Mastering SANS Vulnerability Management: A Comprehensive Guide

Published on: October 13, 2023

Mastering SANS Vulnerability Management: A Comprehensive Guide

In 2022, internet users worldwide discovered over 25,000 new common IT security vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs), marking the highest reported annual figure to date. Between January and April 2023, this number amounted to 7,489, underscoring the ongoing challenges organizations face. 

One of the key pillars in addressing this surge of vulnerabilities is vulnerability management, a critical process involving the identification, evaluation, and remediation of potential weaknesses in an organization’s systems and software. As such, the SANS Institute, a leading provider of cybersecurity training and certification, has developed a comprehensive framework for vulnerability management that organizations can use to improve their security posture.

Before we dive into the details, here’s what we’ll be covering:

  1. The model consists of five maturity levels, from Initial to Optimized, for assessing an organization’s vulnerability management capabilities.
  2. The process involves identifying assets, conducting vulnerability assessments, risk assessments, remediation, and continuous monitoring and reporting.
  3. An effective policy includes objectives, roles and responsibilities, vulnerability management processes, assessment frequency, reporting, and remediation.
  4. Common mistakes include neglecting high-severity vulnerabilities, delayed remediation, and ineffective communication.
  5. SANS offers certifications related to vulnerability management, including GEVA, GCCC, and GMON.

What is the SANS Vulnerability Management Maturity Model?

The SANS Vulnerability Management Maturity Model is a framework organizations can use to assess their vulnerability management capabilities and identify areas for improvement. The model consists of five maturity levels, each with its own set of characteristics and requirements:

1. Initial Level

At the initial level, organizations are primarily reactive in their approach to vulnerability management. They lack well-defined and documented processes and rely on ad hoc manual methods to identify and address vulnerabilities as they arise. This stage is defined by limited visibility into the overall security posture, with responses tailored to individual incidents rather than a comprehensive strategy.

2. Managed Level 

In the managed stage, organizations begin to develop a more proactive approach. They establish basic vulnerability scanning and assessment processes, allowing them to identify and prioritize vulnerabilities systematically as per their nature. They use automated tools to identify vulnerabilities and have a process for tracking and reporting on vulnerabilities.

Thus, the initial steps are taken to integrate vulnerability management into the broader cybersecurity and management strategy of the firm.

3. Defined Level 

At the defined level, organizations have a well-defined vulnerability management process in place. This includes regular scanning, risk assessment, and vulnerability remediation with clear roles and responsibilities. 

They start maintaining an inventory of assets and prioritize vulnerabilities based on their potential impact while establishing metrics for measuring the effectiveness of their vulnerability management program and regularly reporting on their progress. 

4. Measured Level

In the measured stage, vulnerability management becomes an integral part of the organization’s cybersecurity program. Processes are not only precise but also consistently monitored and measured. Metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to track progress and assess the effectiveness of vulnerability management efforts. Automation and advanced analytics and reporting tools are often employed to streamline the process further.

5. Optimized Level

Lastly, the optimized stage represents organizations that have achieved a state of continuous improvement in vulnerability management. Here, the process is not static but dynamic, focusing on innovation and adaptation. Organizations leverage advanced threat intelligence, predictive analytics, and automation to proactively identify and remediate vulnerabilities. 

Moreover, feedback loops integrated with their overall risk management strategy ensure lessons learned from past incidents refine and enhance the entire vulnerability management lifecycle.

What is the SANS Vulnerability Management Process?

1. Identification and Asset Inventory

Start by identifying and listing down all assets within an organization’s network infrastructure. This involves creating a comprehensive inventory that encompasses servers, workstations, network devices, software applications, and any other digital resources that provide a baseline for subsequent stages.

2. Vulnerability Assessment and Scanning

The next stage involves employing automated tools and technologies to conduct vulnerability scans designed to pinpoint potential weaknesses and security flaws in the assets across the network. Such vulnerability assessment tools systematically probe for known vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and other issues that could be exploited by malicious actors. 

continuous vulnerability scanning

3. Risk Assessment and Prioritization

Next, assess the risk associated with each identified vulnerability by analyzing the severity of the vulnerabilities and their potential impact on the organization’s operations and data. Prioritise and rank vulnerabilities on the CVSS scale based on their criticality, exploitability, and potential business impact.

