vulnerability assessment

Vulnerability Assessment: Tools and Steps to Improve Security Posture

With so many vulnerabilities to track and new ones constantly being introduced, organizations must have the proper procedures and processes in place to be able to handle these before things get out of control. Vulnerability assessment is an important part of this.

What Is Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability assessment is the continuous evaluation of security weaknesses and flaws in your systems. The purpose of this process is to check for potential known vulnerabilities, their relevance, and how they may impact your systems and environments.

This is carried out in a number of steps. The first step is preparation, which is followed by scanning your systems. Each discovered vulnerability is then prioritized in order to help determine the proper course of action. Finally, remediation recommendations are made.

Why Is a Vulnerability Assessment Important?

The ability to continually track and catch vulnerabilities early on makes vulnerability assessment an extremely valuable means for implementing security measures and controls within your organization. Regularly conducting vulnerability assessments provides an overall picture of security, can help with ensuring regulatory compliance, and allows for more agile prioritization and mitigation should any new threats arise.

This practice fits perfectly with the secure software development life cycle (SSDLC), in which security is addressed through every development stage as opposed to being treated as an add-on.

With practically every company today relying to some degree on open-source code and the constant flood of new open-source components in the developer world, this has also led to a growing number of open-source vulnerabilities. It is therefore crucial to ensure open-source components are part of your vulnerability assessment. And an open-source vulnerability scanner is a must-have in your vulnerability assessment toolbox.

Now that we’ve covered what vulnerability assessment is and its importance, how do you actually approach it?

How Do You Perform a Vulnerability Assessment?

There is no universal framework for carrying out a vulnerability assessment, and policies and procedures may differ from one organization to another. The process can be broken down into a number of stages—from preparing and scanning your systems to analyzing and remediating discovered vulnerabilities and drawing conclusions for future. Continuous security vulnerability assessments should be an integral part of your security strategy to ensure newly discovered vulnerabilities are taken care of.

5 Stages of Vulnerability Assessment

Though they may be referred to differently depending on the company strategy, following are five important vulnerability assessment steps:

1. Preparation

In this stage, a decision needs to be made about which systems will be assessed and you need to define the baseline for each. It is also necessary to establish which systems are critical and which data is sensitive.

2. Vulnerability scanning

Scanning your resources using software composition analysis (SCA) and other tools enable quick identification of existing vulnerabilities in your systems and network. It is crucial to update and correctly configure vulnerability scanners so that the results of the scans are tailored to your needs and in order to minimize false positives, which can extend the analysis stage.

3. Vulnerability analysis

Vulnerability analysis is perhaps the most important stage of the vulnerability assessment process, as it involves analyzing whether a flagged vulnerability indeed poses a threat to your systems. Root cause analysis (RCA) is conducted to estimate the potential impact and level of severity. The ability to accurately identify vulnerabilities at this stage will have a direct impact on the necessary course of action. There are useful tools that help you to efficiently prfioritize vulnerabilities in your open source dependencies and containers to focus on what matters.

4. Vulnerability remediation

Once you’ve assessed the vulnerability and have identified the attack vector and potential impact on your system, the next step is to consider how to mitigate these security flaws. Is it sufficient to change the component configuration? Is updating the component necessary in order to mitigate it, and would it even be possible to do so?

5. Lessons Learned

After the vulnerability assessment has been completed, this is the time to consider what went according to plan, what went wrong, and most importantly, assess how prepared you are for the future. Will you be able to fully secure your system and network? Where should you focus your resources?

4 Types of Vulnerability Assessment

There are four primary categories of vulnerability assessment:

Vulnerability Assessment Tools to Help You

Vulnerability assessment tools are key to the vulnerability assessment process. Without them, the entire process would have to be done manually, a virtually impossible task that would surely lead to vulnerabilities going undetected. Vulnerability assessment tools include a variety of scanners, among them web application scanners, protocol scanners, and network scanners. These modern, advanced tools have access to the most recent open-source vulnerability databases and are capable of detecting dependencies that would otherwise be missed.

Let’s explore the importance and need for such tools and how to pick the right ones. 

DAST vs. SAST

Despite efforts to ensure the highest possible quality code—through employment of experienced programmers, training, and following secure coding guidelines, for example—experiencing problems with your code and application as a whole is virtually inevitable due to human error. DAST and SAST tools can help to mitigate this, and each approach has its benefits.

  • SAST: This is a typical white-box approach that enables the detection of potential security flaws at an early stage, without the need for a running environment. These tools detect vulnerabilities and pinpoint the specific line of code responsible.
  • DAST: This testing method utilizes the opposite approach of SAST. It is a black-box testing method in which the application is dynamically tested from the outside. DAST tools rely on input data and thus require a running application for testing.

Both testing methods can identify a range of vulnerabilities, including the OWASP Top 10. The best approach is to use these tools in combination at different stages of the software development life cycle.

Software Composition Analysis

Software Composition Analysis (SCA) is another important category of tools. Without them, managing your software components—particularly open-source elements—would be challenging. SCA tools scan your software and provide a full report with a list of all components as well as any potential vulnerabilities within them.

This software bill of material (BOM) is extremely valuable for managing your security processes. It allows you to understand what is actually used in your product and which components are compatible with policies and software licenses. Many modern SCA tools also offer automated features such as approval and auditing. Snyk is one of the most advanced SCA tools on the market, sign up for free and test it out.

Staying One Step Ahead

When it comes to security, there is no place for oversight or omissions, and continuous evaluation of vulnerabilities is key to creating a more secure product. Vulnerability assessment tools facilitate the vulnerability assessment process and vulnerability management. By choosing the right tools you can also minimize false positives and receive trustworthy data for assessment. This will help you to stay one step ahead of attackers. Automatically find, prioritize, and fix vulnerabilities in your code and your open-source dependencies throughout the development life cycle with Snyk.

Alyssa Miller Headshot
December 21, 2020
| By Alyssa Miller