Patch management is the consistent and repeatable process of distributing and implementing updates to software, typically to address security and functionality issues.
While difficult to get right, patch management is one of the most critical cybersecurity practices, and thus worth the effort it takes to understand it and apply it. We’ll discuss how difficult it is — and offer some strategies to get it right.
- Patch Management Best Practices & Steps
- Patch Management Policy: Steps, Benefits and a Free Template
Table of Contents
Why Is Patch Management Important?
In recent years, dramatic data breaches have become commonplace as a result of threat actors exploiting system vulnerabilities in organizations, particularly in software supply chain attacks that leverage vulnerabilities in third-party software. And even when hackers get in by simpler and more common ways like phishing or remote access accounts, vulnerabilities and misconfigurations can let hackers escalate attacks through lateral movement and other techniques.
Patch management helps organizations maintain a high level of cyber hygiene to limit exposure to cyber threat actors. It’s important for a number of reasons:
- Security: With patch management, organizations reduce their security risk, as it fixes the security vulnerabilities in their software and applications that hackers might exploit.
- Compliance: Regulatory bodies require organizations to meet and maintain compliance with data privacy and security laws. Patch management plays a part in ensuring that organizations comply with these standards. With some regulations such as GDPR, evidence of a good faith effort is an important legal defense, so documenting patch management and other security processes can reduce legal liabilities, both in regulatory and civil proceedings.
- Uptime: Patch management supports system uptime by ensuring the software and applications of an organization are kept up-to-date.
- Feature Improvements: Patch management is capable of improving basic functionality such as software bug fixes and updates to features and functionality.
8 Steps to Effective Patch Management
We go more into patch management best practices in a separate article, but here we’ll outline the key steps for effective patch management:
- Discovery: Conduct a thorough scan of the enterprise to find every piece of software, every PC, laptop, server, tablet, and any other devices that are operating on the network.
- Assess Risk: Determine the financial, operational, or other impact of each asset if it fails or is compromised.
- Monitor Vulnerabilities and Patches: Watch for official updates from vendors and monitor threat intelligence for vulnerabilities and attacks.
- Backup Systems: Some patches fail or cause conflicts. Create system and data backups should the patch need to be rolled back or systems restored.
- Patch Prioritization: Figure out what patches apply, and then, lay them out in terms of their overall risk to the organization based upon CVSS rating, active attacks, and risk assessment.
- Deploy Patches Regularly: Deploy patches rapidly and automatically but in such a way that it doesn’t tie up organizational bandwidth or disrupt operations.
- Verify Installation: Verify that patches were installed correctly by reviewing reports and checking for any areas where patches failed to deploy.
- Report Results: Update asset lists and generate reports that track what assets were upgraded/patched, exceptions, and any issues encountered.
For more details, see Patch Management Best Practices & Steps
Types of Patch Management
Patch management involves identifying devices, software and applications in need of patching, automatically gathering the required patches, deploying them to software and devices, checking functionality, and delivering reports to document compliance and support business priorities. The most common types of patch management include:
Automated Patch Management
Automated patch management simply refers to a type of patch management that involves distributing patches automatically. It eliminates as much human involvement as possible from the patch management process to intelligently deliver patches to target devices.
This type of patch management lessens the workload on IT teams by empowering them to focus on critical tasks, thus raising the overall efficiency and productivity of these teams. Automated patch management also reduces the chances of breaches by ensuring security patches are delivered promptly.
Operating systems, Windows environments and many applications can be set to update automatically, while some applications, software and hardware may need to be updated manually or with a patch management tool. Networking gear, firmware, and some more obscure or complicated applications may not have automated patching options and may require manual patching.
Manual Patch Management
Manual patch management requires IT teams to manually deploy patches and updates to each workstation and software instance. With manual patch management, teams have complete control over their patching environments and can handle servers, software, and devices independently. It is however time-intensive and may divert the focus of IT teams from vital projects. Manual patch management can also be resource-intensive, but many organizations insist on it to make sure a patch doesn’t break anything.
Sophisticated organizations like cloud and service providers often patch continuously, as new patches are released, as their businesses depend on top-notch security — see slide from Google Cloud below. A process that intensive is beyond the resources of many companies, however, and is a reason many companies seek help from software or services providers.
Patch And Vulnerability Management Tools & Services
There are roughly 20,000 new vulnerabilities a year. That’s a daunting number for the vast majority of organizations to handle.
Most companies also don’t know everything they own — there may be old forgotten hardware or applications that are still on the network — and they also lack the resources to prioritize patches based on the risk that they’ll be exploited.
For those reasons, many businesses have wisely turned to patch management tools and services, or SaaS services like patch management as a service or vulnerability management as a service (VMaaS), to help them stay on top of vulnerabilities. Those tools and services typically incorporate asset management and discovery so nothing will be overlooked.
An overlapping technology is breach and attack simulation (BAS), which can identify vulnerabilities and prioritize fixes. Penetration and vulnerability testing and network scanning are other ways to find assets and vulnerabilities that need to be patched.
ITAM and Asset Inventory in Patch Management
Any piece of information, hardware, or software used by an organization to support its business activities is an IT asset. IT asset management (ITAM) refers to the process of guaranteeing the IT assets of an organization are accounted for, deployed, maintained, upgraded, and discarded at the right time.
Patch management forms a critical part of an effective IT management strategy of an organization. It should be a key component of ITAM programs, as ITAM seeks to deliver complete management of every important IT asset across its life cycle.
