Patch Management Explained. Best Practices and Benefits
All You Need to Know about Patch Management. And Why Automated Patch Management Will Simplify Your Sysadmins’ Life.
What is Patch Management?
Patch management (aka update management) is the process of distributing and deploying software updates. It involves the acquisition, review, and deployment of patches to an IT infrastructure. A patch is a piece of software code that improves an installed program – you can literally think about it as a “bandage” applied to software. Every time a security flaw or bug is discovered or the program’s functionality needs to be enhanced, software developers create a patch to address these aspects. Patches can be deployed to your entire infrastructure including software/operating systems, routers, IoT equipment, servers, and more.
Why Is Patch Management Important
Patching your software regularly, increases your systems security, stability and functionality. Not to mention that system vulnerabilities have gained ground recently. Look at PrintNightmare that targeted Windows Spooler or the 16 years old vulnerability present in HP, Samsung, and Xerox print drivers. Or do you remember the notorious WannaCry ransomware attack? Well, it happened due to unpatched systems that ended up being exploited by malicious hackers. Even though Microsoft had released a security patch that addressed the vulnerability in Windows OS two months before the ransomware attack began, many individuals and organizations alike did not update their systems in time and thus remained exposed.
Or, if this does not convince you, look at these statistics :
- in 2020 there were more than 18, 000 vulnerabilities identified.
- this collection of software patching statistics between 2015-2020
- the recent Project Zero research which states that poor software patches are responsible for half of all zero-day vulnerabilities in the first 6 months of 2022
The Benefits of patch management
- Reducing the attack surface: applications and software might have different vulnerabilities a hacker could exploit. By patching them, an organization is less exposed to cyberattacks or security breaches. Patching works as a prevention measure against many types of malware that can spread fast throughout a network.
- Enhanced functionality: patching can also improve features, not only software flaws, as software updates often mean enhanced functionality.
- Achieving compliance: the required level of conformity with different regulations is accomplished and also the audit results will be satisfactory.
- Increased productivity: patches can fix different errors and bugs and thus increase system stability. Your employees won’t waste unnecessary time due to downtime too as they do not have to come across system bugs or downtime every 2 days, so they will be productive and not waste unnecessary time.
- Spotting old software: if your software vendor is out of business or has another problem, this solution will help you identify the software that has not received updates in a long time, so you can replace it in a timely manner.
Risks of not patching your software
- Your business is more exposed to cyberattacks because hackers can exploit any found vulnerability.
- The financial impact of a successful cyber attack can be devastating. The cost of recovery will certainly exceed the cost of implementing an automated patch management solution.
- Potential loss in productivity: you will be left behind with an outdated system and struggling to solve issues caused by not patching in due time.
- You can be fined because of a lack of compliance.
You can’t control the emergence of cyber threats. But you can have complete control over your organization’s vulnerabilities and efficiently manage them. Bad patch management has been one of the reasons behind the largest cyber-attacks to date. Patch management plays a significant role in ensuring strong organizational protection.
The Patch Management Process
If you want to have a seamless and effective patch management process, there are a few stages that must be followed during the patching process. Here are the key steps:
- Make an IT asset inventory of all your current software solutions and devices.
- Categorize assets and patches by risk and priority. An inventory will help you define if the existing patches meet your software needs and determine which applications are vulnerable and their level of importance or sense of urgency. Choose a patch management tool that will fit your needs and target the most vulnerable parts of your system, as patch management is part of vulnerability management – a topic that goes hand in hand when talking about patching. This tool will scan for available patches, then it will analyse the results and determine what needs to be patched, it will apply the patches and eventually monitor the process.
- Test the patches in a lab environment prior to production. You should determine if your software supports the vendor’s patches you want to use, before deploying live. A testbed that imitates your production network is a good solution to determine if your network will really support the patch you want to apply. This part comes with disadvantages too, because it will take time and make use of the organization’s resources and will delay the patching process itself.
- Plan the release into production and implement a patch management policy. A patch management policy will set clear rules to make sure your patching process runs the right way, schedule patches to be applied on time, and document patching results properly.
- Deploy the patches into production. It is recommended to deploy in small batches when you’re going live. Even if your lab tests went smoothly there’s always a chance to encounter conflicts in a production environment.
- Asses and document the results. Documenting and analysing every patching cycle will help you improve and optimize the patching process.
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Patch Management Best Practices
Creating the optimal patch management strategy starts with evaluating all the necessary steps involved. Here are the best patch management practices for you to implement today.
1. Create an asset inventory
You should keep track of your systems’ configuration and know which hardware, software, and versions of operating systems are currently in use.
2. Analyse the risk levels and assign priorities
This involves a risk assessment analysis. You need to investigate which ones of your systems are non-compliant, vulnerable, and thus need patches faster. Some software might need patches sooner than others. It won’t help if correct identification and prioritization are not put in place. Patching the wrong system won’t take you too far.
Identifying patching goals sets priorities and identifies objectives that are essential during the patch management process. It’s important to determine what software needs to be patched and set up a schedule to eliminate any confusion and allow for auditing practices.
The patch management process is part of the whole process named vulnerability management. The latter one identifies bugs that might be system configuration flaws, open ports, or registry settings for instance. Before patching, vulnerability management will detect the vulnerabilities. That is why these processes should work in synergy and go hand in hand. A tool that has them both will work better in terms of mitigation measures.
Critical vulnerabilities should be patched first.
3. Consolidate software versioning
Standardizing your software and OS versions will increase the speed, efficiency and stability of the patching process.
4. Create a patch management policy
A clear and organized routine will constantly keep your system away from threats. The patch management process should be a constant and ceaseless one, not just from time to time. So, applying patches requires a well-defined schedule in order to avoid errors.
For instance, if different group policies need patches, there should be a pause between deployments. A time interval should be considered before installing the patch in the next policy group in order for the first policy group to have time to implement them.
5. Do not delay important security patches
The process of patch management should not be postponed too much. Patches with high security risk should be applied as soon as possible.
6. Test on a small sample before wide deployment
If I said earlier that software patches should be implemented in a timely manner, rushing without making sure that those patches suit your system will do no good. The testing part is an important patch management best practice.
Patch validity depends on the vendor himself, therefore you need to make sure you test your patches on a small set of machines first and see how it behaves. If everything runs well, then you can apply them overall. New patch versions can have yet undetected bugs.
This way you will avoid damage to certain machine configurations.
7. Have a rollback plan
In case of errors or conflicts, you should be able to restore your software to the previous working version as soon as possible, so you can reduce downtime.
8. Automate the patching process
Although the patching process can be done manually, an automated process will always be better in terms of speed and accuracy. It will help avoiding human error and minimize the risk of malware infections.
Automating the patch management process, will definitely be more time-efficient and your sysadmins can focus on other security-related tasks. You will also gain full visibility inside your IT environment and diligently keep track of vulnerabilities and patches.
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- Schedule updates at your convenience;
- See any software assets in inventory;
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- And much more than we can fit in here...
A good automated patch management solution is a crucial aspect when it comes to software updates. Maintaining the security, integrity, and accessibility of the data and systems of every organization should be as thorough as possible but simple and fast in the same time. The more you keep up with your patching and update all your critical (and non-critical) systems, the less likely it is that your company will be compromised.
Patch management plays a significant role in ensuring strong organizational protection. However, by all means, it should not be viewed as the answer to solving all security issues, but as an essential layer of protection for your business, alongside DNS filtering, Endpoint Antivirus & Firewall, and Privileged Access Management (PAM).
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