management in an Evolving Threat Landscape, can show you how!