What is Patch Management
Patch management is the process of identifying and deploying software updates, or “patches,” to a variety of endpoints, including computers, mobile devices, and servers.
A “patch” is a specific change or set of updates provided by software developers to fix known security vulnerabilities or technical issues. Patches can also include the addition of new features and functions to the application. It’s important to note that patches are typically short-term solutions intended to be used until the next full software release.
What Is the Patch Management Process?
An organization’s patch management process can be carried out by their IT team, an automated patch management tool, or a combination thereof. An effective patch management process will consider the following elements:
- Reviewing security patch releases
- Prioritizing patching efforts based on the severity of the vulnerability
- Testing patch compatibility and installing multiple patches across all affected endpoints
A timely and effective patch management strategy is extremely important to network security because patch releases are based on known vulnerabilities. As such, the risk of using outdated software becomes even greater as adversaries can more easily identify and exploit weaknesses within systems.
Why Do You Need Patch Management?
Securing Networks & Endpoints: Patch management is an absolutely essential element within the organization’s cybersecurity vulnerability and patching strategy. In fact, unpatched software applications or operating systems are one of the leading causes of security breaches today. A fast and timely patch management process, along with supplemental monitoring, detection, and remediation tools and processes, will help reduce the risk of such events. A modern patch management process must protect any endpoint that can connect to the network, regardless of ownership or location.
Minimize Downtime & Feature Enhancements: In addition to strengthening an organization’s digital security, patches can also help the organization improve overall performance by minimizing downtime caused by outdated or unsupported software. In some cases, patches may also offer new features and benefits, which can help a business run more efficiently.
Compliance: It is important to note that in many cases, patch management is required by industry or government agencies, or other regulatory bodies. Failure to comply with patch updates could result in fines, sanctions, or other penalties.
Patch Management Best Practices
How can you improve your vulnerability and patch management process? Fortunately, there are a number of solutions on the market today that are highly effective and help address the persistent challenges in continuously monitoring for vulnerabilities and deploying patch updates. Below are some best practices to consider to maintain a strong defense against adversaries.
Leverage a risk-assessment framework. Many organizations fail to realize the very real and persistent threat posed by cybercriminals. In particular, they may not recognize the importance of vulnerabilities present in certain applications or systems could leave critical openings for exploitation. That’s why a Risk Assessment Framework (RAF) is a useful approach in recognizing which vulnerabilities, and associated patches aid IT teams in prioritizing which systems are most critical to patch. Both Information Security and IT teams should work together to define a risk assessment template that defines patching policies and service-level agreements for mitigating critical or important risks.
This group can then create a priority list that identifies what should be patched first and any potential operational risks associated with such decisions.
Document and re-assess for accountability. When developing an RAF template, information security and IT managers should work together to agree on evaluation criteria for vulnerabilities and a method for patching priorities. The executive team should review and approve such plans and any exceptions, thereby confirming that the organization accepts any associated risk. This hierarchy of vulnerability management can keep teams accountable and ensure that systems are patched in a timely manner. Re-examination of this template and policies surrounding it will help keep security teams current as new vulnerabilities and patching solutions evolve over time.
Create a dedicated vulnerability management team. Organizations with sufficient resources should consider dedicating information security and IT personnel exclusively to vulnerability and patch management activity. This team is accountable for identifying vulnerabilities and deploying patches quickly, guided by the risk-assessment framework described above. One key benefit to this approach is that information security leaders can produce metrics to assess the effectiveness of the program and identify areas of improvement or further investment.
Utilize vulnerability management solutions for patch prioritization. Not all vulnerability management solutions are created equally. When building your patching policy it’s important to consider the vulnerability management solution your organization uses to make better decisions on how to best remediate your vulnerabilities. Consider which solutions provide the best vulnerability coverage (as in continuous scanning, via network-only scanning) and whether patching prioritization features are included. The difference between a solution that offers these features could make a dramatic difference in the time to remediate – especially for critical/high priority vulnerabilities.
Common Patch Management Issues
The rate of cyberattacks due to unpatched systems continues to increase, which implies that many organizations do not have an effective patch management process in place to quickly and effectively deploy updates.
Common issues that hinder the organization’s ability to deploy patches include:
Disconnect Between the Cybersecurity Team and IT
Patches are typically released by software vendors to address known security vulnerabilities. This makes them high on the priority list for the information security team. However, patch testing and deployment often fall into the domain of the IT function.Many IT organizations may prioritize system operations, as opposed to security — which often results in focusing on efforts that will improve the productivity of systems in the immediate future, instead of examining potential areas of weakness.
Unclear Patch Priorities
Information security teams often approach IT departments with a long list of systems in need of patching. This can overwhelm the IT team. It’s nearly impossible for organizations to patch everything. IT and infosec teams need to work together to determine where to focus often limited resources.
Informal Patch Policy
Many organizations don’t have formal patching policies or enforcement mechanisms to ensure necessary updates take place. Companies should implement a clear and compelling patch policy in order to ensure that the IT team prioritizes these efforts and is accountable for related activity.
What Is the Future of Patch Management?
The shift to the cloud has introduced new security vulnerabilities to organizations, many of which are actively exploited by cybercriminals worldwide. Mitigating these threats is especially important today, as increasing numbers of remote employees are working from home and connecting their personal devices to corporate networks due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizations may struggle with timely and effective patching due to departmental conflicts, missing patch management policies, and limited accountability. Fortunately, many cybersecurity organizations are developing new, risk-based solutions that can be highly effective in addressing the persistent challenges that vulnerability discovery and patching present. While vulnerability and patching tools and solutions will be instrumental in ensuring the organization’s patching strategy, true success will also depend on developing underlying policies and procedures that ensure the business is aligned on remediation priorities and who is responsible for this activity.
The future of patch management will likely be:
- Integrated: One-off solutions for scanning just for vulnerabilities, or just for providing patching updates will likely be rolled into comprehensive solutions.
- Automated: The future of patch management will leverage automation to expedite routine and recurring tasks throughout the patching process.
- Accountable: A successful patching strategy requires the organization to develop a clear patching policy and outline who within the organization is responsible for overseeing related activity and decision making.
- Collaborative: Successful patch management requires the IT function, infosec team, and leadership to work together to develop a reasonable and effective action plan.