Back when The Pragmatic CSO was published in 2007, I put together a set of tips for being a better CISO. In fact you can still get the tips (sent one per day for five days) if you register on the Pragmatic CSO site. Not to steal any thunder, but Tip #2 is Prioritize Fiercely. Let’s take a look at what I wrote back then.

Tip #2 is all about the need to prioritize. The fact is you can’t get everything done. Not by a long shot. So you have a choice. You can just not get to things and hope you don’t end up overly exposed. Or you can think about what’s important to your business and act to protect those systems first. Which do you think is the better approach?

The fact is that any exposure can create problems. But you dramatically reduce the odds of a career-limiting incident if you focus most of your time on the highest profile systems. Maybe it’s not good old Pareto’s 80/20 rule, but you should be spending a bulk of your time focused on the systems that are most important to your business. Or hope the bad guys don’t know which is which.

5 years later that tip still makes perfect sense. No organization, including the biggest of the big, has enough resources. Which means you must make tough choices. Things won’t be done when they need to be. Some things won’t get done at all. So how do you choose?

Unfortunately most organizations don’t choose at all. They do whatever is next on the list, without much rhyme or reason determining where things land on it. It’s the path of least resistance for a tactically oriented environment. Oil the squeakiest wheel. Keep your job. It’s all very understandable, but not very effective.

Optimally, resources are allocated and priorities set based upon value to the business. In a security context, that means the next thing done should reduce the most risk to your organization. Of course calculating that risk is where things get sticky. Regardless of your specific risk quantification religion, we can all agree that you need data to accurately evaluate these risks and answer the prioritization question. Last year we did a project called Fact-Based Network Security: Metrics and the Pursuit of Prioritization which dealt with one aspect of this problem: how to make decisions based on network metrics.

But the issue is bigger than that. Network exposure is only one factor in the decision-making process. You need to factor in a lot of other data – including vulnerability scans, device configurations, attack paths, application and database posture, security intelligence, benchmarks, and lots of other stuff – to get a full view of the environment, evaluate the risk, and make appropriate prioritization decisions. Historically, vulnerability scanners haves provided a piece of that data, telling you which devices were vulnerable to what attacks. The scanners didn’t tell you whether the devices were really at risk – only whether they were vulnerable.

From Tactical to Strategic

Organizations have traditionally viewed vulnerability scanners as a tactical product, largely commoditized, and only providing value around audit time. How useful is a 100-page vulnerability report to an operations person trying to figure out what to fix next? Though the 100-page report did make the auditor smile, as it provides a nice listing of all the audit deficiencies to address in the findings of fact.

At the recent RSA Conference 2012, we definitely saw a shift from largely compliance-driven messaging to a more security-centric view. It’s widely acknowledged that compliance provides a low (okay – very low) bar for security, and it just isn’t high enough. So more strategic security organizations need better optics. They need the ability to pull in a lot of threat-related data, reference it with an understanding of what is vulnerable, and figure out what is at risk.

Yesterday’s vulnerability scanners are evolving to meet this need, and are emerging as a much more strategic component of an organization’s control set than in the past. So we are starting a new series to tackle this evolution – we call it Vulnerability Management Evolution.

As with last year’s SIEM Replacement research, we believe it is now time to revisit your threat management/vulnerability scanning strategy. Not necessarily to swap out products, services, or vendors, but to enssure your capabilities map to what you need now and in the future. We will start by covering the traditional scanning technologies and then quickly go on to some advanced capabilities you will need to start leveraging these platforms for decision support. Yes, decision support is the fancy term for helping you prioritize.

Platform Emergence

As we’ve discussed, you need more than just a set of tactical scans to generate a huge list of things you’ll never get to. You need information that helps you decide how to allocate resources and prioritize efforts. We believe what used to be called a “vulnerability scanner” is evolving into a threat management platform. Sounds spiffy, eh?

When someone says platform, that usually indicates use of a common data model as the foundation, with a number of different applications riding on top, to deliver value to customers. You don’t buy a platform per se. You buy applications that leverage a platform to provide value to solve the problems you have. That’s exactly what we are talking about here. But traditional scanning technology isn’t a platform in any sense of the word. So this vulnerability management evolution requires a definite technology evolution. We are talking about growth from single-purpose product into multi-function platform.

This evolved platform encompasses a number of different capabilities. Starting with the tried and true device scanner, to include database and application scanning and risk scoring. But we don’t want to spoil the fun today – we will describe not just the core technology that enables the platform, but the critical enterprise integration points and bundled value-added technologies (such as attack path analysis, automated pen testing, benchmarking, et al) that differentiate between a tactical product decision to a strategic platform deployment. We will also talk about the enterprise features you need from a platform, including workflows and dashboards, to complete the picture.

In accordance with our Totally Transparent Research policy, this project is initially sponsored by (in alphabetical order), nCircleQualysRapid7 and Tenable. These folks have secured a right of first refusal to license the paper at the end of the project. What they don’t get is any way to influence its content other than submitting public comments here on the blog like everyone else.

And with that, next week we’ll dig into the scanning capabilities of the evolved platform.