Patch Management Policy: A Practical Guide
Defending your organization against a sea of vulnerabilities
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Patching – this highly necessary, yet sometimes neglected practice of resolving security issues related to vulnerabilities – can be a burden for organizations of all sizes. You probably already know that a regular and well-defined patch management routine proactively ensures your systems function as they are supposed to. However, it can seem like an overwhelming task due to the number of systems that require your staff’s constant attention. This brings us to the topic of patch management policy. Keep on reading to understand what a great patch management policy entails and how you can create your own patching processes and procedures.
How do we define patch management? A Patch Management Policy is comprised of a set of steps and procedures aimed towards managing and mitigating vulnerabilities in your environment through a regular and well-documented patching process. In short, a patch management policy lists the guidelines and requirements for the proper management of vulnerabilities and involves various phases such as testing, deploying, and documenting the security patches applied to your organization’s endpoints. A vulnerability appears when a released software’s code is flawed, which means that malicious actors may exploit it. Every time a vulnerability is discovered, it may publicly be disclosed or not. What’s more, when a vulnerability is revealed an exploit code may also follow. Oftentimes, exploit kits are published and sold in underground markets, or published as POCs by security researchers who attempt to demonstrate how security flaws may be leveraged. A zero-day exploit can occur when the proof-of-concept code is revealed prior to a vulnerability being patched, which means that zero-day flaws arise after a security vulnerability is discovered before the vendor gets the chance to fix it. Publishing POC code for zero-day exploits has always been problematic as it leaves networks vulnerable, potentially leading to successful exploits. According to a recent report, around two of every three exploited vulnerabilities have associated published exploit code. At the same time, whenever an exploit code is publicly revealed, chances are seven times higher we see exploitation in the wild compared to it not being published. I’ve also covered the topics of vulnerability discovery and exploits in my previous article entitled What is Vulnerability Management, so, check it out if you’re interested to learn more.
The components of a Patch Management Policy
The recommendations below present a patch management framework that involve risk identification and reduction techniques and the design and setup of a mechanism that sustains the patching standard in an organization. A successful patch management policy and procedure should be conducted based on several different stages. Below I will list six phases, however, depending on the size of an organization and its existing processes, the exact number and sequence of the steps can differ. Yet, the fundamental procedure should remain the same. Here are the main steps that any efficient patch management SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) should include:
1. Asset inventory
Having an asset inventory in place will allow you to track your hardware and software assets that need to be patched. This way, you will discover all installed software on your devices, as well as identify all the machines owned by your organization. Therefore, you will be certain all potential security gaps are successfully closed. What’s more, asset inventory and tracking should be accompanied by categorization and reporting, so you have detailed info about your hardware and software available after a scan and thus gain full visibility in your environment.
2. Assigning Patch Management roles in your team
The key to patching efficiency is putting the right people in charge, who will be able to properly handle patch management-related aspects. Everyone on the team should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities – all parties involved must know exactly who owns which process. Additionally, the main aspect that you should keep in mind is to never let your users take care of the patching themselves.
3. Choose the right patch management software
When deciding upon what patch management software is adequate for your organization, one vital aspect you should keep in mind is automation. The Ponemon Institute found out that 56% of security professionals spend more time with manual processes than responding to vulnerabilities, which leads to a huge response backlog. At the same time, organizations are spending 18,000 hours managing vulnerability response processes, at a cost of $1.1 million. Thus, automated patch management software will save a significant amount of time and money, and empower your sysadmins to shift their focus from cumbersome, manual tasks to other activities.
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4. Test your patches
First, you should create a test environment that is a replica of the environment surrounding production, with systems that include servers covering all of your mission-critical programs. Should you have any in-house-developed software, you already have servers that support the testing process. In case you have a small organization that does not allow the testing phase to take place, in this case, you must deploy the patches to the least critical servers that could be easily recovered in case of system failure. This means that you should establish in advance which servers and endpoints are non-critical and then test your patches on them. If there are no issues, you can continue to roll out your patches to your entire environment. Just keep in mind that even though vendors who release patches do test them, they may not necessarily match your environment, so you should cover this aspect on your side as well.
5. Create a patching schedule
By developing and implementing a patch management schedule, you will be assured that all of your software is up-to-date and secured from future risks, as well as be able to monitor and decide when the updates are installed. This way, your IT staff will be able to keep your systems clean and safe and ensure that the patches are applied regularly.
6. Document your patching process
It’s highly important to keep a summary and overview of your patching status. Thanks to these reports, you will have a complete picture of the patching status of each user and see if any of your endpoints are missing a specific patch. What’s more, reports are essential for you to become fully compliant and be able to demonstrate in great detail exactly what takes place in your environment. You can also use this sample patch management policy as a starting point when defining the procedures and roles in your organization.
Why automation is crucial
Patch management is not a simple task, yet with the proper resources and tools, it can become easier. As a patch management best practice, you should take into account the fact that automation is key when it comes to patch management. By using patch management software and removing the manual patching processes from your IT teams’ activity, your personnel will not waste any more time. Furthermore, an automatic patch management solution can improve the quality of their work even more, as it will search for missing updates on a regular basis and check those already in operation. It will eliminate the effort and burden associated with conducting such activities on their own and open up resources that can be utilized for projects of greater importance. According to the Ponemon Institute study, 76% of companies experienced a cyberattack that involved a zero-day attack. In your patch management policy, it will also be highly important to state how to treat patching in case of zero-day vulnerabilities. Under such circumstances, timing will obviously not be on your side – you will have a limited timeframe to take action. Again, an automated patch management software will help you quickly install patches upon their release.
To Sum Up
Since the vulnerability-discovery-to-exploitation time is becoming shorter, this puts a strain on IT managers to swiftly patch systems and keep up with the latest updates. But defining a proper patch management policy will save you time and money and highly decrease security issues. What’s more, as automatic patch management systems install patches periodically, they will eliminate the manual components of patch management. Also, it will ensure the software flaws are detected as soon as they are discovered, and that they can be quickly patched. Obviously, patch management alone will not address all vulnerability-related problems, but it will act as a fundamental protection mechanism in your overall vulnerability management program.