Patches are lines of code that influence the behavior of an application, operating system, or platform. They are often released to correct errors in code, optimize current features, or add new features to software.
Patch management is the consistent and repeatable process of distributing and implementing updates to software. Patch management policies define the processes an organization should implement to consistently and reliably update software without negatively impacting their systems.
Also read: Patch Management Best Practices & Steps
Why Is Patch Management Important?
In recent years, dramatic data breaches have become rampant as a result of threat actors exploiting system vulnerabilities in organizations, particularly in software supply chain attacks like SolarWinds and Kaseya. 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 and make sure their systems are not exposed to cyber threat actors. Some of the reasons highlighting the importance of patch management include:
- Security: With patch management, organizations reduce their security risk, as it fixes the security vulnerabilities in their software and applications.
- Compliance: Regulatory bodies require organizations to meet and maintain a specific level of compliance in the face of a surge in cyberattacks. Patch management plays a part in ensuring organizations comply with these standards.
- 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 exceeding basic functionality such as software bug fixes to offer updates to features and functionality. Through patches, users can enjoy the latest and best features available to a product.
Types of Patch Management
Patch management involves identifying devices, software and applications lacking patches, automatically gathering the required patches, deploying them to software and devices, and delivering reports to support business decisions. 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 the 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.
Manual patch management
Manual patch management has IT teams 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 the patch doesn’t break anything.
Third-party application patching
Third-party patch management refers to the process of deploying patches to third-party applications installed on one or more endpoints of an organization. This type of patch management addresses software bugs and vulnerabilities that have an impact on security or functionality. Third-party patch management is crucial as many businesses today leverage various third-party applications in their day-to-day operations.
These third-party applications have increasingly become an attack vector for cyberattacks like malware. Therefore, third-party application patching is key to minimizing the attack surface for cyber threats.
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.
Patch and vulnerability management services
Because of the difficulty of keeping up with vulnerabilities and patches – and in many cases, not even knowing everything they own that’s vulnerable – many businesses have turned to managed 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. As there are roughly 20,000 new vulnerabilities a year, turning the problem over to a third party is an increasingly attractive option. An overlapping technology is breach and attack simulation (BAS), which can identify vulnerabilities and prioritize fixes.
How Does Virtual Patching Come Into Play?
The increased complexity of the online infrastructures of an organization today 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 frighteningly on the rise. Furthermore, the shift to remote work means the scope of technologies used to meet business needs widens and their vulnerabilities need to be patched.
Organizations that constantly upgrade their IT infrastructures also need to patch an ever-growing number of vulnerabilities. It may also be a challenge for organizations to determine the frequency of patch cycles if they struggle to determine which vulnerabilities are most critical or prevalent today.
Virtual patching helps organizations manage the above challenges by providing an additional layer of safety against threats that exploit known and unknown vulnerabilities. It applies layers of security policies as well as rules to block and obstruct exploits from taking network paths to and from vulnerabilities. Virtual patching augments existing vulnerability and patch management policies of an organization.
Security teams have the time they need to assess vulnerabilities and test and implement the required permanent patches through virtual patching. 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.
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; 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 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 WSUS patch management, third-party application patching, 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.
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 crucial 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.
Implementing solid patch management processes helps to ensure IT and cybersecurity management teams are aware of the most vital IT assets to an organization. This allows them to set up repeatable processes to be notified when patches are available and to test and deploy these patches promptly.
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.
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.
See the Top ITAM Products
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 place a heavy emphasis on it and have learned to do it right. That alone should spur everyone else to figure out a way that works for them.
Read next: Top Vulnerability Management Solutions