Root Cause Analysis in Vulnerability Management

 Root Cause

If you are not familiar with the subject of “Root Cause” or Root Cause Analysis I would encourage you to read about it on Wikipedia before reading the rest of this post. In short, Root Cause Analysis is trying to determine the earliest factors of the Cause of an event or issue and not simply treating the Symptoms of an event or issue.

Nothing New Here..

I worked in IT Infrastructure and studied business for years before I started working in IT Security. I’ve found that most operational management principles apply to Information technology and Information security processes in nearly the same way as they apply to manufacturing or other business processes.

Root Cause Analysis is yet another operations management topic that directly applies to information security vulnerability management.

Some use cases for Root Cause Analysis in Information Security Vulnerability Management.

(Root cause analysis for these 4 cases below will be broken out into another post and linked here when complete)

  • Why are system vulnerabilities there?
  • Why do system vulnerabilities continue to show up?
  • Why are coding weaknesses in my code?
  • Why do coding vulnerabilities continue to show up in our code?


Isn’t this Common Sense?

No.  See below for why…

Treating or Correcting Root Cause is Harder than Treating Symptoms

Treating symptoms is nearly always quicker and easier than resolving root cause.

– Treating symptoms gives an immediate short term relief. This short term & quick fix creates a very direct emotional response. If you are in pain, and a doctor gives you a shot to numb the pain, that feels great right? But what if they never fix the reason you are having the pain in the first place? You could keep needing those shots every day. After a while you will probably decide that putting in the effort of fixing the “root cause” of your pain is a better option.

Resolving the root cause to an issue typically doesn’t have that immediate emotional feeling of relief because it takes longer. It takes planning, discipline, and often a strategic patience to influence others to help resolve the root cause of an issue.

I think that treating symptoms is the more “natural” reactive response to a problem. The more proactive and mature response to an issue is to take the time to determine and analyze root cause.


Reboot it? A great example of this issue is very common in IT Infrastructure or Development operations. An application area or systems team has an application or system that starts behaving strangely or stops working. The common response is to just reboot the system or restart the process. This may resolve the problem that time, but it is likely that the problem may re-occur, or just be an earlier indicator of a larger problem. If you take the time to gather documentation (memory dumps, logs, etc..) for root cause analysis before rebooting the system or restarting the process you will be able to research root cause. This is more difficult initially because the process of getting memory dumps and logs may take a while longer than simply restarting something. If you never address the root cause, these symptoms will keep stacking up and drive up your support and maintenance costs as well as impact availability.

Patches – Is it easier to install a bunch of patches on some systems, or to implement a solid process and resources to ensure that patches are always correctly installed and validated on systems? Installing a patch is treating a symptom. Implementing an effective patch management process is treating root cause.

Some may argue that root cause of patching starts all the way back at the processes of the operating system development. That is true, however you always have to realize that there are some root causes that are out of your control. In this case, you can effectively treat the root cause reason of why the patches are missing, but not why they are needed in the first place.

Social Issues – Social and political issues most often have symptoms treated because resolving root cause is typically assumed to require behavior changes or other changes that are considered too difficult or unpopular to implement.

Should my focus always be on fixing Root Cause?

Now we are getting into opinion, but I think that root cause should be identified and how to resolve the issue should be analyzed. Choosing to address root cause or not is a business prioritization issue just like any other project that should be evaluated. However, the choice to Not address root cause needs to be documented and known. Why? Because the symptoms of that root cause will continue, and they should be expected to continue.

 Hybrid Approach

I think that taking the parallel approach of treating some symptoms while working on remediating root cause is a reasonable approach. Unfortunately, since the temptation to focus on treating symptoms is so strong, it often takes a very determined person to ensure that root cause is addressed.

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