4. Remediation and Mitigation

The next step is to develop a comprehensive plan to remediate these vulnerabilities by applying patches, updating software, reconfiguring systems, or implementing security controls. Establish clear timelines and assign responsibilities to ensure a timely and effective resolution of vulnerabilities identified. High-risk vulnerabilities should receive immediate attention, while lower-risk issues may follow a more gradual remediation schedule.

5. Continuous Monitoring and Reporting

The final stage of the vulnerability management process asks organizations to continually monitor their network by conducting regular vulnerability scans to detect newly discovered weaknesses or configuration changes that could introduce security risks. Additionally, they can track their progress with extensive audit reports including the status of vulnerabilities, remediation efforts, and the overall effectiveness of the program.

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How to Craft an Effective SANS Vulnerability Management Policy?

A vulnerability management policy is a critical component of an effective vulnerability management program. It provides guidance on how vulnerabilities should be identified, ranked, and moderated, and establishes roles and responsibilities for different stakeholders. A strong SANS vulnerability assessment and management policy should include the following components:

1. Policy Overview & Objectives

This section should explain the purpose of the policy, its scope, and its importance within the organization’s cybersecurity framework. Define the specific objectives that the policy aims to achieve. These objectives should align with the broader cybersecurity goals of the organization. For example, they may include reducing the risk of security breaches, ensuring timely vulnerability assessments, or fostering a proactive security culture.

2. Roles and Responsibilities

Clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of individuals or teams involved in vulnerability management. This section should define the responsibilities of various stakeholders like the Vulnerability Management Team, IT administrators, and senior management for each step of the process.

3. Vulnerability Management Process

Detail the processes for conducting regular vulnerability scans and assessments. Specify the tools and methodologies to be used and the criteria for selecting scanning targets. Differentiate between internal and external scans with clear metrics for ranking the vulnerabilities identified and analyzed.

4. Vulnerability Assessment Frequency

Define the frequency at which vulnerability assessments will be conducted. Specify whether assessments will occur on a daily, weekly, monthly, or as-needed basis. Consider factors such as the organization’s risk profile, industry standards, operations, and the current threat landscape when determining the assessment schedule.

5. Reporting and Remediation

Detail the reporting process for communicating vulnerability information, including report formats, index, recipients, and frequency. Explain how identified vulnerabilities will be remediated, addressing timeline formulations, responsible parties, and escalation procedures for high-risk vulnerabilities.

6. Exceptions

Acknowledge that exceptions may arise where vulnerabilities cannot be immediately addressed or certain assets cannot fully comply with the policy, such as a key business area that can’t tolerate downtime with patching. Outline criteria for granting exceptions, specify the approval process, emphasize documentation, and establish a review mechanism for ongoing validity and accountability. 

7. Policy Review and Updates

Specify a schedule for reviewing and updating the policy to ensure its relevance and effectiveness. Clarify the underlying intent of reviews such as the evolution of the policy in response to changing threat landscapes, technologies, and organizational needs.

How to create a SANS Vulnerability Management Policy Template?

Based on the above, here are some best practices to help you draft and customize a SANS Vulnerability Management Policy Template for your organization:

1. Align with Industry Standards and Best Practices

Incorporate the respective industry-standard frameworks and best practices, such as those recommended by GDPR, HIPAA, SOC2, or NIST, into your policy. This ensures that your policy aligns with the recognized standards for vulnerability management, enhancing your ability to benchmark its security efforts while facilitating easier communication with external partners, regulators, and auditors who may expect compliance with these established standards.

2. Involve Key Stakeholders

Collaborate with key stakeholders, including IT teams, security professionals, and senior management, to gather input and ensure that your policy addresses the organization’s specific needs and goals. Involving them also fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to the policy’s success, as it reflects the collective wisdom and priorities of those who play a critical role in your security posture.

