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What is vulnerability management? And why runtime vulnerability detection makes the difference

Vulnerability management is an essential part of securing IT operations. But managing the breadth of the vulnerabilities that can put your systems at risk is challenging.

According to the 2022 CISO Research Report, only 25% of respondents’ security teams “can access a fully accurate, continuously updated report of every application and code library running in production in real-time.” Moreover, as modern DevOps practices have increased the speed of software delivery, more than two-thirds (69%) of chief information security officers (CISOs) say that managing risk has become more difficult.

Vulnerability management is critical for digitally transforming organizations, especially in wake of Log4Shell. To understand why, and why runtime vulnerability detection is crucial, it helps to understand more about security vulnerabilities.

What is a security vulnerability?

Security vulnerabilities are weaknesses in applications, operating systems, networks, and other IT services and infrastructure that would allow an attacker to compromise a system, steal data, or otherwise disrupt IT operations.

Complex IT systems are highly susceptible to security vulnerabilities for many reasons, including vulnerable and outdated components, injections, and software and data integrity failures, among others. Therefore, organizations must implement safety controls that protect against the adverse consequences of a security vulnerability within their business operations.

Watch the Perform 2024 session “Empower SecOps teams to rapidly secure exploitable vulnerabilities”

What is vulnerability management?

Vulnerability management is the practice of identifying, prioritizing, correcting, and reporting software vulnerabilities. Organizations should implement practices that cover the breadth of possible vulnerabilities and apply them to all their IT systems. Such broad and thorough security practices ease the risk of a malicious actor compromising the organization’s IT services.

Vulnerability management during development

The software development lifecycle should include vulnerability management throughout all stages.

During development, vulnerabilities can arise when developers use third-party open source code or make an error in application logic. Vulnerability scanning tools can help in both of these cases. Such scans enable teams to detect SQL injection attacks that allow someone to maliciously inject code into a database query. Undetected, the compromised code could allow attackers to access data they’re not authorized to have. This type of vulnerability scanning, also called static analysis, detects vulnerabilities in application code before it’s released to production.

Vulnerability management in runtime

In addition to using static analysis to detect vulnerabilities in application code, organizations need to also scan for vulnerabilities in running applications and services. For example, an attacker could exploit a misconfigured firewall rule to gain access to servers on your network. Scanning the runtime environment of your services can help to identify unusual network traffic patterns. For example, you can detect traffic from outside your network going to a server that normally receives traffic from internal servers.

An occasional logic error or misconfigured network device may not sound significant, but the volume of vulnerabilities in popular software is large and growing. The U.S. National Vulnerability Database (NVD) lists over 175,000 known vulnerabilities. The NVD scores these vulnerabilities using a 5-level severity Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) rating. This scale ranges from none (0) to critical (9.0-10.0).

In addition to a large number of vulnerabilities, organizations have to contend with understanding the severity of vulnerabilities, so they can prioritize the order in which vulnerabilities are addressed. For instance, in December 2021, Log4Shell—a zero-day software vulnerability found in the widely used Java library Apache Log4j2—received a CVSS score of 10 out of 10. While this score was largely because of the Java library’s popularity and wide use, it was also because of the ease with which malicious actors could exploit it. The Log4Shell incident was an awakening for many organizations around the critical necessity of runtime vulnerability detection.

Vulnerability management benefits: Reduce your overall exploit and attack risk

Implementing a well-designed vulnerability management practice can provide an organization with significant benefits. Overall, the practice helps to identify and prevent vulnerabilities from entering production code. For organizations that make frequent code changes or regularly roll out new features and applications, a proactive security approach is crucial.

By automating vulnerability scanning as part of the software development life cycle, developers can release innovative features faster. Without the additional overhead of manual vulnerability scanning, teams can discover and remediate vulnerabilities during development. Similarly, by monitoring the runtime environment for vulnerabilities, organizations can identify and fix vulnerabilities that only become apparent in production.

Common vulnerability management considerations

It’s crucial that IT leaders consider several factors when implementing a vulnerability management process and choosing tools.

  1. Timely detection. It is vital that organizations establish the ability to detect vulnerabilities quickly. The longer a security vulnerability goes undetected, the greater the risk that an attacker can exploit it.
  2. Up-to-date scanning tools. Another key factor is keeping vulnerability scanning tools up to date with known risks and to ensure the tool is aware of what to look out for.
  3. Not burden performance. Vulnerability management tools should ideally not adversely affect the performance of applications and services within the organization.

The vulnerability management process

A vulnerability management practice should address all five stages of the process:

  • Assess vulnerabilities
  • Prioritize which vulnerabilities to remediate
  • Correct for the vulnerability
  • Reassess the state of the system
  • Improve other processes to reduce potential risk

Implementing these five steps can help security teams proactively identify risks before they have the chance to escalate into more severe and damaging exploitations.

AI and automation for vulnerability management

Vulnerability management is a complex process, especially as more organizations are adopting modern multicloud environments. It is also a data- and knowledge-intensive process because of the breadth of vulnerabilities security teams must account for. Automation, particularly automation supported with AI, is invaluable to keep up with the level of risk faced by digitally-transforming organizations today.

Dynatrace Application Security provides AI-powered risk assessment and intelligent automation to scan your full tech stack for vulnerabilities in real-time. From development to production stages, Dynatrace OneAgent proactively alerts your security teams when it detects vulnerabilities and uses the Dynatrace platform’s topology map to display any affected dependencies. Finally, the Davis® AI engine enables you to prioritize affected applications based on the severity of the exposure. The Dynatrace Application Security module gives you all the benefits of automated vulnerability management at scale.

To learn more about what chief information security officers (CISOs) are saying about their needs for implementing an effective and efficient vulnerability management practice, see the Dynatrace report, 2022 Financial Services CISO Report: Observability and security must converge to enable effective vulnerability management.