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.
Patches are generally released by software developers to fix known security vulnerabilities or technical issues; they may also add new features and functions to the application. Patches are typically short-term solutions intended to be used until the next full software release.
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 As such, the risk of using outdated software becomes even greater as adversaries can more easily identify and exploit weaknesses within systems.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?
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.
In recent years, the shift to the cloud, as well as a rise in remote work and bring your own device (BYOD) policies, has increased the need for a more rigorous patch management policy. A modern patch management process must protect any endpoint that can connect to the network, regardless of ownership or location.
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digital security, patches can also help the organization improve overall performance by minimizing downtime caused by outdated or unsupported software.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.
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.
Common Patch Management Issues
Patching may seem like an obvious step that every organization must take to ensure the safety and security of the business and its assets. However, 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. Unfortunately, IT often has many different priorities and patching vulnerabilities can occasionally fall down the list of security priorities. 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. However, given the growing risk of improperly patched systems, the IT function and infosec team must work more closely to develop an effective and timely vulnerability and patch management strategy.
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. Organizations should define which software and systems need the most protection and regularly examine for vulnerabilities and related patch updates. The assets will be different for every organization – basing their patching strategy on the type of vulnerability, level of risk and potential business impact.
Informal Patch Policy
Many organizations don’t have formal patching policies or enforcement mechanisms to ensure necessary updates take place. As noted above, IT teams may not have adequate time or resources to undertake continuous patching efforts. Further, the lack of a formal patching policy means that teams are not particularly incentivized to focus on this area, especially when they are also responsible for the ongoing operation and health of the network. 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 Patch Management Process?
Given the critical importance of patching within the organization’s broader cybersecurity strategy, organizations should develop a timely and consistent process for patching both the operating systems and software applications.
At the same time, requiring IT to manually monitor for vulnerabilities, test, and deploy patches is often a time-consuming process and can be impractical given the team’s overall workload. Further complicating matters, the shift to the cloud, as well as the growing trend of remote work and BYOD devices, most organizations should leverage automated vulnerability management and patching solutions to help the organization expedite all steps within the patching process.
Using such solutions can help improve the efficiency of the patching process, reduce costs and minimize disruption to the business. Fortunately, many companies are developing new, risk-based solutions that can be highly effective in addressing the persistent challenges that patching presents.
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.
What Can You Do?
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.
What Are the Best Patch Management Tools?
In recent years, many vulnerability management tools have been augmented to encompass the patch management process. While there are also dedicated patch management tools as well, organizations should fully consider the benefits of having separate patching management tools versus utilizing a more all-encompassing vulnerability management solution. Either way, the chosen solution should enable businesses to routinely perform a recurring vulnerability monitoring and patch process.
Using a vulnerability and patch management tool may often result in cost savings to the organization, both directly through reduced time and effort by the IT team and indirectly as properly patched systems and applications will reduce the likelihood of a breach, as well as system downtime.
A variety of vulnerability and patch management software solutions are available on the market to help automate the process of finding vulnerabilities and patching them. To find the optimal solution for your business, it is important to work with your cybersecurity partner to determine your organization’s needs and how effective each solution will be in addressing that specific business need. We recommend that organizations ask the following questions when evaluating their vulnerability and patch management solution options:
- Does the vulnerability and patch solution work across different operating systems, such as Windows and Linux, as well as third-party platforms, such as Amazon Web Services?
- Does this solution support both cloud-based assets and traditional, on-prem networks?
- Does the solution integrate with existing security tools leveraged by the organization?
Monitoring and Evaluation
- Does the vulnerability and patch management tool continuously scan the network to identify vulnerabilities across all software applications and operating systems?
- Does the solution contextualize patching requirements by providing recommendations on how to prioritize efforts or otherwise capture the urgency of key updates?
Testing and Deployment
- Can the solution download patches automatically from vendor sites?
- Does the vulnerability and patch management tool have a robust testing capability?
- Can the solution deploy the patches in an emergency setting? How about setting patches to automatically deploy across all devices and endpoints?
- Does the vulnerability and patch management software provide updates to the IT team regarding the status of vulnerabilities, the status of each patch update, including missing patches and deployment failures or errors?
- Can the solution easily produce a report to synthesize all open and closed vulnerabilities, as well as patching activity in the event of an internal audit or request by a regulatory agency?
- Does the solution integrate with the organization’s patching policy and flag potential violations?
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.