3. Include Training and Awareness

Stress the importance of ongoing SANS training vulnerability management and awareness programs for employees involved in vulnerability management. By nurturing a culture of awareness and learning, you can empower your teams to adapt to evolving cybersecurity landscapes and proactively address vulnerabilities, thus strengthening your overall security posture.

4. Document Policy Acceptance

Include a section for individuals and teams to acknowledge their understanding of the policy and their commitment to adhering to its principles. This can be done through a formal acknowledgment process, such as a mandatory acceptance statement. Documenting policy acceptance establishes a clear record of compliance, which can be valuable in audits.

5. Ensure Accessibility and Distribution

Determine how the policy will be stored, accessed, and distributed within your organization. Consider digital repositories, the intranet, or other accessible platforms for policy dissemination. This allows for easy referencing and familiarization for all necessary stakeholders with the policy’s content. It also helps in addressing questions or concerns related to vulnerability management, promoting a culture of transparency and accountability.

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What are Some Common Mistakes to Avoid in SANS Vulnerability Management?

1. Focusing on the Wrong Vulnerabilities

One common mistake organizations make is allocating an excessive amount of time and resources to addressing low-severity vulnerabilities while neglecting high-severity ones. This leads to a false sense of security as priority is given to low-risk vulnerabilities.

Solution: One of the easiest solutions to the same is following a risk-based approach, i.e. analyze and rank vulnerabilities as per the standard CVSS score which assesses vulnerabilities based on risk and impact. This should be followed by a descending approach down the list during the remediation process.

2. Failing to Remediate Vulnerabilities in a Timely Manner

Another common pitfall is the failure to remediate vulnerabilities promptly. Delaying the remediation process to avoid minor inconveniences can leave the organization exposed to potential attacks, as cybercriminals often exploit known vulnerabilities in their attacks.

Solution: Implement a well-defined and efficient remediation process that includes clear timelines and responsibilities. Consider automating routine tasks to accelerate the process while regularly tracking and reporting on the progress of remediation efforts to ensure efficiency.

3. Failing to Communicate Effectively

Many organizations, especially those in the process of scaling departments and establishing processes, struggle to communicate the status of vulnerabilities and the overall effectiveness of their program to stakeholders, including senior management, and IT teams, and establish inter-departmental knowledge sharing.

Solution: Develop a robust communication strategy that includes regular updates and reports on the status of vulnerabilities. Clearly define the channels and frequency of communication along with outlining the level of detail in reports to the needs of different stakeholders. Ensure that communication is timely, transparent, and actionable. 

What is SANS Vulnerability Management Certification?

SANS offers a range of certification programs that are designed to help professionals develop the skills and knowledge needed to effectively manage vulnerabilities. Some of the certifications related to vulnerability management include:

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In conclusion, mastering SANS vulnerability management is critical for organizations looking to improve their security posture and protect against cyber threats. By understanding the SANS Vulnerability Management Maturity Model, crafting an effective SANS vulnerability management policy, and implementing best practices such as using automated tools to scan the network for vulnerabilities, organizations can improve their vulnerability management capabilities and protect themselves against emerging cyber threats.


What does SANS mean in cyber security?

As of 2021 onwards, SANS stands for the System Administration, Networking, and Security Institute. It is a renowned organization offering training, certification, and resources for professionals to enhance their skills in areas such as information security, network defense, and incident response.

Is SANS training free?

SANS Institute offers various cybersecurity free & paid courses and certifications, that offer high-quality training and resources for professionals looking to enhance their cybersecurity skills, but fees are associated with their programs. The community also provides free access to workshops, tools and cheat sheets, webcasts, white papers, newsletters, research, and more.

Sanskriti Jain

Sanskriti is a technical writer at Astra who believes in writing with purpose and for a purpose. When she is not busy exploring the world of cybersecurity, you will probably find her with her nose buried deep in a book or on the lookout for a perfectly brewed cup of coffee.
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