Differences Between Patch Management, Vulnerability Management & Continuous Exposure Management

Sam Reed

This article was co-written with Highline Technologies.

Is patch management the same thing as vulnerability management?

What exactly does continuous exposure management entail?

While these three strategies all aim to reduce risk in a digital environment, their scope, and therefore their effectiveness differ.

We’ll cover what exactly that means in this article.

Patch Management

Patch management is a foundational component of any cybersecurity program.

It’s the systematic process of updating software and devices. From a security perspective, the primary goal of these updates, or “patches”, is to remove existing vulnerabilities in the software and firmware.

The Process

  • Identification: Regularly scanning systems for missing patches and vulnerabilities
  • Acquisition: Downloading patches from trusted (i.e. vendor-issued) sources
  • Installation: Applying patches to the relevant systems and software
  • Verification: Ensuring the patches are correctly applied and that no new issues have arisen

Why It Matters

Patch management is important because it directly addresses known vulnerabilities. This reduces the window of opportunity for an attacker. It’s a basic, yet vital part of any cybersecurity strategy, ensuring systems are up-to-date and less susceptible to exploits.

Limitations

Patch management is reactive by nature, addressing vulnerabilities after they’ve been discovered. This timing gap can leave systems temporarily exposed. Additionally, there were 28,902 known vulnerabilities published last year.

It’s operationally infeasible to fix every issue. Nor should organizations want to. Most of the vulnerabilities don’t actually pose a threat, and oftentimes patching can be a disruptive process which inadvertently introduces new issues.

For this reason, aligning security and IT teams is often a challenge.

Vulnerability Management

Vulnerability management takes a broader approach than patch management.

It’s a continuous cycle of identifying, prioritizing, remediating, and reporting vulnerabilities within an organization’s systems and software. It’s a more proactive strategy aimed at minimizing the risk of exploitation through a more comprehensive understanding and management of vulnerabilities in an environment.

The Life Cycle

  • Discovery: Scanning for vulnerabilities across the network to identify potential risks
  • Prioritization: Assessing and ranking vulnerabilities based on generalized scoring systems, such as the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS)
  • Remediation: Taking action to mitigate identified vulnerabilities, which may include patching, configuration changes, or other security controls
  • Reporting: Documenting the vulnerabilities and remediation actions to improve future cybersecurity efforts

Why It Matters

Continuous vulnerability management should be a foundational solution in any serious cybersecurity stack. Leaving exploitable vulnerabilities in your environment is akin to leaving your doors and windows open–while there is a group of criminals actively looking for homes to break into.

Limitations

Like money doesn’t solve all your problems but it does solve your money problems, similarly vulnerability management doesn’t solve all your exposures but it does mitigate your vulnerability exposures.

However, there are at least three major shortcomings of vulnerability management:

  1. There are still too many vulnerabilities to reasonably address them all
  2. Prioritization lacks business-context of the associated risks
  3. Exposure extends beyond vulnerabilities

Even the best vulnerability management solutions fail to account for security weaknesses at the identity layer, which is how attackers commonly penetrate and take over networks. In fact, as penetration testers with over a thousand simulated attacks performed, we estimate that over 90% of the time we take over an environment without touching a vulnerability. 

Vulnerability management fails to address these prominent security weaknesses.

Continuous Exposure Management

Continuous exposure management (CEM) is a proactive approach to reduce the likelihood and impact of cyber attacks.

While traditional vulnerability management is limited to vulnerabilities, CEM extends coverage to additional exposures that attackers regularly exploit, including identities and misconfigurations. CEM allows security teams to see an environment from an attacker’s perspective, giving them the answers they need to prioritize the risks that matter most.

Built by career penetration testers, Shield's Continuous Exposure Management (CEM) platform continuously correlates vulnerabilities with security gaps across all network assets for a complete and contextualized view of true risk.

In other words, it shows you how an attacker could penetrate your environment and reach your critical assets – and tells you precisely what you need to do to remove that exposure from the environment.

This 24/7, 360-degree visibility into your network’s interconnectivity allows for accurate, intelligent prioritization, enabling you to identify and remove the most critical risks to your business first.

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