Software vulnerabilities are one of the biggest nuisances for cybersecurity because cybercriminals love to exploit them. Read on to find out how you can be one step ahead by applying the virtual patch approach! 

What Is a Virtual Patch: Some Definitions

To understand the concept of the virtual patch, we first need to clarify the main terms you’re going to find in this article. 

By this token, 

  • software – software representsa collection of instructions and data that tell a computer how to work. Computer software includes computer programs, libraries, and related non-executable data, such as online documentation or digital media. Computer hardware and software require each other and neither can be realistically used on its own.” 
  • patch – in general, a patch “is a small software update released by manufacturers to fix or improve a software program. A patch can fix security vulnerabilities or other bugs, or enhance the software in terms of features, usability, and performance.”
  • patch deployment – this term refers to the process of deploying updates or patches. This process is also known as patch management

When it comes to virtual patches, “The term […] was originally coined by Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) vendors a number of years ago.” It can be defined as 

A security policy enforcement layer which prevents the exploitation of a known vulnerability. The virtual patch works since the security enforcement layer analyzes transactions and intercepts attacks in transit, so malicious traffic never reaches the web application. The resulting impact of a virtual patch is that, while the actual source code of the application itself has not been modified, the exploitation attempt does not succeed.

What Is a Virtual Patch: Vulnerability Management Connection

In cybersecurity, a vulnerability represents “a hole in computer security, that leaves the system open to damages caused by cyber attackers. Vulnerabilities have to be solved as soon as they are discovered, before a cybercriminal takes advantage and exploits them.” 

Known vulnerabilities are actually the primary catalyst of successful cyberattacks. In this race against the clock, the best option remains patching – or the newest innovation in the field. The so-called deep security virtual patching. 

What Is a Virtual Patch: Patching Challenges

As any organization that gave vulnerability/patch management some thought knows, implementing such a system comes with a few challenges: 

Business continuity 

Unless it’s automated, the process of patch management can be slow and disruptive, causing some operational downtime. 

Quantity

If a company thinks to upgrade their entire IT infrastructure, they will need to patch a significant number of vulnerabilities – and this number will most probably increase over the years.

virtual patch article - time consuming patching concept image

Source: Unsplash 

Limited visibility

The visibility of large online infrastructures can be limited due to different operating systems or application versions, which might also be in distinct geographic places. 

Legacy software/software rot

Software rot can be defined as follows: 

Software rot, also known as bit rot, code rot, software erosion, software decay, or software entropy is either a slow deterioration of software quality over time or its diminishing responsiveness that will eventually lead to software becoming faulty, unusable, or in need of an upgrade. This is not a physical phenomenon: the software does not actually decay, but rather suffers from a lack of being responsive and updated with respect to the changing environment in which it resides.

Software rot can also be linked to legacy software. As my colleague Miriam explains in one of her articles, “legacy software is any piece of software that can’t receive continued patching or support from its developer, or can’t meet the compliance standards in use.” 

virtual patch article - software rot concept image

Source: Pinterest

What Is a Virtual Patch: The Value It Brings 

Virtual patches can externally address issues outside of an application’s code. Moreover, 

  • a virtual patch is a scalable solution – it can be implemented in a few locations too, not necessarily on all hosts. 
  • a virtual patch minimizes risks until vendor-supplied patches are released. 
  • a virtual patch provides efficient protection for critical systems that cannot be taken offline. 
  • a virtual patch can reduce or completely eliminate the time and money spent on emergency patching. 

Let’s not forget that a virtual patch can also:

  • buy security teams additional time to assess vulnerabilities and apply the necessary tests.
  • eliminate downtime, because it offers the freedom to enforce patches on your own schedule. 
  • improve regulatory compliance and meet the requirements of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 
  • provide security control for legacy software,  ensuring a stronger defense strategy

What Is a Virtual Patch: Strategies for the Future

This article would not be complete if I didn’t provide you with some recommended practices for the road. Ergo, here’s what you should try to do if you want to apply the virtual patch approach in your company:

Assess and Prioritize

As Joseph Faust notes in his paper, “Reducing Organizational Risks Through Virtual Patching”

To be successful with your Virtual Patching approach, one should be prepared to spend adequate time in determining what priorities exist for your applications and what level of risk is acceptable. Scan and have your applications penetration tested for flaws, revisiting them on a continuous schedule, working through the identified vulnerability lists to determine real weaknesses in your applications that need to be patched.

Test

Testing is another crucial aspect: “Spend enough time testing each Virtual Patch against the applications which you are defending so that false positives can be minimal. Plan for False Positives, where valid traffic behavior is being denied and have a documented process for those in your organization to report issues and escalation process to resolve[ […]”. 

Communicate 

Communication within the organization is essential too. You should be able to “periodically provide metrics to management via analyzing the logs for statistics, trends and explain and communicate these active threats and challenges which the organization faces. Make it part of a regular interval to report on malicious attack activity faced and the provided defenses implemented through virtual patching.” 

If you’re interested, you can find an intuitive patch & asset management solution in the Heimdal™ suite too. Our Heimdal™ Patch & Asset Management will see any software assets in your inventory, alongside their version and number of installs, create inventory reports for accurate assessment and compliance demonstration, and allow you to update or downgrade software and operating systems from a unified dashboard.

 

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What Is a Virtual Patch: Final Thoughts 

Achieving great cybersecurity is a complex mission – but not an impossible one. The best strategies include being informed and implementing powerful, effective solutions that can protect your IT infrastructure, buy you additional time and help you achieve compliance like virtual patches do. 

However you choose to proceed, please remember that Heimdal™ Security always has your back and that our team is here to help you protect your home and your company and to create a cybersecurity culture to the benefit of anyone who wants to learn more about it. 

Drop a line below if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions related to the topic of virtual patches – we are all ears and can’t wait to hear your opinion!

 

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