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The complete guide to patch management

Without a patch management strategy in place, you’re leaving your business in serious jeopardy.

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Image: Unsplash

No matter your role in an organization, and even if you don’t directly work with cybersecurity, understanding patches and patch management is critical. In reality, it can be important to keep yourself personally protected in terms of cybersecurity as well.

With patching, issues in software are addressed and fixed. The issues could otherwise cause a system to be compromised. Sometimes there are other reasons for patches aside from security, but this is the main reason. 

Overall, patches are minor fixes, but they are a needed part of IT infrastructure management. If the patches aren’t properly handled, it can become difficult for IT admins. This is especially true as corporate systems are allowing bring your own device (BYOD) and remote device policies. 

Below, we go into the key things everyone should know about patches and patch management, notably as cybersecurity is slated to be a top business priority in 2022. 

An Overview of Patch Management

Patch management is a process of coordinated software patching or updating software on devices, operating systems, and applications. The coordinated approach can include testing, rollout, and also monitoring of updates across an organization. 

With patching, there’s an application of a fix to a piece of software, which usually is a way to deal with a security vulnerability or a performance issue. 

A patch isn’t the same as an upgrade. A patch is a fix. An update is to add some level of new functionality. 

Patching both software and hardware is a critical security element and a requirement for organizations. 

When you have a standardized patch management process, it creates predictability, automation, insight, and compliance. A patch management process also improves efficiency and visibility. 

The errors that patching is intended to fix may also be referred to as bugs or vulnerabilities. 

Systems That May Require Patching

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Image: PCMag

Operating systems, applications, and network equipment may need patches. 

The following are more specific examples of systems that could need patches:

  • Infrastructure to support products: Your customer-facing applications and services support your brand. These are your most critical assets, and if they’re compromised, these also pose the most considerable organizational risk. Things like your point of sale system are high-risk for security vulnerabilities and should always be prioritized in terms of patching. 
  • Organizational infrastructure: The next priority level you should hone in on as part of your patch management approach is your organizational infrastructure. Think about those systems you rely on to get things done. This can include file servers, enterprise apps, work stations or networking equipment. 
  • Devices: Consider beyond the apps and services the devices used to do work by your employees. This can include IoT devices, laptops, desktops, tablets, and personal devices. Anything connected to the internet, including both in-house and remote devices, if it at some point interacts with data should be part of your plan for regular patching. All devices, for optimal cybersecurity, should remain up-to-date. 

The Importance of Patch Management

The following goes into some of the most important reasons to put patch management on your list of strategic priorities:

  • A patch management strategy addresses security issues and, in particular vulnerabilities that a cyber attacker could otherwise take advantage of. Patches address identified security vulnerabilities, regardless of how they’re discovered. Often what will happen is that attackers catch wind of gaps and if you wait too long to patch, they know they can strike. 
  • The way your applications and software interact with one another can create performance issues. Recently, as an example of this, there was the release of a Windows 10 patch to help with performance issues in game applications that had been ongoing since March 2021. When there’s a performance issue, it negatively impacts end-users and IT admins. 
  • Some apps won’t work with a legacy version of system software. You can eliminate incompatibilities with patching. This is something we can see in our everyday lives. You might not be able to install a new app on your phone for example if you don’t have the current iOS version. 
  • Patches can be a compliance and regulatory issue. When your systems are identified as unpatched, they could leave you non-compliant with varying regulations, like GDPR. Along with reputational damage, you may have to pay fines. 
  • With the implementation of patches, you can be more innovative. Patching management helps you offer improved features and functions, and you can deploy innovations at scale. 
  • You’llreduce your attack surface with appropriate patch management. There are different applications and software vulnerabilities. 
  • You’ll improve your organizational productivity. Your employees won’t be dealing with downtime or bugs while they’re trying to work. 
  • When you use an automated patch management solution, it will be more accurate than it would be if you rely on human work. 
  • Patch management can spot old software that doesn’t receive patches anymore, and you can replace it. 

What is the Patch Management Process?

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Patch management isn’t as simple as installing a new patch as soon as it becomes available. 

You have to be strategic. Patch management needs to be implemented in an organized, cost-effective way with security as a central element. 

The process might include the following steps:

  • You’ll need to have an inventory of your production systems, and those may need to be updated as often as monthly. You might be able to get away with updating systems quarterly. You’ll have a view of everything, including IP addresses and operating systems. The more often you maintain your inventory of assets, the more information you will generally have. 
  • Once you’ve mapped out your inventory, you want to have a plan to standardize systems to the same version type. If you can integrate standardization, it’ll make your patching more efficient and faster. 
  • You should also have an inventory of all of your security controls within your organization. 
  • Look at your vulnerabilities compared to your inventory. 
  • If you use a vulnerability management tool, then you can figure out the critical assets you need to prioritize with patching. 
  • When there is a patch, you need to test it before more extensive implementation. 

The Challenges of Patch Management for SMBs

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While enterprise-level organizations may have all the resources they need for strategic patch management, it’s more challenging for SMBs

If you can understand these challenges proactively, you’re in a better position to deal with them. Examples of patch management problems commonly faced by SMBs include:

  • You may not have centralized visibility into your software and assets. As was mentioned above, for a patch management strategy, you need to know wall the devices on your network as well as the software versions they’re running. When you don’t have an understanding of this, it’s impossible to create any standardized system for patching then. A device management platform can help you gain an assessment of what’s in your network, and you’ll have a centralized dashboard to refer to quickly. 
  • You could have a hard time prioritizing patches. If you don’t have a process in place following steps like the ones outlined above, it’s difficult to know where to put time and resources initially. 
  • Another issue faced by SMBs is that you need things to be done remotely. This includes your infrastructure administration. 
  • Your administrators have a lot on their plate now, especially since the pandemic. They may simply be lacking in the time needed for patch management.

To deal with these challenges, there are general best practices to keep in mind.

First, outline clear expectations, and hold your teams accountable. Technical teams should be encouraged to work collaboratively to ensure everyone is on the same page. In case there is an issue with your process for patch management, you should also have a backup plan and disaster recovery process. 

Other best practices include:

  • Create separate profiles for each device type and also each operating system, so you don’t have to patch everything at the same time. You’ll have more flexibility in your timing if you have separate profiles. 
  • Again, you need to understand which of your systems are critical. These are going to be handled differently in terms of patches and rollouts. 
  • If something does go wrong, this goes back to the idea of having a backup plan—you should have a system restore point profile available. You can then schedule the profile to run before you do any patches. 
  • Have a set window of time where you do patches. Choose a time when user activity is the lowest, and while you don’t have to be physically present during a patch, you have to check system availability when it’s complete, so keep that in mind when scheduling. 
  • Set metrics that will allow you to measure the success of your patch management process. 

Without a patch management strategy in place, you’re leaving your business in serious jeopardy. The financial impact of a successful cyberattack can put your business under and would be significantly more than the cost of having a proactive patch management process in place.

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Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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