A comprehensive ITAM plan can improve patch management by ensuring an IT team has access to the tools and processes necessary for the discovery, mapping, and management of the information an organization needs about all critical IT assets they possess. As organizations often aren’t aware of everything they own, ITAM plays an important role in patch management.
Asset inventory management involves the tools and processes required to maintain an updated record of software and hardware within an enterprise. Having a grip on asset inventory management also improves patch management, as it supports the decision-making of an organization concerning its risk posture and whether all its assets are included in its security considerations.
Asset management tools can also locate systems that may be powered down and missing automatic updates such as rarely used laptops and iPads used only for convention booths.
Lack of accurate asset inventory management makes it difficult to not only manage cyber risk but also manage compliance. As assets can be tracked and analyzed to determine those that are likely to be compromised, patching can then step in to seal security gaps and prevent potential breaches.
Implementing solid patch management processes helps to ensure that IT and cybersecurity management teams are aware of the most vital IT assets to an organization. This allows them to set up repeatable processes and to be notified when patches are available and to test and deploy these patches promptly.
See the Top ITAM Products
How Does Virtual Patching Come Into Play?
The increasing complexity of IT infrastructures makes patch management more resource-intensive and time-consuming. Organizations may struggle to carry out patching, as they may feel it also disrupts business operations and takes away from other demands.
However, these challenges should not give organizations an excuse to delay or altogether defer patches, as unapplied security patches are responsible for a huge chunk of expensive security breaches – and breaches are much more costly than proper prevention.
Ransomware attacks on unpatched vulnerabilities have also been on the rise. Furthermore, the shift to remote work means the scope of technologies used to meet business needs widens and remote user vulnerabilities also need to be patched.
Virtual patching helps organizations manage all these challenges by providing an additional layer of safety against threats that exploit known and unknown vulnerabilities.
Virtual patching applies layers of security policies and rules, often through IDPS, to block network paths to and from vulnerabilities, and is often used for new vulnerabilities before official patches become available – or in the case of legacy systems, where patching may not be an option. Virtual patching augments existing vulnerability and patch management policies of an organization.
With virtual patching, security teams have the time they need to assess vulnerabilities and test and implement the required permanent patches. It also provides organizations more freedom to execute their patch management policies on their terms to avoid unnecessary downtime and the losses resulting from business disruptions. Enterprises also have more flexibility and less need to roll out emergency patches or workarounds to patching.
Components in IT infrastructures that no longer have patches issued to them, such as legacy systems and end-of-support operating systems, also benefit from virtual patching, as they provide them with the security controls to stay secure. Virtual patching can also be used to protect against new and zero-day vulnerabilities until patches are available.
Also read: Network Protection: How to Secure a Network
Popular Patch Management Solutions
Fortunately, there are many very good patch management products and services that can help ease the burden of patch management. Here are some of them. It’s important to note a typical patch management product doesn’t cover everything, especially the open-source patch management options. Major enterprise applications and network and storage hardware are frequent exceptions that must be patched separately, for example.
NinjaOne is a unified operations solution that promises to make the way IT teams work easier. Its patch management product enables enterprises to automate patching for their workstations and servers from a single pane of glass.
NinjaOne offers automatic identification and remediation of vulnerabilities across the entire IT portfolio of its users at scale and at speed without requiring infrastructure. Users of NinjaOne patch management can secure their endpoints, automate operating system and third-party application patching, manage endpoints on and off the network, and get real-time visibility into patch compliance.
Atera delivers an all-in-one remote IT monitoring and management (RMM) solution for managed service providers (MSPs) and IT service providers. Its patch management solution gives users full oversight of their patches from one place and helps them to achieve cybersecurity best practices for software, hardware, and operating systems. With Atera, companies can completely automate setting and automating software patch management and create customized schedules for every endpoint.
Automox is a cyber hygiene platform that enforces third-party and operating system patch management, security configurations, and custom scripting from a single platform. Its automated patch management ensures third-party applications and operating systems are updated and protected against known vulnerabilities without manual intervention. Its cloud patch management utilizes cloud tools for the management and application of operating system security and third-party software updates to all endpoints.
In one solution, Syxsense combines patch management, IT management, and security vulnerability scanning and remediation. Its patch management product keeps its users’ attack surface small by providing accurate detection logic to scan networks and identify devices with missing updates and rapid deployment to expose critical threats and remediate them instantly.
SolarWinds Patch Manager
SolarWinds Patch Manager is patch management software designed to rapidly address software vulnerabilities. It makes it easy to execute updates across tens of thousands of servers and workstations and offers simplified patch management, Microsoft Windows Server Update Service (WSUS) patch management, third-party application patching, Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) patching integration, remote patch management, and more.
ManageEngine Patch Manager Plus
ManageEngine Patch Manager Plus is a solution that scans endpoints to expose missing patches and tests patches before deployment to mitigate security risks. It features automated patch management, third-party application patching, remote patch management for work-from-home setups, Windows 10 feature update deployment, and flexible deployment policies, among others.
For in-depth information on the top patch management solutions, read Best Patch Management Software & Tools
Patch Management Takes Work
Patch management isn’t easy. If it were, the cybersecurity headlines wouldn’t be full of stories of companies getting breached via known vulnerabilities for which patches have existed for some time.
But the most secure organizations and cloud and managed service providers place a heavy emphasis on patch management and have learned to do it right. That knowledge should spur everyone else to figure out a way that best protects them, whether via a service or on-premises solution.
Chad Kime contributed to this report
Read next: Top Vulnerability Management Solutions
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